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The Crow People in the 1990s

By Tim Bernardis

Written for Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 13. Plains/Raymond J. DeMallie, volume editor; [William C. Sturtevant, general editor]. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution: c. 2001.

In July 1998, there were 2,282,000 acres within the exterior boundaries of the Crow reservation of which 455,809 were tribal trust lands, 1,013,710 were allotted to tribal individuals in trust, and 709,167 acres were fee (deeded) land. The latter includes 46,625 acres held by the state of Montana and 28,105 acres owned by the Crow Tribe while approximately 95% of the remainder is owned by non-Indians (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Billings Area Office, Land Titles and Records Office 1997; Personal Communication, Vianna Stewart, Legal Instruments Examiner, Land Titles and Records Office, Bureau of Indian Affairs Billings Area Office, 8/3/98; Bureau of Indian Affairs, Crow Indian Agency, Land Services Office 1998; Personal Communication, Michael Caprata, Natural Resource Specialist, Land Services Office, Bureau of Indian Affairs Crow Indian Agency, 7/28/98; Crow Tribe of Indians and United States of America 1994: 10; Big Horn County (Montana), Assessment Appraisal Office 1998: 3; Personal Communication, Donna McCurdy, Realty Officer, Realty Office, Bureau of Indian Affairs Crow Indian Agency, 8/5/98).

As of July 1998, there were 9,814 enrolled members of the Crow Tribe of which 4,821 are males (49.1%) and 4,993 are females (50.9%). 4,020 are under 18 (41%) and 7,514 live on or adjacent to the reservation (76.5%) ( Crow Tribe of Indians, Per Capita Department 1998). The enrolled population has increased 55% in 20 years over the 6,337 enrolled in December 1978 (Personal Communication, Vivien Shane, Per Capita Coordinator, Crow Tribe of Indians, 8/3/98). These population increases have translated into political power such that Indians are now the majority population in Big Horn County while the County sheriff, attorney, and two of the three commissioners are enrolled members of the Crow tribe. 90% of the reservation lies within Big Horn County.

Political and Economic Overview

One of the major developments of the 1990s is the expansion and continuity of the tribal government which has been fueled by political and economic factors. It began with the 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision Montana v. Crow Tribe of Indians (United States Supreme Court 1988) which directed that $30 million dollars in 1983 to 1988 protested taxes go to the tribe after the court held that the state of Montana could not tax Crow coal. However, the tribe received a setback in 1998 in Montana et al. v. Crow Tribe of Indians et al. (United States Supreme Court 1998) when the Supreme Court ruled that the 1976 to 1982 coal taxes paid to the state amounting to $58 million plus hundreds of millions in interest would not be returned to the tribe. The Court did state that the Tribe could still recover some money and thus this issue remained pending. Also in the early 1990s, the tribe began to acquire and regain the administration of several federal programs including an increasing number formerly administered by the BIA. In 1993, the Tribe began to levy a Railroad and Utility property tax and established a casino which, although not as profitable as some tribal casinos, provided about 60 jobs in 1998 (Personal Communication, Denis Adams, Crow Tribal Tax Commissioner, 7/23/98).

The next great influx of dollars began in 1995 with the 1994 settlement of the 107th Meridian Boundary Dispute which resulted from an 1891 federal land surveying error leaving some 36,000 acres with great coal reserves outside of the eastern boundary of the Crow reservation with some acreage included instead within the adjacent Northern Cheyenne reservation. As compensation, Congress passed a complicated agreement with the Crow Tribe that involves the restoration and exchange of some land and subsurface rights as well as the establishment of a trust fund of up to $85 million. This fund is to be set aside over a period of years with the interest to be used for education, land acquisition, economic development, youth and elderly programs, or other tribal purposes (Crow Tribe of Indians and United States of America 1994: 15; United States Congress 1994). In May 1998, the Tribe signed a contract for a new coal mine on the reservation that could bring in a total of $530 million by the year 2025 including royalties, taxes, wages and salaries of tribal members, and the value of properties transferred to the Tribe (Powers 1998: 1) Coal taxes on the existing mine continue to bring in large sums. In 1995, the Tribe enacted a resort tax on tourist activities on the reservation but has encountered strong opposition from largely non-Indian business owners and in 1998 is in litigation which is expected to last several years.

