By Joe Medicine Crow
From: Graetz, Rick, and Susie Graetz. Crow Country: Montana’s Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000.
The Dakota (Sioux), particularly the Hunkpapa and the Oglala, routinely came to the Crow Country on horse-capturing and coup-counting raids. Inter-tribal warfare on the Plains was the dangerous sport through which young men climbed the military ladder to attain chieftaincy. This was the essence of Plains Indian warfare, not goals of booty, territory, or conquest. By the mid-nineteenth century, the surging western expansion of the United States impacted the Sioux and Cheyenne then dwelling in the area now called North and South Dakota. This pressure drove the tribes westward. Their excursions into the Crow Country became more frequent and more hostile. In fact, by 1860 these tribes began considering occupying the Crow Country, which was then still unmolested by the ever more numerous white men.
The story I am nowgoing to tell is about a seriously planned invasion and attempted conquest of the Crows about 1860 or 1861. The site of the great Battle of Pryor Creek is only twenty miles south of what is now Billings, Montana.
In 1955 it was my good fortune to have acquired a reliable Sioux version of the battle from Charles Ten Bear, a Crow Indian historian. He explained that about 1910 an old Sioux Indian and his wife came to the Crow Reservation and lived with Yellow Crane, where Charles Ten Bear was also living for the winter. This Sioux man was a survivor of the big Battle of Pryor Creek and often would tell the whole story in detail. Furthermore, in 1935 Joe Childs, a fine Crow historian, told me the Crow account of the battle. He said his father, Child in the Mouth, had been an active participant in the conflict and never tired of telling and retelling the battle story. Joe Childs would say, “I’ve heard the story so many times that I know all about it as if I were there myself.”
But first the Sioux story. In the early summer of 1859 or 1860, a Crow war party killed a fine young Dakota (Sioux) warrior. Already he had counted a number of battle coups, which entitled him to wear an eagle-feather war bonnet. His mother, overwhelmed with grief, decided to mourn until her son’s death was avenged. Almost every evening she would lead her son’s horse through the camp, with the war bonnet tied to the saddle horn, ready to go. As she passed the row of tepees, the woman would wail and challenge the warriors. “Is there a man among the mighty Dakotas who will take this horse and go fight the Absarokee?” She repeated this performance almost daily for one whole year.
Then one day Brave Wolf, who was very much in love with a maiden and wanted to make her his woman, asked his sisters and aunts to arrange a wedding. The women were silent. An outspoken aunt finally said they did not like the girl and did not want her as a sister-in-law or daughter-in-law. The young man was deeply hurt and decided to kill himself. In those days a man might commit suicide by joining the Brave Hearts, the warriors who took the suicidal oath to die fighting for their people. By allowing himself to be killed by an enemy, Brave Wolf would die with glory.
When the wailing woman next approached, Brave Wolf took the reins of the war horse. At this moment the woman began a song of victory, “At last, a brave one has taken my son’s horse!” Within moments a big crowd gathered around to see the intrepid young man. Brave Wolf was the instant hero that day!
Quickly a council was called, and to the assembly a leading chief spoke: “This is not just one man’s decision; by his action today, we, the Dakota, are committed in what could be a very important and serious undertaking. I ask if the Wakan’tanka, the Great Power, has meant it to be this way?...and I say let us take one whole year to make plans against the Raven People. They are not many, but they are shrewd and tricky in battle. The time has come that we must destroy them.”
Later that fall another council was called. It was here decided that all the bands of the great Dakota Nation and the Cheyenne and Arapaho be invited to join in a great undertaking. Teams of two men were selected as emissaries to all the other bands with instructions to stay with these people for the winter. They were to gradually influence the bands to participate in what would be describe as a grand venture to move into the good country of their traditional enemies, the Absarokee.
The emissaries did their work well. By the next May all the Dakota bands, the Cheyenne, and the Arapahos began coming to the designated place of gathering—the forks of Big Goose Creek and Little Goose Creek, where Sheridan, Wyoming, now stands. As the bands arrived and set up their tepees, the encampment grew larger and larger. It was said that camp criers had to change mounts several times before making a complete circle around the entire encampment. This was probably the largest gathering of Indians at any one time in North America. Sitting Bull’s famously “large” camp on the Little Bighorn River some sixteen years later would be lost from sight in this gigantic camp.
Scouts reported that the Crows were at Pass Creek, only a halfday’s ride to the north. The war chiefs quickly gathered in council.
The Arapaho chief was asked to speak. He was tall and impressive in appearance. He said, “The Dakota people and their Cheyenne friends know me as Night Horse, Arapaho chief. Other tribes also know me. I fear no man of any enemy tribe. I am an Absarokee by birth, and I will not fight my own relatives. This is not Indian war you are planning. To destroy another tribe is wrong. I don’t want any part of it. However, I give permission to my warriors to stay and fight with you if they desire. You have heard me, Aho!”
