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Robert Yellowtail

From: Graetz, Rick, and Graetz, Susie. Crow Country: Montana’s Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000.

"A 20th-century warrior,” Robert Yellowtail, born in Lodge Grass, Montana in 1889, had a profound impact and influence on his tribe.

Boarded at a reservation school from the age of four, he was not allowed to speak his own language or be with members of his tribe. The agent at that time, Major Samuel Reynolds saw the high level of intelligence in the young Yellowtail and soon sent him to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California where he excelled in his classes. Later, determined to defend the rights of his people, he earned a law degree through extension classes from the University of Chicago.

In 1910, Montana Senator Thomas Walsh introduced a bill in Congress to open up the Crow Indian Reservation to white homesteaders, beginning a personal seven-year span of attacks on Crow lands.

Chief Plenty Coups, the last of the traditional Crow chiefs, determined to fight Walsh’s efforts, knew he needed educated young men with knowledge of the law to help. He called upon Robert Yellowtail to return home and assist in the battle. The young Yellowtail, under the leadership of Plenty Coups, was brilliant. In April 1917, after repeated efforts, the Crow won the fight. Yellowtail’s reputation as a champion for all Indians soared.

Two years later he returned to Washington D. C. as the Crow delegation leader to assist in the writing of the Crow Allotment Act. This piece of legislation would help preserve what had been hard won, by ensuring that Crow lands could never again be taken without tribal consent.

After the passage of the Congressional bill, Robert Yellowtail remained an activist and a strong advocate for preserving the Crow land base and obtaining human rights for all Indians, including citizenship and the right to maintain their culture and autonomy.

In the 1930's, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the beginning of The New Deal, the Crow people had high expectations. Yellowtail caught the attention of the President and the new director of the Indian Office, John Collier. In 1934, “Robbie” as he was affectionately called, was appointed by the United States government and unanimously elected by his tribe to be the first Indian in history to hold the post of Agency Superintendent.

Once elected he worked tirelessly for his people. According to writer Constance J. Poten, "he seized the opportunity to return culture, pride and a land based economy to his people. Yellowtail cajoled white ranchers on the reservation to return 40,000 acres to the tribe and then stocked the land with buffalo from Yellowstone National Park. Using federal funds, he brought in herds of horses and cattle from the finest breeding stock in Canada, and he built the first Crow hospital. Astutely aware of the importance of maintaining tribal identity, Yellowtail encouraged the Crows to preserve their rituals, language and heritage."

A champion of higher learning, he once stated "the Congress of the United States should make it possible for all Indians to obtain an education…Education opens the doors of opportunities so that Indians could become lawyers, doctors and take an active part in business life…”

He held the position of Superintendent of The Crow Reservation for 11 years, resigning in 1945 to begin perhaps what was the second most important battle of his life, one that split the tribe and made him enemies amongst his own people. This was the fight to stop the taking of land by the United States government and the damming of the sacred Bighorn River. Against the wishes of the tribe, the government continued to push the issue. Yellowtail conceded that it was time to negotiate. His fifty million dollar proposal was rejected by Eisenhower’s administration. A campaign of bribery, and the spreading of false information by proponents, turned many of the Crow against Yellowtail. In the end, the building of the dam won out at a great loss to the Crow people, for a mere five million dollars. To make matters worse, contrary to his protests, the government named the structure for Yellowtail.

Never one to give up, Yellowtail went on to more glories and achievements, not only as chairman of the Crow Tribal Council, but in other efforts, including the issue of the underselling of Crow coal by the BIA. Yellowtail’s knowledge of the law and nuances that others could not see saved the day. In January 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Crow. In a contract with the Westmoreland Coal Company and the State of Montana, an initial thirty million dollars, plus annual payments of four million dollars, was promised.

Six months after this achievement, on June 20, 1988 the great leader joined his mentor Plenty Coups in the sky. Reports were that he was 98 years old, but some records indicate that he might have been 101.

Even though his personal and professional economic successes, his vast knowledge and the many contacts he had in the white world, caused envy, jealousy and suspicion within the tribe, Robert Yellowtail’s accomplishments for the Crow and the example he set for all other tribes will prove him to be a modern day warrior, one who served his people selflessly.