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Chapter 4: Early Reservation

Apsáalooke Writing Tribal Histories Project

Federal Policy and Apsáalooke Adaptation

For the Apsáalooke the winter of 1883-84 is remembered as Apúuwatduushuua, When We Ate Iron Noses, since cattle distributed in payment of land cessions and to prevent starvation had metal identification tags fastened to their noses. The western half of the Crow reservation was ceded during this time and the government agency was moved for the third and final time to its present location, some sixty miles east of present-day Billings, Montana. The Apsáalooke people assumed permanent residence on a reservation, a time called Annúxkakua/Living Within The Line.

This last move of Crow Agency brought in a whole new set of federal policies. Not only did Crows have to stay within the boundaries of their reservation, but they also had to learn Anglo trades and behaviors. Crow practices from religious rites to marriage patterns were outlawed by the government. Historians call this the “assimilation” phase of tribal history.

This new policy of the United States government was intended to isolate Crow people on their reservation until they could become “civilized” enough to enter and function within Euro-American society. Federal policy saw acculturation, forcing the Indians to adopt white ways, as the principal objective of reservation life. This policy would be carried out in two ways, educating the children in schools and forcing the adults to adopt a sedentary agricultural lifestyle similar to that of other rural Americans.

Theories of the day concerning human behavior centered on what is known as environmental determinism, that is the idea that a person’s surroundings, their customs, stories, food, and clothing, largely determined how they would behave and act. Senator Dawes, the major proponent of this theory, as it related to American Indians, stated, “Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much progress.” Following this philosophy, the success of the acculturative process hinged on changing the Indians’ environment.

One well developed tool for cultural determinism was the boarding school. These institutions were located either on or off the reservation, and run by the government or by another institutions like a churches or benevolent societies. Common to all forms of boarding schools was the physical separation of Indian children from their families, either by a simple fence or half a continent. Whether the school was located nearby on the reservation or miles away at a district or regional school, a barrier was effected between parents and children and between the Indian past and American future. Placed in the new boarding school setting, which was aggressively Euro-centric with its emphasis on order (gridiron seating patterns, a daily schedule ruled by the clock), individualism (separate desks, chairs, and beds), geometry (square buildings with square rooms), and permanence (substantial masonry buildings), Indian children were supposed to abandon their Native culture and accept new thought patterns and behaviors in hopes of a smooth passage into American society. Separation from family helped prevent backsliding into the old Indian way of life.

Some Crow children were sent to boarding schools in the east or west coast, but during the early years of reservation settlement generally the Crows were, as historian Fredrick Hoxie has noted, “unwilling to part with their children.” More successful were the schools associated with the two Roman Catholic missions established on the reservation. The first was St. Xavier, founded in 1887 in the Big Horn District. The second, started in 1891, was St. Charles Mission located in the western district at Pryor. Around each of these missions Indian camps consisting of tipis, tents, and small log cabins sprang up, filled with families of new converts to Christianity and those interested in taking advantage of the church-sponsored schools. Education in these settings, Crows knew, could be gained without removing children from the parents--and their traditional culture. Even though the children stayed in dormitories while not in class, the nearness of the family allowed for some interactions during the week.

Another Indian institution that the U.S. Government sought to dismantle was the Indian camp itself. Crow political and social life was based on extended family and clan relations forming numerous sub bands within three larger bands that ultimately formed the tribe under a principal leader, or chief. The sub bands gathered in camps arranged in a rather loose, linear fashion, usually along a river. In the middle was the lodge of the headman or band chief. Next, on both sides, came the lodges of prominent warriors and medicine men. Finally, toward the outside on each end were found families of lesser standing and their lodges. It was a type of social organization that fostered band solidarity by reinforcing Crow nationalistic identity and culture. However, the communal nature of the camp contradicted the essential individualistic nature of white communities and had by federal policy to be changed.

The importance government strategists placed on the dissolution of the Crow camp is evident in the Dawes or Allotment Act of 1880. The Dawes Act directed government agents to divide collectively held tribal lands into surveyed parcels of privately-owned and operated farming plots known as “allotments.” Indeed, the grid-pattern of enforced land division resembled, in miniature, the blueprint for Manifest Destiny that was official governmental since Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. The Dawes Act marked a new, advanced phase of governmental control of Native Americans, from military conquest and settlement on managed reservations to a much more intensively controlled environment with Indians-turned-farmers assigned surveyed squares and rectangles. It placed Indian families on the land in much the same way as having Indian children assigned to desks with seats in their rectilinear classrooms.

Once settled on the individual properties, Crow families were visited and their progress toward civilized behavior monitored by government agents and their aides. Once officially partitioned, parts of the reservation could also be legally leased or sold to whites, whose intended permanence was increasingly marked by the construction of substantial houses. Allotment, the dispersal of the Indians over the land like white people, had another objective: it was pivotal to the Federal Government’s overarching goal of undermining both traditional tribal authority and the collective orientation of Indian people.

