CROW AGENCY, Mont. – When the “Native Words, Native Warriors” display came to the Crow Indian Reservation in time for the annual Crow Native Days that coincide with the Battle of the Little Bighorn anniversary, tribal secretary Scott Russell was given the task of honoring not only the various tribes and code talkers of the World War II display, but the Crow Nation’s own plethora of veterans and active military personnel.
The display is a National Museum of the American Indian traveling exhibit that will eventually visit all seven Montana Indian reservations throughout the summer and fall.
“What Chairman Black Eagle envisioned was something also geared toward the Crow warriors, and that’s basically what we’ve done here,” Russell said, motioning toward the pictures of hundreds of local Crow tribal members in uniform who adorned the walls.
Crows were asked to put up pictures of their relatives and loved ones in their military uniform and other articles that could be used for displays, and the response was overwhelming.
|Traditionally dressed Crow Women on parade at the Crow Native Days.|
Tribal Vice President Calvin Coolidge Jefferson is a veteran of the Vietnam War – as was the late Chairman Carl Venne who passed away last year.
“We want people to be able to say, ‘That’s my relative,’ or ‘That’s my grandfather,’ and instill pride in them to remind them that they come from a militaristic society,” Russell said. “Since the days of intertribal warfare, our people were warriors.”
In the Pryor Creek battle of 1864, the vastly outnumbered Crow dealt a crushing and humiliating defeat against Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho allied tribes who were committed to their genocide that day.
American Indians have volunteered for the military and fought in wars at a higher per capita rate than any other ethnic group since World War I (when they weren’t even considered citizens of the U.S. until 1924). This is especially true for the Crow and other Montana tribes, who boast more than 5,000 living veterans – not including the ones on active duty.
“If you look at the Crow and our ways of honor, our military has a high prestige,” Russell said. “Our customs revolve around military – although as you can see there are a lot more women now, and that’s good,” he noted the pictures of women on the wall.
“I think in the past, it’s almost been like a rite of passage for a Crow man to join the military right after high school.”
Russell comes from a military family; his two brothers are Marines, and his father and grandfather served in the Army. He dismisses the idea that most Crows would join the military purely out of economic reasons.
“It brings a prestige and honor to the people. We have a high unemployment rate and all that, but only a small percentage would use that as a reason.”
Russell explained that a displayed picture of his ancestor Chief Medicine Crow was the most widely used photo of a 19th century Indian during the intertribal warfare days.
Medicine Crow’s grandson (and Russell’s grandfather) Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama last August, and also completed the requirements to becoming a Crow War Chief during WWII.
The Crow have used the annual Crow Native Days event to honor non-Crow tribal members as well.
“We’ve honored the late Lori Piestewa and brought her parents up here and presented them with gifts and a plaque,” Russell said.
Piestewa, a Hopi from the Navajo Reservation, was the first Native American woman to die in combat while in the U.S. military.
In addition, the Crow have also honored all the families of Montanans who have died in the recent wars at their local Veterans Park, including Senator Max Baucus’ Marine nephew, Phillip.
“The Veteran’s Park we have over here is not a memorial, but a commemorative park that honors everybody from the days of tribal warfare until the present,” Russell said.
Russell and the Crow tribe envisioned the temporary display as the foundation of something bigger: A tribally-owned museum that honors their proud militaristic history and past.
“We have five museums on the Crow Reservation, and none are tribally-owned,” Russell said. “We want to build our own so we can bring some of the artifacts back here.”
Russell believes if a museum were tribally-owned, privately-owned artifacts from Crow tribal members would be more likely to end up there as opposed to state museums.
As he explained this, a woman came forth with a fanciful red, white and blue eagle design blanket made by Jennifer Flat Lip; it was made to honor her six relatives that had been in the military.