The economic/political developments of the 1990s have led to unprecedented increases in the tribal budget and employment. In the mid to late 1960s, tribal employees numbered approximately 10 with a budget mostly for salaries (Personal Communication, Denis Adams, Crow Tribal Tax Commissioner, 7/23/98). In the late 1980s, the budget was between $200 and $300 thousand dollars (Personal Communication, Loren Old Bear, Crow Tribal Finance Director, 7/31/98). The fiscal year 1998 budget was approximately $9 million with another $8.8 million in federal programs, and $1.6 million in 107th Meridian settlement interest. In addition, the BIA administers another $1 million in tribal land acquisition funds and enrolled tribal members receive approximately $3 million a year in per capita payments from coal royalties and tribal agricultural and oil and gas leases (Crow Tribe of Indians, Finance Department 1998; Personal Communication, Loren Old Bear, Crow Tribal Finance Director, 7/31-8/7/98). The Tribe was by far the largest employer on the reservation and county with approximately 700 employees in 1997 (Little Big Horn College 1997a: p. 1).

Though employment of Crow tribal members has increased, it is almost entirely public sector and many of the jobs are low-paying. Per capita income was $4,243 according to a mid 1990s document (Little Big Horn College 1997b: 20). On the reservation in 1997, 95% of employed tribal members worked for the Tribe (700), Big Horn County (45), the BIA (150), Little Big Horn College (25, 1998 40+), the Indian Health Service (150), the public and private schools (250), National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation (25 including other Indians not Crow) (Little Big Horn College 1997a: 1-2; Personal Communication, Janine Pease Pretty On Top, President, Little Big Horn College, 8/11/98). Yet, unemployment figures for resident tribal members have ranged from 44% (Little Big Horn College 1997b: 20) to 57% (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Central Office 1991).

The private sector economy remains dominated by non-Indians. In 1997, only 15 of 245 businesses listed in the Big Horn County directory were owned and operated by Crows (Little Big Horn College 1997a: 2). Agriculture has historically been the economic backbone of the area. On reservation trust land in 1997, only 74 of 765 full or part time reservation farmers were Indians while Indian full and part time ranchers numbered 60 versus 116 non-Indians (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Crow Indian Agency 1997: 21). This does not include the considerable amount of fee land within the reservation. In 1997, within the exterior boundaries of the reservation, approximately 676,039 acres were owned by non-Indians and the state of Montana while 907,461 acres were leased by non-Indians for a total of 1,583,500 of the 2,282,000 acres on the reservation. Thus, over two thirds of the reservation (69%) is owned or leased by non-Indians (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Crow Indian Agency, Land Services Office 1998; Crow Tribe of Indians and United States of America 1994: 11; Personal Communication, Donna McCurdy, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Crow Indian Agency, Realty Officer, Realty Office, Bureau of Indian Affairs Crow Indian Agency, 8/5/98; Bureau of Indian Affairs, Crow Indian Agency 1997: 1).

The exponential growth of tribal resources has allowed a tribal governmental expansion under the administration of Madam Chairman Clara Nomee, the first woman tribal chairman. Beginning in 1990, it has allowed her administration to be re-elected to an unprecedented five two year terms, a continuity previously unknown. The old record was three terms. The Tribe has accomplished the following in the 90s: expansion of the land base, generation of new sources of tribal income, construction of a new Indian Health Service hospital, establishment of a casino, settlement of the 107th Meridian Boundary Dispute, and construction of various facilities including a senior citizens home, kidney dialysis center, tribal multipurpose facility, and a bank which was under construction in the summer of 1998. This expansion has also allowed the growth of intratribal unity and cooperation. Several former members of the administration’s political opposition have been employed by the Tribe and tribal factionalism has been reduced.

The general council form of government in which all adults are members with 100 constituting a quorum at council meetings can be cumbersome and is manipulated by political factionalism. Current officers must maintain a majority of votes to stay in office. For most of the 90s, the controlling voting block at council meetings has consisted of tribal employees. This political majority has commonly passed a set of selected resolutions in one blanket motion, thereby effectively limiting opposition and debate. No serious efforts to revise the tribal constitution have been attempted since the late 80s (Bryan 1996: 82, 90; Anonymous 1997: 1).

Majority control is further illustrated by the powers granted to the Chairman in 1990 by tribal resolution 90-35. This resolution allows the tribal chairman broad authority to conduct tribal business in between council meetings, but is characterized by critics as conferring too broad an authority on the chairman. Tribal factionalism, though less intense than in the late 1980s, remains a factor of everyday life, particularly at election time. Opposition critics state that all tribal positions are political appointments (Young 1994: A1; Anonymous 1997: 1).

