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Chapter 2.4: Archaeology of the Apsáalooke People

Apsáalooke Writing Tribal Histories Project

The archaeological record of the Apsáalooke, Children of the Large Beaked Bird, often called Crow Indians in English, is complex and fascinating. After almost a half century of intensive archaeological work, researchers, both in and outside of the present Apsáalooke community, are just beginning to unravel and understand the culture history and origins of modern Apsáalooke people.

Archaeology is the study of human cultures through time by the scientific and controlled recovery, documentation and analysis of material remains and environmental data. Material culture items include anything that has been altered and created by human activity, everything from artifacts to landscapes. The goals of archaeology are to document and explain the origins and development of human culture, understand culture history, chronicle cultural evolution, and study human behavior for both prehistoric and historic societies. In North America archaeology is considered one of the four sub-fields of anthropology.

Archaeologists, historians and other researchers divide the Native North America past into three general periods: prehistory, protohistory and history. Prehistory is the time period before the coming of Europeans. Protohistory begins when Native groups acquired material culture items from Europeans, but had not had contact with any European. History starts after the Native group encountered Europeans and the occasion is documented through the written word.

In the case of the Crow, they undoubtedly had met European traders and trappers before the early 1800s, however, it was not until June 25, 1805 that the French Canadian explorer and trader Francois Laroque documented his observations of the Crow people and gave them the name that they would become known by in the Euro-American world, gens de corbeaux, People of the Crow, or simply Crows (Hoxie 1995: 31-32; Nabokov 1962: xvii).

Long before this event, the Crow people had known of the existence of Europeans and had material items from them. One of the most important items of European origin acquired by Crow was the horse. The acquisition of horses, probably around 1725, transformed the lives of the Crow. The horse provided a much more effective way of hunting buffalo, the main staple. And the seasonally camp movements were made easier and faster. The tipi size increased from around twelve feet in diameter to as much as twenty feet in diameter. The horse also transformed warfare, from sporadic pedestrian encounters to the highly structured war honor or coup counting system of the 1700s and 1800s (Ewers 1955).

Other European items such as steel knives, axes, metal needles, copper pots and beads and cloth had also reached Crow people before they had encountered their makers. The gun, which also greatly changed Crow culture, arrived on the cusp of the transition from protohistoric to historic (Lowie 1963:211).

These two periods combined, though very well known, constitute only a brief episode in the overall culture history of the Crow people. Archaeological work which has contributed to the understanding of Crow prehistory began in earnest in the 1940s (Mulloy 1942; 1958). More recently a number of anthropologists have attempted to reconstruct the prehistory of Crow people and their immediate ancestors by examining Crow oral traditions, linguistic findings and archaeological evidence (Davis 1980; Hall and Hall 2004; Henning 2001; Henning and Toom 2003; Hollow and Parks 1980; Toom 2004).

The Crow are the most western members of the Siouan language family. Together with their close relatives the Hidatsa, and the more distantly related Mandan, they comprise the Western Siouan subgroup (Springer and Witkowski 1982: 71). From archaeological research it is clear that the Crow proper have resided in the Montana-Wyoming area for well over five-hundred years and possibly longer. Archaeological evidence indicates Crow presence in Montana as early as A.D. 1150, in Saskatchewan by A.D. 1300 and in the central Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming by A.D. 1500 (Frison 1980; Keyser 1982; Vickers 1994: 24-30). The earlier dates match nicely to glottal-chronology of Crow becoming a distinct language from Hidatsa by 600 to 800 years ago (Hollow and Parks 1980; Springer and Witkowski 1982).

The question arises, “Where did these Siouan people come from?” Through material culture items the ancestors of the Crow and Hidatsa have been linked to the Northeastern Plains Village complex or the eastern variant of the Middle Missouri tradition (Map 4) (Henning 2001; Henning and Toom 2003; Toom 2004; Wood 2001). This complex first appears in northeastern Iowa and Southwestern Minnesota about A.D. 900 (Henning 2001: 222; Henning and Toom 2003).

