The migration story of the Crow Indians, or Apsáalooke, is certainly interesting, intriguing, and often frustrating to the researcher. This extensive and dramatic migration story has been repeated by a succession of at least sixteen generations of historians, Crow keepers of the tribal annals, and history. It is said that in the long, long-ago times, the ancestral tribe of the Hidatsa and Crows once lived toward the east in the “tree country,” now believed to be the western end of the Great Lakes, south of Lake Superior and west of Lake Michigan. Here the tribe followed the lifeways of woodland Indians.
One spring, as the grass was turning green and the deer and buffalo were grazing with relish in the parklands, the rains stopped. Hot winds began blowing continuously, and soon the green earth was parched to brown. The buffalo disappeared. The chiefs held council and an earnest search for the vanished herds was organized. Teams of fourteen men were sent out in all directions. The parties eventually returned without success, all but the team going west.
It was a long time later that this last group returned. When they did, each man was laden with huge packs of jerked buffalo meat. Everyone in the tribe had a little meat to eat. The searchers then reported that their travels had led them far to the west where trees began to thin out and there were open areas of grassland. There the hills were rolling, broken by bluffs covered with pines. The men killed some buffalo and returned. This place is now believed to be in the area of central Minnesota.
Soon after, the entire tribe packed up and headed west. As the story goes, they caught up with the buffalo herds and resumed a more leisurely way of life, maybe even settling down as part-time farmers and hunters in what is now perhaps northern Minnesota and southern Manitoba. Contemporary Apsáalooke people have traveled to this area and seen the caved-in sites of the earthen lodges and other structures of a village and tipi rings on nearby bench lands. These Apsáalooke have been told by Native peoples who presently live there that according to their historians, the forefathers of the Apsáalooke once lived here. The tipi rings were used by a part of the tribe who preferred to live in tipis during the summer and hunt the buffalo, while the others lived in the village along the river and did some farming. Then, one day the two groups got together and moved away. They headed southwestward and never returned.
This ancestral tribe deliberately moved away, probably for better hunting and farming grounds. On the way, these migrants stopped for some time at Sacred Waters (Devil’s Lake in northeastern North Dakota). Here, two chiefs, No Intestines and Red Scout, fasted and sought the First Maker’s guidance on their perilous journey. Red Scout received an ear of corn and was told to settle down and plant the seeds for his sustenance. No Intestines received a pod of seeds and was told to go west to the high mountains and plant the seeds there. These seeds were sacred, and the proper way to use them would be revealed. First Maker promised No Intestines that his people would someday increase in numbers, become powerful and rich, and own a large, good, and beautiful land.
The journey was resumed and when the band reached the Missouri River they moved in with the Mandans, whose village was located on the west side near the junction of the Heart River with the Missouri. Later, the newcomers moved farther upstream and built their own village of earthen lodges in the vicinity of the confluence of the Knife and Missouri rivers.
Eventually No Intestines decided to go westward to plant the sacred seeds and look for the promised land. “It is time I heed First Maker’s instruction. I have tarried too long. Those who want to go with me are welcomed.”
Thus, one spring morning there was hurried activity in the village. Large dogs and tamed wolves were harnessed to travois. As relatives bade farewell, No Intestines and about four hundred tribal members faced westward and left. Thus began perhaps one of the longest and most dramatic migrations of any Native people, covering thousands of miles over rough and rugged terrain, through intense winters and torrid summers.
It has been assumed by white historians and archaeologists that this secessionist tribe straightaway entered present Montana, either by following the Missouri all the way up to the three forks or by going up the Yellowstone and then “disappearing” for a long period of time. According to accepted Apsáalooke oral history, however, this was not the case. Contemporary tribal historians relate in detail how No Intestine’s band traveled up the Missouri and settled in the Cardston, Alberta, area for quite some time. The band probably trekked up the White Bear River (Milk River) in a northwesterly direction.
When No Intestines left, he started out afresh as a brand-new tribe without a name; he literally and symbolically decided to travel light, for he left all the heavy implements behind him for good. His band became an instant tribe capable of existing as a separate and distinct entity, and one motivated with the desire and dream of someday receiving the blessings of the First Maker when it reached the promised land.
The people of this new tribe, still without a name, referred to themselves as “Our Side.” One day, the leaders called a council. The consensus of opinion was: “This place is too harsh; the winters are long and cold. We must move and find a better place to live.” Once again, they packed their dogs and wolves and headed south through the valleys and passes of the Rocky Mountains. Just how many moons or winters the wandering tribe traveled through was never specifically mentioned.
Then, one day, they came to a lake that was described as “so large that the other side could not be seen” and so salty that they could not drink it. There is no question but that this was the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It is not known how long this tribe stayed here, but they apparently disliked the arid land and decided to move on once again. This time they headed eastward.
The details of this trek are lacking until the band came to a huge pit in the ground with a roaring fire at the bottom, apparently a burning coal vein. It may have been located somewhere in the present states of Wyoming, Colorado, northern New Mexico, or northern Texas.
From this “Place of Fire,” our story indicates that they finally came to a large river flowing to the east. As they followed it downstream, they found many arrowheads and other stone artifacts along the banks. They called it “Arrowhead River,” now identified as the Canadian River of north Texas and Oklahoma. The group eventually came to a forest country. Here, they noticed flocks of large birds with striped wing and tail feathers, turkeys. The people didn't like this area since "they could not see distant places” because of the trees. This was probably in the present state of Oklahoma and Arkansas or even Missouri.
Once again, the decision was made to turn and go in another direction. This time, the group headed north and west. Just how it emerged once more onto the prairie country of the Western Plains is not known. It may be conjectured that the migrants either followed the Arkansas or the Missouri rivers upstream. If they followed the latter, they could have turned directly westward by going up the Platte River and eventually entering into what is now northern Wyoming and southern Montana, the very region they called their own land in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty.
In closing, it is important to recall that the migration was purposely undertaken. It was motivated by the dream of one man named No Intestines. At the Sacred Waters, First Maker promised him a good land far to the west where his people would find the good life one day. These Apsáalooke, Children of the Large Beaked Bird, brought the sacred seeds to the mountains of the west. The Beartooths, the Crazy Mountains, the Bighorns, the Wind River Mountains, the Absarokas, and even the Grand Tetons. Indeed, this is the land the great Apsáalooke chief described as “a good country because the Great Spirit had put it in exactly the right place.”