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
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.