The introduction of Euro-American house forms and nuclear-focused family structure were another legacy of the Dawes Act. The customary Crow dwelling was the four pole lodge or tipi. Not only was it classically round and mobile, the tipi was also laden with religious meaning. Simultaneously it represented both the Crow concepts of femininity/motherhood, and the spiritual and physical aspects of the universe. Each of the twenty one poles represented either land or sky beings. The white buffalo hide/canvas covering represented purity of the family within. And the tipi itself was considered the property of the woman of the household in a real and spiritual manner. Metaphorically, the tipi was spoken of as a person’s second mother, the canvas embraced the poles as a mother embraces her children. The tipi, as an object of great cultural significance for Crows, was logically viewed by whites as both primitive and an obstacle in the road to civilization. Square houses were essential if the Crows were to become good citizens. Government agents therefore focused their energies and limited resources on providing American-type housing for chiefs and band headmen, hoping that these leaders would set an example for their followers.

Contact with the fur trade undoubtedly exposed Crows to Euro-American techniques of log construction early in the nineteenth century, but they became more intimately acquainted with log houses during the l870s at the second agency, which was at Absarokee, Montana, in the western half of their original reservation. Here a number of log cabins were constructed for tribal leaders, but this initial attempt at civilizing the Indians had little immediate effect because the native political structure and economy had not been disrupted. However, when the Crows moved to the eastern half of the reservation in the early 1880s, to the Big Horn and Little Big Horn river valleys, the buffalo had disappeared, and inter-Tribal warfare had ceased. Now, white agents worked more vigorously not only to break up the camps but also to impose new non-Indian housing standards on the tribe.

Several years after the move east, in 1886, white visitors to the reservation noted that though peaceful, the Crows “still cling with tenacity to all the traditions of the past, and have not deviated in dress, habits or pursuits from the tribe of fifty years ago.” It was an observation that held for the architectural landscape as well, with the Indians in this pre-allotment era setting up familiar-looking camps along the rivers and major streams or next to the missions at St. Xavier and St. Charles. The three major bands of the Crow had settled in different areas of the newly formed reservation. In the center, occupying the Big Horn Valley, lived a segment of the Mountain Crows led by Pretty Eagle and Iron Bull. In the north were the River Crows, followers of Sees With His Ears and Two Leggings. In the east, along the upper reaches of the Little Big Horn River were the Kicked In The Belly camps of Medicine Crow and Spotted Horse. And in the west, along Pryor Creek, settled the remainder of the Mountain Crows under Plenty Coups. Plenty Coups purposely located his group as far from the new government headquarters at Crow Agency as possible, to maintain, by keeping his distance, his own autonomy. At this time, Pretty Eagle was the principal leader of the Crow, but Plenty Coups was a rising young leader and the heir apparent to Pretty Eagle’s position.

The Crows were well aware of the implications surrounding allotment. The attractions were few, and the detriments abundant. Individual ownership of land, after all, meant little to them, and they rightly feared that once they were situated on specific parcels, the agents, not the chiefs, would gain control of tribal affairs. Thus, actively, if in a non confrontational way, they resisted dispersal. Initially government agents lacked the resources to enforce provisions of the Dawes Act, and most Crow camps on the reservation followed the traditional model.

One main difference, however, was that at the center of the camp often stood a government-built log house, newly-erected for the band leader or chief. Most band leaders, including Pretty Eagle, Medicine Crow, and Plenty Coups adopted for their followers what might be termed the “reservation camp.” The one Plenty Coups established on Pryor Creek is representative of those established by the other bands. On the north end was located Plenty Coups’ homestead, consisting at the time of a one-room, single-story log house, a tipi, a round horse corral, and a log stable. To the south lay Plenty Coups camp, a diverse collection of small log houses--there may have been as many as fourteen at one time, army wall tents, and tipis arranged in a traditional manner. While it is true that some Crows accepted the Anglo-American rectilinear house form, closer inspection suggests that the Indians may nevertheless have had a say in the actual design process.

Although lacking circular plans and hide or canvas coverings, early Crow houses possessed a number of distinctive tipi-like features. For example, the fireplaces or stove chimneys of contemporaneous Euro-American cabins were generally located on the building’s gable end, while in cabins built for Crows, the stove was located in the center, much like the fire pit in the tipi, with the stovepipe running up the through the center of the roof. In Euro-American cabins, the front door usually faced the road, whatever direction that was, but Indian cabins, like the tipi, the front invariably faced east in anticipation of the rising sun. Also, whereas in houses built for whites there were windows to one or both sides of the front door, in the Crow examples the tendency is to make the cabin more tipi-like by cutting only a single door opening.

