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East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas–Crow Country

East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas, the Big Horn Basin, and the Big Horns.  To the southeast lie the Wind Rivers.  These were the original lands of the Crow peoples.  This is where I live. Below is a wonderful quote from a Crow Indian chief about 200 years ago.  If you stay here, you are in the Center of the Universe.  At the Center, things happen as they should and you will fare well, he says.  Wow,  two hundred years later and this is my experience too!

Big Horns from the Basin


“The Crow Country is a good country. The Great Spirit has put it in exactly the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you may travel you fare worse.”

“If you go to the south, you have to wander far over great barren plains; the water is warm and bad and you meet with fever and ague. To the north it is cold; the winters are long and bitter and there is no grass; you can not keep horses but must travel with dogs. What is a country without horses?”

“On the Columbia they are poor and dirty, paddle about in canoes and eat fish. Their teeth are worn out; they are always taking fish bones out of their mouths; fish is poor food.”

“To the east they dwell in villages; they live well, but they drink the muddy water of the Missouri – that is bad. A Crow’s dog would not drink such water.”

“About the forks of the Missouri is a fine country; good water, good grass, plenty of buffalo. In summer it is almost as good as the Crow Country, but in winter it is cold; the grass is gone and there is no salt weed for the horses.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. It has snowy mountains and sunny plains, all kinds of climates and good things for every season.”

“When the summer heat scorches the prairies, you can draw up under the mountains, where the air is sweet and cool, the grass fresh, and the bright streams come tumbling out of the snow banks. There you can hunt the elk, the deer and the antelope when their skins are fit for dressing; there you will find plenty of white bears and mountain sheep.”

Absaroka high country

“In the autumn when your horses are fat and strong from the mountains and pastures, you can go down into the plains and hunt the buffalo, or even trap beaver on the streams.”

“And when winter comes on, you can take shelter in the woody bottoms along the rivers; there you will find buffalo meat for yourselves and cottonwood bark for your horses, or you may winter in the Wind River Valley, where there is salt in abundance.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow Country.”

Arapooish, also known as Chief  Rotten Belly around 1830.

The Totem

I know or have heard of many people declaring that their totem animal is one of the strong, impressive mammals–the wolf, the bear, the cougar, the lynx.  Why are so many of the small animals ignored as a totem?  For instance, Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Crow Indians, had a vision in which his totem animal was revealed to him.  This small little bird was his guiding inspiration, the totem whose wisdom saved his people and won them a reservation on their native lands.

The Lynx

“Listen, Plenty-Coups” said a voice.  “in that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee.  He is the least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind.  He is willing to work for wisdom.  The Chickadee-person is a good listener.  Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use.  Whenever others are talking together of their successes or failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words.  But in all his listening he tends to his own business.  He never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others.  He gains success and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself.  There is scarely a lodge he does not visit, hardly a Person he does not know, and yet everybody likes him, because he minds his own business, or pretends to.

“The lodges of countless Bird-people were in that forest when the Four Winds charged it.  Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person.  Develop your body, but do not neglect your mind, Plenty-Coups.  It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.”


We think only of these large mammals as totems because, I propose, we no longer fully ‘know’ animals anymore.  Who amongst us could understand the ‘Chickadee-person’ like Indians that lived with all the animals, large and small, observing them in detail day in and day out?  Each animal has a special quality, a unique force that can connect a person to that higher need in themselves.

I also wonder if there are dual totems; totems in tandem that make up the whole, rather than just a partial piece.  For instance, when I was told that Soona had bone cancer, I knew her slow death would be excruciating, as well as debilitating.  Not a life for a dog.  I got some good advice: take off work for a week and do all the things with her that she loves, then put her down.

I took off work, but was agonizing over the decision, even though I knew it was best for her.  During that week that stretched into two, I was given a series of dreams.   All my dreams had wolves in them–courage, strength, canine. Yes.  But they also contained an important critical ‘other’ totem–elk.  In each dream, over and over, I watched wolves take down and kill elk.  It was the full circle of life.   In every dream, my focus wasn’t on the wolves, but on the dying elk.  I would look deeply into the eyes of the elk as she lay dying and saw there was only a quality of complete surrender.   She knew this was her ‘dharma’ or lot in life.  No remorse, no fear.   I realized it was Soona’s time to go, like these elk, and she was surrendered to it.  It was only me that wasn’t.

So the totem wasn’t just the wolf, but the wolf and the elk.  They are one and there can’t be one without the other.  Their lives and deaths are intertwined.  They are one totem, coins representing both sides. The Yin and the Yang.

Does that mean my friend who changed his name to Wolf, should be Wolf-Elk?  Or the one now known as Bear be Bear-roots?  Lynx-Hare?  Cougar-Deer?




Chief Plenty Coups and his vision quest

This January I had a mind stopping moment.  I’d picked up a copy of the autobiography of Chief Plenty Coups by Frank Linderman.  The Chief of the Crow Indians was over 80 years old when he relayed, by sign and through an interpreter, the story of his life to Linderman, a white man whom he trusted and was his friend.

Plenty Coups was born in the mid 1800’s, a time when the Crow were still living free, just as they’d done for thousands of years.  Buffalo, their main food source, were plentiful.    Few white men were on the land when the chief was young.  It was Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Crows, who led his people onto the reservation.7791

“After the buffalo were gone, nothing happened.” he said.  From that time on, he lived in a square house on a reservation.