Cultural and Social Overview

The Apsaalooke (Crow) people have a reputation as having one of the highest native language fluency rates of any tribe in the country which in 1996 was estimated at 60% (Little Big Horn College 1997c: 8). However, fluency varies across the generations. In 1995, 85% of those 40 and older were fluent (Personal Communication, Sharon Peregoy, Crow Reservation Bilingual Education Task Force Coordinator, 6/17/98), while only 25% of children ages three to eighteen spoke the Crow language as their primary language. 33% were found to be passive speakers (who understood but did not speak Crow) in a local school district in 1993. Severe native language loss seems to appear among the very young: at the Head Start and kindergarten levels. (Peregoy 1998; Little Big Horn College 1997c: 8). There is concern that if this situation continues, the Crow language will cease to exist in a few generations.

Family identification and ties remain very strong in the 1990s, though perhaps somewhat weakened by tribal politics (Personal Communication, Barney Old Coyote, eminent Crow tribal elder, 7/30/98). 76.5% of enrolled tribal members live on or near the reservation. Family is very highly valued, much more so than work or material items—relatives and family are considered one’s wealth. The importance of the extended family remains, though relatives are to some extent more geographically scattered across the reservation than in previous decades due to district intermarriage and diverse land holdings.

The clan system is still fairly strong, though some may only use it for personal gain (Personal Communication, John Pretty On Top, Sun Dance Chief and former tribal cultural director, 8/6/98). The network of clan kinship obligations and responsibilities are observed, especially in regard to ceremonial/social events such as giveaways , but also through more common smaller occurrences such as clan feasts and everyday behavior such as showing respect to clan fathers and mothers, asking for their prayers and guidance, and teasing the children of one’s father’s clan.

Beginning in the Depression era of the 1930s, many Crows moved off their land into towns. In the 1990s, many neither owned nor worked the land. However, they maintain strong feelings for, cultural connections to, and some uses of the land. There is much knowledge of locations and events of cultural and historical significance both on and off the reservation in original Crow territory. Perhaps one third of Crow families remain living on the land (Personal Communication, John Doyle, Big Horn County Commissioner, 8/5/98), many raise horses, some have cattle, and a few farm. Common land use activities amongst tribal members include hunting, picking berries, gathering wood, and cutting sweat lodge frames and tipi poles. Some gather plants for medicines, foods, roots, and tobaccos. Some go on fasts, including women. Connections with the land are woven throughout tribal rituals, ceremonies and societies, such as the Beaver Dance (Tobacco Society), sweat lodge, “feeding” the river to protect the family, and the Parade Dance at Crow Fair in which the dancers salute the holy places in the mountains.

Much like the seasonal cycles of the “buffalo days,” the Crow people today follow a new socio-cultural seasonal cycle (Voget 1995: 168-201, McCleary 1997: 5-6). Though obviously changed from the old days and with some elements borrowed from White culture, it nevertheless was created by the Crow people and has become a new tradition. Winter begins with the Christmas and New Year’s dances in the various districts and is the time for storytelling, district handgames, and basketball. Crow high school basketball teams have won several state titles in the 1980s and 90s. Preliminary sun dance preparations also take place in winter.

The spring brings the championship handgame tournaments, the construction of new sweat lodges, graduations, Memorial Day graves decoration, arrow throwing games, and Tobacco Society adoption ceremonies. There has been a lessening of interest in the arrow tournaments in recent years. Tobacco Society adoptions have increased in the late 90s (Personal Communication, Barney Old Coyote, eminent tribal elder, 7/30/98). Graduation from Head Start to College is marked by Crow families hosting and attending several receptions of relatives and friends within a few weeks, days, and even hours scattered all across Crow country.

Summer brings an intense level of social and religious activities including Sun Dances, fasting, Christian camp meetings and revivals, berry picking, horse racing, rodeos, powwows, and tipi pole cutting. These activities culminate in the gathering of virtually the entire tribe for the annual Crow Fair Celebration, Rodeo and Race Meet held at the end of the summer the third weekend of every August.