The Northeastern Plains Village complex people lived a semi-sedentary lifestyle out of small residential villages comprised of rectangular shaped earth lodges built in rows. They hunted, gathered and grew some crops. Their horticulture was not as intense as the Middle Missouri proper or Coalescent complexes. The move into the Middle Missouri area by Northeastern Plains Village people was brought about by better growing conditions for maize and a rise in the availability of bison (Henning 2001: 222; Wood 2001: 190). By A.D. 1200 horticultural societies existed up to the mouth of the Knife River in central North Dakota, the furthest extent to which maize could be grown (Wood 2001: 190).

At the time that the Northeastern Plains Village people were developing and expanding west, A.D. 900-1200, North America realized its greatest Native civilization, what archaeologists call the Mississippians. This society was more sophisticated and powerful than any other in the western hemisphere north of Mexico. It developed and flourished in the rich Mississippi River lands of southwestern Illinois and its environs, known as the American Bottom (Pauketat and Emerson 1997).

This Native civilization supported a population as large as 20,000 at its zenith, A.D. 850 to 1150. This population developed and thrived on an agricultural economy based primarily on maize cultivation. The horticultural produce combined with the regions bountiful wildlife and indigenous plants formed a stable year round food supply. This stability gave rise to the formation of permanent settlements that grew into an extensive network of communities with a regional center of metropolitan proportions known as Cahokia(Pauketat and Emerson 1997).

The sedentary lifestyle of the Mississippians made possible other hallmarks of advanced civilization: widespread commerce; stratified social, political, and religious organization; specialized and refined crafts; and monumental architecture, in the form of earthen mounds covering up to fourteen acres and rising as high as one hundred feet(Pauketat and Emerson 1997).

The exact relationship of the ancestral Crow and the Mississippians is just starting to be understood. Trade goods found at Northeastern Plains Village Tradition sites link these people to those back on the Mississippi. Trade goods, especially Leptoxis shell beads indicate a strong tie not to Cahokia per se, but to the contemporaneous and neighboring Jersey Bluff complex (Emerson and Lewis 1999: Henning and Toom 2003:202).

Rock art found in the West also suggests a tie between the Plains Village people and their Midwestern relatives. The most common rock art images throughout the Midwest are various depictions of animal tracks, primarily game animal tracks, termed the “hoof-print tradition” (Diaz-Granados and Duncan 2004; Keyser and Klassen 2001: 177-190). In the Great Plains this tradition is associated with the Western Siouan migrations and their concepts of birth and renewal, what Sundstrom has aptly identified as the “track-vulva-groove” style (2004: 83-98). During this same period numerous pecked, incised and bas-relief “faces” appeared in the West which bear a striking resemblance to portable miniature shell masks or gorgets of the Midwest and Southeast (Sundstrom 2004: 160-173).

More intriguing to possible connections between the Western Siouans and the Cahokians are discoidals (Figure 1). These generally flat round stone, sometimes pottery, objects were the targets in an arrow throwing skill game called chunkey, a variant of the hoop-and-pole game. Early European and American travelers on the Missouri River documented that the Crow, Hidatsa and Mandan played this game (Figure 2) (Culin 1992: 511-513; Kurz 1937).

Crow chunkey stone
Figure 1: A Crow chunkey stone. Surface find from the banks of the Bighorn River, Crow Indian Reservation, Montana. Courtesy of Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency, Montana.

Hidatsa chunkey vignettes
Figure 2: Hidatsa chunkey vignettes by Rudolph Kurz (Kurz 1937).

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Northeastern Village Tradition people enjoyed this past-time as well (Henning and Toom 2003: 206). It has been suggested that chunkey played a part in the regional hegemony of Cahokia (DeBoer 1993: 88-89). However, Henning and Toom have put forth that no such elitist strategy was in effect in the Northeastern Plains Village sites (2003: 206). Nonetheless, it is important to note that on the Great Plains only the Crow and their immediate Siouan relatives, the Hidatsa and Mandan, played the ubiquitous hoop-and-pole game with a stone target, hence chunkey (Culin 1992: 511-513).

