Reconciling family narrative with textbook history in Montana's Bighorn Valley

An essay by Joe Wilkins.

  • The ranch along the Musselshell where the author's grandparents, the Maxwells, moved after leaving Mountain Pocket.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • Edward S. Curtis photogravure of an Absaroka settlement on the Little Bighorn.

  • Mary Ahern, the author's grandmother, at 18, in 1935.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • The author and his grandmother on their last trip there.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • Mary Ahern with her brother, Mickey, and Cold Wind during the 1920s, left, and on her horse, right.

    Joe Wilkins (courtesy)
  • Mary Ahern Maxwell with great-granddaughter Edith Wilkins.

    Joe Wilkins
  • The old homestead.

    Joe Wilkins
 

The Bighorn River slips from the rocky clutches of the Big Horn and Pryor Mountains, going deep and muddy on the valley plains. Two hundred years ago, John Colter, enchanted by tall grass and great herds of bison, received permission to leave the Corps of Discovery early to hunt and trap the good country along the river. Though the bison and beaver are gone, my 87-year-old grandmother, Mary Ahern Maxwell, who spent her girlhood on a tributary creek called Mountain Pocket, has often told me that the Bighorn Valley holds the best land in all Montana. And this windswept October day, as we drive south toward the mountains, I believe it: Thick grass lines the roadway, the foothills slope down into coulees knotted with chokecherry and wild rose, and though it's as gray as stone, the sky is wide.

Years ago, before my grandmother's family settled down on Mountain Pocket, before Colter, the three bands of the Crow people lived in a vast tepee. One of its corner poles sloped up from the west, at the meeting of the three rivers. Another sat far in the south, where the Bighorn River begins. The third pole was anchored to the east, near South Dakota's Black Hills. And the final pole rested where the Yellowstone gives itself to the Missouri. The fire of that great tepee was here -- along the banks of the Bighorn, in the mountain shadows.

In the late 1850s, a young Crow warrior climbed deep into the Pryor Mountains. There, he did not eat but prayed and paced the mountain. Desperate for a dream, he cut off the tip of his left index finger and beat his wounded hand on a fallen log. As his blood wet the wood, he slumped into a deep sleep. Then a storm rose up, and the young man saw himself as a chickadee sheltered in a high nest. The other birds did not seek the safety of their nests. They flailed against the wind and soon were lost. As the sun split the storm, the young man looked into his dream, far out onto the Plains, where a great herd of buffalo ran. The earth cracked open before them; the buffalo fell into the earth and were gone.

That young man, Plenty Coups -- knowing the buffalo would soon be gone; knowing that against the white men, who were as strong and as violent as the four winds, the Crow must hunker down in their nests -- urged his people to continue the early truce they had made with the United States and proved himself adept at peacetime leadership. He journeyed to Washington, D.C., many times to argue against seizures of Crow land and for fair negotiations. On the reservation, he moved into a frame house and took up farming, began practicing the Catholic faith alongside his traditional beliefs. In 1920, Plenty Coups -- who had once declared, during an earlier attempt to reduce the size of the Crow Reservation, "If you white men put in all your money to buy that land, you would not pay all it is worth. …  I want my country to remain" -- acquiesced to demands from younger Crow leaders and supported the Crow Act, which parceled up the reservation into individual land allotments, a move that preserved its outer boundaries but would lead to complications, because the land allotments could then be sold or leased. As these negotiations came to a close, Plenty Coups was invited to stand with President Harding at the 1921 Armistice Day ceremony at the Arlington National Cemetery. There, Plenty Coups wore beaded buckskin and a headdress of eagle feathers; he brandished his coup stick and laid it on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Though he had been instructed not to speak, Plenty Coups prayed for peace as the coffin was lowered. And he prayed in Crow.

Plenty Coups' aggressive peace-making, a survival strategy philosopher Jonathan Lear has dubbed "radical hope," was formulated to ease his people's transition into a new way of life, a way of life he didn't ask for but was powerless to stop. And, in at least one respect, it worked: Open a map of Montana and you'll see that the Crow Reservation is the biggest in the state; though treaties were bent and broken over the years, the ancient heart of Crow country remains in Crow hands.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TROUT UNLIMITED NORTH IDAHO FIELD COORDINATOR
    The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.