Night Horse broke camp and departed, heading for the Bighorn Mountains to the southwest. He quickly dispatched his two half-Crow sons to warn the Crow camp of the war expedition massed against them by thousands of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahos.
In the meantime, the Crows had also broken camp and were headed west. By evening when Night Horse’s sons arrived, they were at Rotten Grass Creek. Immediately they were surrounded by alert Crow warriors, but when one spoke some Crow words and said they were the sons of Night Horse, they were escorted to the lodge of the head chief. Explaining that a huge enemy army was only a day’s ride behind them, they relayed Night Horse’s advice that this small camp of Crows move away as fast as possible and join with other Crow bands. Tepees were taken down hastily, horses packed, and soon the Absarokee were on their way.
While the Crows were making the fast march toward the Bighorn River, there was great activity in the Sioux camp at Goose Creek. As the horde of warriors started out, there was much gaiety. Wives sang farewell songs and shrilled encouragement, warriors whooped war cries, and old men sang praise songs.
The Sioux storyteller recalled that many noncombatants joined the march, mainly wives and girlfriends of the warriors, and many old and retired warriors who wanted to see the utter defeat of their traditional enemy.
The advance scouts reported that the Crows were at the Bighorn River a short distance below the canyon. The head chiefs decided to attack the Crow camp, consisting of about four hundred lodges, at dawn the following morning, but at daybreak the Crows were gone, the campfires still smoldering. Here the chief in command motioned his men to stop. He wanted to estimate the size of the Crow fighting force. The commander quickly estimated, on the basis of three Crow warriors for each lodge, that the Absarokee were outnumbered at least twenty-five to one (1,200 Crows against 8,000 to 10,000 well-armed Sioux and allied warriors). At this the chief smiled and shouted, “Wash-tay!” (good), and the warriors let out a thundering war whoop that shook the nearby Bighorn Mountains! The chief shrilled, “Today when the sun sets, there will be no more Absarokee left! We will kill all their warriors and even the old men; we will save their young boys and raise them to become Dakota warriors, and we shall marry their wives and daughters to raise more warriors to fight the whites when they follow us to our new land.”
It has been said that this was the first time in Sioux history that all the bands came together to wage war against a common enemy. Moreover, it’s never happened since.
One afternoon Joe Childs and I sat on a hill overlooking the Pryor Creek battlefield. Joe recalled that many times he and his father, Child in the Mouth, would sit at this very same spot and relive that glorious day in the history of the Crow Indians.
Joe Childs explained that when Night Horse’s sons came and warned the Crows, the decision was made to hasten far into the interior of Crow Country. That next evening the travelers reached Pryor Creek, about fifty miles to the west.
The events of the fateful following day began quickly and dramatically. At early dawn a Crow man named Hits Himself Over the Head was searching for his horses when he suddenly came up a hill to look over upon a seething mass of men and horses. The scene was one of bustling activity as warriors got their war horses ready, put on their battle regalia, and were about to mount and charge down the hill toward the Crows. Hits Himself raced for the Crow camp. As he approached he hollered the warning call, and the head chiefs gathered to hear his report. Immediately they dispatched ten galliant warriors toward the enemy to hold off the initial charge just long enough to set up battle lines and to put up a fortress of tepee poles and covers.
The ten Crow men charged right into the enemy and fired into the ranks, killing a number of Sioux. As they swerved to return, thousands of Dakota warriors roared down the hills in hot pursuit, truly a thundering charge. Thus the long-awaited day for exterminating the Absarokee began. Suddenly the small valley exploded with war whoops, gunfire, and the thunder of horses’ hooves beating the ground. The followers of the Dakota war party now sat in clusters here and there on a high escarpment near the battle scene. While some men smoked the pipe, the women sang victory songs and emitted shrills of encouragement to their fighting men below.
My storyteller, Joe Childs, now on his feet, launched into a lively and excited description of the fight as if he were right there at the real battle! He pointed to an open flat area and said that was where the Crows had set up their first line of defense. Crow warriors noted for their fine marksmanship with guns and bows took a similar position nearby. As the enemy crossed the creek and charged, one of the veteran Crow chiefs gave a loud command, and the Crows opened a concerted fire with deadly results. Quickly the Dakotas regrouped and made another charge, again suffering heavy casualties.
It may be explained at this point that for this particular encounter...a clear life-or-death situation...-the Crow war chiefs adopted the strategy of warriors working together as a team under the direction of a war chief; the traditional display of bravery, where individuals would charge into the enemy ranks trying to count coups by striking an enemy with a stick, was put aside.