A recent find in the stratified layers of a back-filled barrow pit in Cahokia implies a stronger link to the Crow and their ancestors. The pit was in-filled during the Lohmann phase, A.D. 1050-1100. Throughout the in-fill, but especially in the top and second strata were large quantities of tobacco seed. The seed was not from the domestic tobacco grown by Mississippians, Nicotiana rustica, but was of the variety cultivated by the Crow and Hidatsa, Nicotiana multivalvus and N. qualdivalvus.

These two variants of a related tobacco subspecies are indigenous to Washington and Oregon. They became the tobacco of the Crow and Hidatsa sometime between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1100 (Nabokov 1988:202-203). The Cahokians, therefore, could have only received such large quantities from the Crow-Hidatsa ancestors living on the Northern Plains (Pauketat et. al. 2002). Of course, the evidence does not reveal whether the transaction was direct or through various mutual trading partners.

Crow and Hidatsa oral tradition corroborates the archaeological findings of a migration from the Midwest. The traditions specifically identify their ancestors as residents of earth-lodge villages in Minnesota (Medicine Crow 1980: 66). Further, the narratives indicate that as the proto-Crow-Hidatsa moved west they reached present-day Spirit (Devils) Lake. There the Crow and Hidatsa were formed when two brothers, No Intestines and Red Scout, who were leaders, divided their respective followers and sought different lifeways in fulfillment of supernatural visions. Red Scouts people went to the Missouri River and became the historic Hidatsa. Those who followed No Intestines migrated throughout the West in search of their sacred Tobacco and god-given homeland. Eventually, No Intestines located the Tobacco growing in the Bighorn Mountains of Montana and Wyoming and his people became the historic Crow (McCleary 1997: 16-17; Wood 1980).

Some of these early Crow apparently attempted to maintain the semi-horticultural lifeways of their Northeastern Plains Village ancestors. This is evident in the development of a small village site on the lower Yellowstone River, near present-day Glendive, Montana, known as the Hagen Site and the Crow place name on the upper Yellowstone, Xoóxaashe Alatshíile Awooshisee, Where The Corn Was Planted But Died (Mulloy 1942; McCleary 2000). Oral tradition states that they also attempted another village at the mouth of Rosebud Creek on the Yellowstone River. The corn did not grow there either, but the sacred Tobacco, Nicotiana multivalvus, that would serve as a spiritual standard to unify and define them as nation, did (Linderman 1996: 10-11; Nabokov 1988).

The historic Crow consisted of three political divisions: the Mountain Crow, the River Crow, and the Kicked In The Bellies (McCleary 1997: 2-3). The Mountain Crow were the largest and first to enter the Wyoming-Montana area, being related to the Awatixa Hidatsa (Bowers 1992: 21). The River Crow left the Hidatsa proper, their origins being linked to the popular narrative about a dispute over a buffalo stomach, providing the Crow with their Hidatsa name Gixáa-iccá, Those Who Pout Over Tripe (Bowers 1992: 23; Lowie 1993: 272-275). The Kicked In The Bellies derived from the Mountain Crow during the historic era (Lowie 1912: 183-184). The River Crow ranged from the Yellowstone River north to the Milk River. The Kicked In The Bellies traveled from the Bighorn Mountains to the Wind River Range in central Wyoming. The Mountain Crow straddled the present Montana-Wyoming border, with the Black Hills as the eastern edge of their territory (McCleary 1997: 2-3).

The archaeological, linguistic and oral traditions indicate beyond a doubt that the modern Crow derive from Siouan ancestors in the Midwestern United States. What the relationship of their ancestral groups to other contemporaneous archaeological traditions is still emerging and being teased from the multiple lines of inquiry. Nonetheless, the present available evidence reveals a rich and deep culture history spanning over a thousand years.

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