There was a proliferation of Sun Dances in the 1990s with large numbers of dancers participating. There was an average of five Sun Dances per summer as opposed to two to three in previous decades (Personal Communication, Barney Old Coyote, 7/30/98; Personal Communication, John Pretty On Top, 8/6/98). In 1996, there were a total of approximately 500 different dancers (Personal Communication, Janine Pease Pretty On Top, President, Little Big Horn College, 8/11/98). The Lakota style Sun Dance first brought over in the late 1980s has also seen an increase in the number of dancers (Personal Communication, Barney Old Coyote, 7/30/98) and has even been combined with the Shoshoni-Crow style to create a sort of hybrid Sun Dance.

Crow Fair has witnessed an increase in attendance of both Crows and visitors with 1,000 to 1,400 tipis in the camp and 20,000 to 30,000 visitors (Bryan 1996: 88; Stillman 1994: A6). To many Crows, Crow Fair is their real New Year’s celebration or just their largest family gathering or simply the largest family gathering in the world. After the visitors leave, the Crows conduct their ceremonial Parade Dance through the camp in which wishes and prayers are made for all the people to gather again the next year at the same time well and happy.

Fall brings a slowing of activity, the Crow Halloween Masquerade dances and the beginning of small handgame tournaments which herald the approach of winter when the cycle begins again.

There are other outward social and ceremonial expressions of culture that take place year round including sweats, Beaver dances, dance society activities, giveaways, peyote meetings, naming ceremonies, and medicine bundle ceremonies. Beadwork and the making of traditional Crow clothing, accoutrements, and horse gear occur throughout the year. In 1994, 35 sweat lodges were counted in a nineteen mile stretch between two communities in the Little Big Horn valley (Personal Communication, Lanny Real Bird, Learning Lodge Institute Project Director, 8/6/98). Dance society activities continue, though at a level reduced from some decades ago, with the possible exception of the Lodge Grass district where it remains high. New Way/Christian style peyote meetings are very few with the native Tipi Way assuming dominance. There may be perhaps 100 peyote meetings a year across the reservation. An old ceremony that has seen a great revival in the 1980s in the Lodge Grass district and in the 1990s in the Black Lodge district is the Daytime Dance, a part of the historic Grass Dance movement. It is a ritual with several officers conducted in a strictly prescribed order, though the two districts conduct it in varying ways. It celebrates the good fortune of selected honored individuals with prayers and wishes that individuals in attendance experience the same good fortune (Personal Communication, Barney Old Coyote, 7/30/98).

The Crow people have been able to maintain, perpetuate, and create their own culture while at the same time becoming increasingly educated through formal education in schools and colleges both on and off the reservation. As of the summer of 1998, there were a total of 195 tribal members with associate of arts degrees, 303 with bachelor’s degrees, 63 with master’s degrees, and 11 with doctorates for a total of 472 higher education degrees (Little Big Horn College, Rural Systemic Initiative Program Office 1998). This compares with a total of 35 in 1970 (Personal Communication, Janine Pease Pretty On Top, President, Little Big Horn College, 8/20/98), representing an approximate 13-fold increase.

A major factor in Crow higher education since the 1980s and “one of the best-kept secrets in Crow country” (Ross 1998: 10) has been Little Big Horn College. Chartered in 1980 by the Tribe, the College began with only 32 students in 1981-82. By the 1990s, over 400 individual tribal members took courses annually. In 1990, the College received full institutional accreditation at the community college level from the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. Between 1985 and 1997, the College served 3,000 adults or 75% of the Crow Indian adult population (Little Big Horn College 1997d: 5; Little Big Horn College 1997a: 1).

Nationally prominent among the tribal colleges, by 1998 the College had awarded approximately 189 associate of arts degrees since its first commencement in 1984 while serving as a bridge to many who have gone on to four year institutions. Of greater importance has been the mission of the College to provide education “in areas that reflect the developing economic opportunities of the Crow Indian reservation community” and its commitment to the “preservation, perpetuation, and protection of Crow culture and language” (Little Big Horn College 1997d: 9). A 1995 survey found that 85% of LBHC graduates were employed on the reservation (Little Big Horn College 1997d: 5). Some classes and many college services are conducted entirely in the Crow language. The department of Crow Studies, with coursework required of LBHC graduates, the Library, with its Crow Collection, and the Little Big Horn College Archives, with its Crow Indian Historical and Cultural Collections, are major resources in and tools for the maintenance and promotion of Crow lifeways.


Bureau of Indian Affairs. Billings Area Office. Land Titles and Records Office.
1997. Lands (Using LRIS [Land Records Information System] Stats, [April] 1997. (computer printout, BIA Billings Area Office, Billings, Montana.)