The repeated charges by the Dakotas suddenly stopped. The Crows waited and wondered. Then a wise Crow Indian decided to take advantage of the lull to try a bluff, hoping to instill fear into the hearts of the attackers. He rode toward the enemy making the sign that he had something to say. This often happened in Plains Indian warfare. Through the inter-tribal sign language, he said: “You have come a long way. By the size of your party, you have come prepared to wage serious battle against the Absarokee this day. Yes, the Raven People will fight you in a great way. Right now our two other bands are on their way to help us. They will arrive soon, and then you will have a real fight on your hands. I have spoken, Aho, Aho!”
The truth was, no help was coming at all. But the bluff was quickly followed by strange happenings. As the Crow was returning to his ranks, the Sioux onlookers on the hill were on their feet pointing excitedly toward the north; then they waved frantically and shouted to their warriors below that a large war party was coming up the creek. At this moment it so happened that a large herd of elk had become excited by the noises of battle and had started milling around. Their sharp hooves stirred a swirling cloud of dust. Their white rumps looked like war bonnets!
Again the ones on the hill hollered...another war party was fast approaching from the west. This time the warriors could plainly see a huge cloud of dust moving rapidly toward the battleground. This phenomenon was caused by a large herd of stampeding buffalo frightened by the noise of battle in the valley. The Sioux war chiefs quickly ordered a determined charge, hoping to dislodge the Crow defense lines before help arrived. Once again the lines held and inflicted heavy casualties.
At this time, a third strange thing took place. Now the Sioux saw a lone warrior riding hard from the hills to join the Crow defenders. His weapon was a two-pronged spear made of elk antler. Suddenly this mystic warrior hollered, “Kokohay! Kokohay!” and charged right into a group and began spearing Sioux warriors right and left. Other groups stood their ground and opened fire with many guns. Their shots were harmless; the man was invulnerable to bullets and arrows. He would circle and return, repeating the one-man onslaught. At this time the Crow ranks holding the defense lines broke loose into a full charge. The Sioux and their allies gave ground, breaking into a full retreat, with every man for himself. The strange Crow warrior was right behind them, shouting, “Kokohay! Kokohay!” and continuing to wield his deadly spear.
Here I will digress and take up Charles Ten Bear’s Sioux version, as told by the one who tagged along just to watch the battle. This man explained to Ten Bear that just before the charge into Pryor Creek Valley, his brother handed him one of the two extra horses he had brought along. So he got into the battle about the time the Crows started the counterattack. He recalled that he decided to retreat as fast as his horse could run. The horse started to weave and to lose speed; then it rolled over, dead.
Now he was afoot and could hear, "Kokohay! Kokohay!" not far behind him. He thought he would surely die. But very fortunately a Sioux horse trotted by, dragging the reins. He succeeded in catching the horse, and escaped. He joined a group and hastened back toward the big camp. Whenever they stopped for a short rest in the dark, suddenly they would hear, “Kokohay! Kokohay!” above them in the sky. On they would go.
The Sioux storyteller related to Charles Ten Bear that when his group reached Goose Creek, already there was wailing throughout the camp. After two days of waiting, when no more warriors returned, the various bands dispersed.
After the era of inter-tribal warfare on the Plains, which ended with the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876 and with Chief Joseph’s surrender at the Bears Paw Mountains in 1877, the Plains tribes would visit back and forth among the various Indian Reservations. Here the tribal historians and storytellers would exchange information and verify in detail all the facts pertaining to a particular battle.
On one occasion, some Sioux came to visit the Crows. Among other inquiries, the visitors wanted to know the name of the ferocious warrior who almost single-handedly stampeded the Sioux and Cheyenne that day at Pryor Creek. The Crow historians, some of them veterans of the Pryor Creek battle themselves, could not recall such a warrior, even though the Sioux insisted that he had been there that day.
Finally it was recalled that during the height of the Sioux attack, an old Crow woman came out of the fortification, walked to a point where she could see the enemy, and prayed: “Old Man Coyote, teacher and benefactor of the Absarokee people, one day you made a promise. You said that after you had been gone from us for some time, if one day the people should be in great danger, that you would come back to help us. You said that we should pray for your quick return. I now pray for you to come and help us survive this very day. Come, come!” It was believed that the woman’s prayer was answered when Old Man Coyote, the Great Spirit’s helper to the Absarokee, suddenly appeared in the form of a special warrior and stampeded the enemy. It was also believed that it was Old Man Coyote’s help that caused the elk and buffalo herds to mill around, raising clouds of dust that looked like fast-approaching relief. Perhaps Night Horse was right when he said to the war chiefs at Goose Creek that the plan to exterminate another tribe, the Absarokee, was wrong.