One morning I awoke unable to sleep.  I picked up the book at around page 30, where Plenty Coups begins to describe his second vision quest at nine years of age.  His first one he considered unsuccessful.  Now he was determined more than ever to complete his quest.  After fasting for several days and nights, Plenty Coups cuts off a finger (a tradition among Crow men who were seeking vision), then passed out and had a detailed vision.  He was lead under the earth by a helper, through a tunnel crowded with buffalo.  After a day and a night walking crowded by buffalo under the ground, they (the Man-Person and Plenty Coups) emerged from the tunnel and sat on a knoll.

“Then he (the Man-person) shook his red rattle and sang a queer song four times. ‘Look!’ he pointed.”

Plenty Coups saw buffalo emerge from the hole, out of the ground, in great numbers.  They blackened the plains and spread wide, going in every direction.  “Everywhere I looked great herds of buffalo were…pouring out of the hole in the ground to travel on the wide plains.  When at last they ceased coming out of the hole in the ground, all were gone, all!  There was not one in sight anywhere…”

“I turned to look at the Man-person beside me.  He shook his red rattle again. ‘Look!’ he pointed.”

“Out of the hole in the ground came bulls and cows and calves past counting.  These, like the others, scattered and spread on the plains.  But they stopped in small bands and began to eat the grass.  Many lay down, not as a buffalo does but differently, and many were spotted.  Hardly any two were alike in color or size.  And the bulls bellowed differently too, not deep and far-sounding like bulls of the buffalo but sharper and yet weaker in my ears.  Their tails were different, longer, and nearly brushed the ground. They were not buffalo.  These were strange animals from another world.

“I was frightened and turned to the Man-person, who only shook his red rattle but did not sing.  He did not even tell me to look, but I did look and saw all the Spotted-buffalo go back into the hole in the ground, until there was nothing except a few antelope anywhere in sight.”

“Do you understand this which I have shown you, Plenty-coups? he asked me.”

“No! I answered.  How could he expect me to understand such a thing when I was not yet ten years old.”

Now Plenty Coups and the vision-person went back into the hole and came out again.  Now the Man-Person pointed to an old man sitting in the shade, alone, by some trees and square house.

The house

“Look well upon this old man,’ said the Man person.  ‘Do you know him, Plenty-Coups?’ he asked me”

” ‘No,’

“This old man is yourself, Plenty-Coups,’ he told me.

Plenty Coups had seen, in his vision at nine years of age, himself sitting by the exact the same house (of course, he lived in a tipi at 9 years old, not a square house), the same stream, the exact same spot where he lived on the reservation as an old man.

Plenty Coups home, although most of the time he slept in a tipi outside

I read this line with goose bumps.

When Plenty Coups finished his vision quest in the Crazy Mountains, he went back to his tribe and related all of it to the elders.  Plenty Coups had never heard of nor seen cattle.  Neither had most of the Crow at that time.  But the medicine man had seen some to the east on the plains and understand Plenty Coups vision to mean that the buffalo would disappear and cattle would take their place.  Along with other elements I didn’t mention in the vision, the Medicine Man interpreted the Chief’s vision to mean he would not have children of his own and that he would be a great leader and lead his people to safety in the midst of great change.  All would come true.

The wall decorations are reminiscent of the insides of tipis

Think about it:  if Plenty Coups could see all this at age nine, in some way his life and destiny were laid out before him at birth; maybe not the details, but the broad brush strokes.  Never would a nine-year old Indian living freely in 1850, think for a moment that he would be living in a square house as white men do, with all the buffalo gone.

Sometime in the early 1900’s, Plenty Coups, now living on the reservation, visited Mt. Vernon.  He saw that Washington’s home was preserved as a park for the public.  He asked that his home be preserved after his death as a Park for all peoples.  Last month I finally visited Plenty Coups State Park.  These photos are from that visit.

I love this quote. So true

Mystery of the Sacred

I’d been wanting to see a series of pictographs in the desert nearby.  So the other day my friend took me out to see them.  The hike is about 6 miles round trip.  The trip out there is through flat sagebrush country.  For a long ways it doesn’t seem like there’s anything of interest.  Then suddenly the landscape shifts into deep ravines and rocky cliffs.  Near the top of a series of cliffs, a narrow valley appears.  Walking through this rift in the rocky scape, there is a palpable sense of the Sacred.  The cliffs loom high and they all have excellent writing surfaces on them.  But most are empty.  Curiously, there are natural perfect circles of a different kind of rock decorating the sandstone faces.  These natural shield shapes fool you into thinking they’re manmade.

A few official signs along the way tell you these pictographs you’re approaching are special and not to be touched or defaced.  My friend says 7 years ago there was no trail nor signs.  Since then people seemed to have discovered this place because the trail is worn and shows fresh signs of footprints and horseprints.

View from the valley

The sandstone cliffs

The valley is so quiet.  There is a somber aura here that evokes the sacred.  The high cliffs have a cathedral-like feel.  Finally we arrive at the rock with the pictographs.  My friend tells me they are fairly recent, within the last 500 years.  The rock faces east and is in the shade, which is a relief on this unusual 70 degree March day.  The paintings are very faint but you can make them out.

Look closely to see the figures

An area in the rock is chipped where the people who made these got the red coloring.

Where the red color comes from. Maybe why they chose this rock to paint

Down below, in another rocky outcropping, are a few more well preserved shields that lack the figures associated with the ones higher up.

Another painted rock much less eroded

These pictographs are sacred to the Crows.

Why are they here?  Curiously, there is no water nearby and the paintings are in a place that is isolated and hard to get to.  Although we can never get into the minds of the tribesmen who painted these, its fun to imagine what might have been going on there.  Were there several artists or just one?  Was this part of a vision quest or someone passing time in the shaded side of the valley waiting for game, or fellow travelers?  Was this a signpost or message on a well traveled trail?  I suppose it will forever remain a mystery.