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
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...