Early Crow log houses were also often decorated, furnished, and used in the same manner as their tipi predecessors. Take for example the tipi “liner.” In Crow tipis, a curtain, or liner was hung around the interior wall. The liners or curtains served both practical and social functions. On a practical level, they kept out drafts and dampness, and increased ventilation to keep the interior comfortable and smoke free year round. Socially, the liners were decorated to publicize a man's war record, thus declaring his status in the tribe. This practice lasted into the early reservation period. Robert Lowie, an anthropologist who worked on the Crow reservation in the early 1900s observed that ”pictorial representations of deeds in realistic style were made upon men's robes and on the windbreaks (bitáalasshia) inside the lodge... Nowadays some men... have corresponding decoration on the canvas lining the inner walls of their log cabins.” Personal items were customarily hung along the top of the liners, with sacred objects being placed in the back or west side of the tipi. This tradition was carried over to the cabins as well, and it would not have been uncommon to see hanging along the west wall of the cabin a warrior’s medicine bundles, sacred objects, and other war accouterments.

Other similarities between the two dwelling forms are visible in patterns of use. Well into the twentieth century, for instance, Crows had little use for Euro-American furniture, preferring to use the floor, which was, in the earliest cabins, probably without wooden planks, as is the case with Plenty Coups’ original cabin. Beds were made on the floor and were rolled up and placed against the wall as backrests just as in the tipi.

Government pressure for Indian dispersal continued, and it appears that by the first decades of the twentieth century, some Crows started to take up their allotments. One of the first was the principal leader Pretty Eagle. Around 1905 the chief moved from his log cabin, along the Big Horn River, into a house beside the main thoroughfare that connected the mission of St. Xavier to Crow Agency and the growing Euro-American community of Hardin. The choice of location, one that increased the aging chief’s visibility, may have come as an attempt by Pretty Eagle to maintain his authority during his twilight years. His house too represents one of the first of a new kind of dwelling that would dominate domestic architecture on the reservation for the next several decades. Sometimes called “allotment” houses, these houses differ from earlier ones in that they have multiple-room plans and are constructed of light balloon framing covered with drop or novelty siding. Lumber for Pretty Eagle’s house, like many others from this period, came from Ft. Custer, located on the bluffs south of present-day Hardin. The fort was decommissioned in 1890; while some fort buildings were moved intact to Indian homesteads, most were dismantled for their lumber, which was put into the construction of the new allotment-type houses.

On the eastern side of the reservation, the Kicked In The Belly bandleader, Medicine Crow, moved with some of his followers to individual allotments near the Little Big Horn River. Like Plenty Coups, Medicine Crow had seen his house in a vision, and in 1906 he had an allotment-type house composed of salvaged lumber built on the rise, near the spring, indicated in his dream. From the outside, a house like Medicine Crow’s appears typically Euro-American, having a basic rectilinear shape and a familiar two-room, front kitchen, rear sleeping room plan. Covered by a gable roof, walls studs, siding, roof sheathing, and floors were all mill-sawn and machine-finished. Inside, the walls were covered with new matchboard of a kind used for modest turn-of-the century houses all across the United States. Like Plenty Coups and many other Crows, however, Medicine Crow was not fully accepting even the material form of mainstream white domestic life. He had moved his family to an allotment. He had adopted an American house form with mass-produced finishes and store-bought stoves for cooking and heating, but the way the house was designed and used remained thoroughly Crow. Like the tipi, the house had a single front door that faced east. The front room, furnished with a “Monarch” stove, served as a kitchen area where meals were prepared and the family ate on the floor, for tables and chairs were not added until the 1920s. The back room was used for a living and sleeping area; around its walls hung a tipi liner depicting the war honors of Medicine Crow On the floor, to the back, the chief slept with his wife, and above their heads, on the west (east-facing) wall, hung their sacred bundles and the chief's war shield. It is interesting to note that the couple continued their traditional manner of sleeping even after one son brought an American bed and dresser into the room for his own use. In the summer, as was customary on the reservation, the family spent their time largely outdoors, cooking over an open fire and living in a brush-covered shade shelter to the side of the house’s front door. Located nearby were the barns and corrals, and also a sweat lodge, an important religious structure found on many Crow homesteads.

Of all the houses built for Crow chiefs during the early reservation period, the one of Plenty Coups is perhaps most instructive as a piece of subtle architectural resistance. As the last chief to rise to the position of principal tribal leader, Plenty Coups occupies a unique position in Crow history. His name reflects his warrior’s route to leadership--he gained many honors in battle--yet it was during his tenure as chief that the American West transformed from a contested frontier into an established regional economy, and the Crow reservation, for better or worse, was absorbed into this increasingly complex cultural network. Plenty Coups oversaw such things as the negotiation of railroad right-of-ways, managing grazing and water rights contracts, and the development of a new, American type of tribal government. Through it all, the chief walked in two worlds, the white and the Indian, and in his house he skillfully manipulated architectural symbols from American and Crow culture to create a building that projected authority to whites and Crows alike, to bring his children into the new era, the reservation.

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