Bureau of Indian Affairs. Crow Indian Agency. Land Services Office.
1998. LST98 [Land Status] Area Report. (computer print out concerning surface land ownership on Crow Reservation; information actually run November 1997, Crow Indian Agency, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Crow Tribe of Indians and United States of America.
1994. Settlement Agreement Between the Crow Tribe of Indians and the United States To Resolve the 107th Meridian Boundary Dispute. (Agreement signed by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Crow Tribe Madam Chairman Clara Nomee in Washington, D.C. on November 28, 1994.)

United States Congress.
1994. Crow Boundary Settlement Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-444, 108 Stat. 4632.

Big Horn County (Montana). Assessment Appraisal Office.
1998. Crow Tribe of Indians [Land Held by Crow Tribe in Fee Status Within Exterior Boundaries of Reservation in Big Horn County]. (handwritten compilation as of 6/10/98, Big Horn County, Hardin, Montana.)

Crow Tribe of Indians. Per Capita Department.
1998. Statistical List by Age for All Members. (database print out of Crow tribal members, run date 7/15/98, Crow Tribe of Indians, Crow Agency, Montana.)

United States Supreme Court.
1988. Montana v. Crow Tribe of Indians. (Number 87-343, Supreme Court affirmation of judgment of 9th Circuit Court of Appeals CA 9, 819 F2d 895, Washington, D.C.)

United States Supreme Court.
1998. Montana et al. v. Crow Tribe of Indians et al. (Number 96-1829, Washington, D.C.)

Powers, John.
1998. Coal Firm to Offer Crow $530 Million. May 6, 1998, p. 1, Big Horn County News, Hardin, Montana.

Crow Tribe of Indians. Finance Department.
1998. Schedule A—Crow Tribe of Indians Tribal Status Funds as of 4/30/98. (computer print out relating to Crow Coal Severance Tax Account # 7449, Crow Tribe of Indians, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Little Big Horn College.
1997a. Land Grant Extension Program Application of Little Big Horn College. (grant proposal, Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Little Big Horn College.
1997b. Little Big Horn/Dull Knife Memorial College School To Work Opportunities System Proposal. (grant proposal, Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Bureau of Indian Affairs. Central Office.
1991. Indian Service Population and Labor Force Estimates. (annual report, Table 3: Local Estimates of Resident Indian Population and Labor Force Status Indians Living On and Adjacent to Reservations Summary by Reservation, BIA Central Office, Washington, D.C.)

Bureau of Indian Affairs. Crow Indian Agency.
1997. Natural Resource Information System—Inventory and Production Report. (for trust lands on Crow Reservation, Report No. 55-38x, Crow Indian Agency, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Bryan, William L.
1996. Montana’s Indians: Yesterday and Today. Helena, Montana: American and World Geographic Publishing.

1997. Crows Hold Two Meetings: Opposition Wants Nomee Out. October 15, 1997, p.1, Big Horn County News, Hardin, Montana.

Little Big Horn College.
1997c. The Learning Lodge Institute of the Montana Tribal Colleges. (grant proposal, Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Peregoy, Sharon.
1998. Crow Reservation Statistics of Crow Language Shift. (overhead transparency produced by Sharon Stewart Peregoy, Crow Reservation Bilingual Education Task Force Coordinator for Crow Education Summit hosted by Little Big Horn College, June 2, 1998, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Voget, Frederick W.
1995. Celebrating the Year Together in They Call Me Agnes: A Crow Narrative Based on the Life of Agnes Yellowtail Deernose. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

McCleary, Timothy P.
1997. The Stars We Know; Crow Indian Astronomy and Lifeways. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.

Stillman, Pamela.
1994. Tipis, Tipis Everywhere; Crow Fair Attendance an Estimated 30,000. August 3, 1994, p. A6, Indian Country Today, Rapid City, South Dakota.

Little Big Horn College. Rural Systemic Initiative Program Office.
1998. [Crow Tribal … Degree Report]. (database of higher education degrees attained by Crow Indians, Rural Systemic Initiative Program, Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency, Montana.)

Ross, John W.
1998. LBHC Graduates Given Advice for “The Real World.” June 10, 1998, p. 10, Big Horn County News, Hardin, Montana.

Little Big Horn College.
1997d. Little Big Horn College Catalog 1997-1999. Crow Agency, Montana: Little Big Horn College.

Young, John.
1994. Opponents Charge Political Purge on Crow Reservation. May 25, 1994, p. A1, Indian Country Today, Rapid City, South Dakota.