Clad in traditional clothing, men and women stare boldly into the camera. Many of their faces are old and weathered, yet they show a strength that defies their years. As the photographer snaps away, he captures a way of life that is changing fast. More than a century later, these photographs will offer a glimpse into an all-but-forgotten world.
Many years ago, before European colonists arrived in the Americas, a tribe lived in what is now known as Ohio, close to the shores of Lake Eerie. The Hidatsa, a nearby group of Native Americans, christened them Apsáalooke, or “children of the large-beaked bird.” Later, when the French arrived, they mistranslated this name as the “people of the crows.” The name stuck, and today we refer to this tribe as the Crow.
Although their ancestral home was mainly in northern Ohio, the Crow people were eventually driven northwest by rival tribes. The Cree and Ojibwe had formed an alliance and had both grown powerful thanks to their role in the North American fur trade. Armed with guns, they pushed the Crow from their native lands.
The Crow would remain for a time in modern day Manitoba, Canada, not far from Lake Winnipeg. However, they soon moved on and made their way to the area of North Dakota now known as Devil’s Lake. There, they yet again found themselves at the mercy of other tribes.
Harried further west by the Cheyenne and the Lakota Sioux, the Crow finally defeated a rival tribe and gained control of their own territory. Once established, the Crow lands covered an impressive swathe of the Northern Plains, stretching from what is now Wyoming across Montana and North Dakota.
Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Crow flourished in the region around the valley of the Yellowstone River. Although they had previously maintained a semi-nomadic agricultural lifestyle, they soon became acclimatized to life on the plains. There, they caught bison and formed a hunter-gatherer society.
Over time, the Crow had developed their own language. It was different, although similar to, the one spoken by the Hidatsa. And even today, it remains among the more popular Native American languages, with as many as 4,280 speakers recorded in 1990.
Once settled in their new homelands, the Crow began to split off into smaller groups. The largest, the Mountain Crow, followed their leader No Intestines on a quest for sacred tobacco. Eventually, they settled in the Rocky Mountains. Later, another tribe would break off from the Mountain Crow, traveling to the Bighorn Basin in central Wyoming. There, they became known as the Eelalapito, or “Kicked In The Bellies.”
According to Crow legend, yet another group split off from the tribe after a quarrel over some bison entrails. This faction reportedly settled around the Yellowstone and Musselshell rivers and in the valleys of northeast Wyoming, earning themselves the name Binnéessiippeele – “Those Who Live Amongst The River Banks.”
By this time, however, European Americans were arriving in droves. And tragically, contact with settlers led to an epidemic of smallpox within the Crow population, killing many of their tribe. Then, at some time in the 1850s, a Crow boy experienced a vision.
The boy, who would later become known as Plenty Coups, saw a vision in which buffalo were replaced by cattle and all the trees were uprooted – save one. The tribe leaders interpreted this as a sign that white men would soon have control over all the land. Furthermore, the vision seemed to say that the Crows must form an alliance with the settlers in order to survive. As an adult, Plenty Coups would go on to become one of the Crow people’s most celebrated leaders.
While other tribes such as the Lakota Sioux fought against the U.S., Plenty Coups, now Chief of the Mountain Crow, practised diplomacy. In keeping with his vision, he believed that the white men would inevitably win the war. To remain on their good side, then, he supplied Crow warriors to protect U.S. travelers and serve as scouts.
Initially, this tactic did not appear to be helping the Crow people. In 1868, when the Lakota Sioux won a decisive victory over the United States military, they were granted control over much of the Northern Plains. Soon, parties of Lakota Sioux began encroaching on ancestral Crow lands.
However, the Native Americans’ victory was not to last. By 1877, in fact, the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne were crushed, marking the end of the Great Sioux War. Defeated, they fled to Canada or were forcibly removed to reservations. Interestingly, several Crow warriors had fought alongside General Custer and the U.S. forces – including one scout known as White-Man-Runs-Him.
Although Plenty Coups’ prediction that the white men would be victorious came true, the rest of the vision did not. Even though they aided the United States’ military efforts against other Native Americans, the Crow received no special treatment. Instead, their lands were seized, and the tribe was moved to a reservation by 1888.
Although Plenty Coups continued to negotiate with the United States government for the rights of the Crow, the tribe was nevertheless forced to endure great upheaval. Yet fascinatingly, just as their ancestral way of life had begun to fade, a relatively new phenomenon was there to capture it for posterity. Photography had come to America, and the Crow people proved a fascinating subject.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers like Charles Bell, Frank Rinehart and Edward S. Curtis began making a name for themselves by taking portraits of Native Americans. And where previous photographs functioned mainly as clinical anthropological records, this new breed of artists sought to bring out the dignity and strength of the Native American peoples.
During the course of his career, Curtis captured a staggering 40,000 images, featuring representatives from more than 80 tribes. Indeed, his photographs of the Crow people are arguably among some of his most famous work. Rinehart, meanwhile, became known for his images of American Indian leaders. In 1900, for example, he traveled to the Crow Agency – the official Crow headquarters – in Big Horn County, Montana, to photograph some of the tribe’s influential figures.
Another man who became famous for photographing the Crow people in the early 20th century was Richard Throssel. His story, however, was a little different. Throssel was descended from the Canadian Cree tribe, and the Crow later adopted him as one of their own. As a member of the community, he was able to take some of the most intimate portraits of the tribe ever captured on film.
Today, the Crow tribe has a sizeable reservation in Montana. According to the 2000 census, however, there are less than 7,000 Crow living on those reservation lands. But what they lack in numbers they certainly make up for in history – as these fascinating photographs show.