Restoring Crow Presence in Northwest Wyoming
Grant Bulltail is one of those remarkable people who ties us to previous generations and can paint a rich image of tribal traditions. His great grandfather, He Comes Up Red (1847-1947), was born a “buffalo Indian” but ended his life on the Crow Reservation. Bulltail was raised by him from 1940 to 1947, and during that time established himself in his great grandfather’s eyes as the child who could listen and remember.
Bulltail has been working for the past 20 years to build alliances with academics who can help keep his great grandfather’s stories alive for future generations. He has worked with archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists, the Greater Yellowstone Historical Society, and a historian of religions (me) as well as video and documentary teams. His collected works are being archived at the Fife Folklore Library thanks to an alliance that includes members of the folklore department and the burgeoning Native American Teaching and Learning Center at Utah State University, in Logan.
Throughout the past years I have studied Bulltail’s work, particularly the history of Crow presence in the region developed by Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf in their book Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park. I have listened to his stories through hours of on-the-road and in-the-classroom video recordings. I have sung “Oh give me a home” while driving him from Crow Agency, Montana to Logan, Utah.
From this work, we are taking the most important ideas that Crow heritage offers for people living in our place and time. We’ve forged an alliance to bring those ideas to life on a mountain of great importance to the Crow, but from which they’ve been separated for 130 years since He Comes Up Red and other members of the southern bands of the Crow were removed from Wyoming to the Crow Reservation.
We are working to restore Crow presence to the landscape by creating an annual three-day Heart Mountain Festival that includes a seminar, field events, and a ceremony. The ceremony takes place on Foretop’s Father, known to the settler community as Heart Mountain, to remember with honesty the devastating impact on the Crow of settler conquest in what is now northwest Wyoming. The area was part of the southwestern quadrant of the territory designated for the Crow in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. With this three-day event we ask how 21st century Crow and settler descendants might re-invent our relationship with each other and with this fragile, semi-arid landscape in the face of climate change.
The ceremony is directed by Bulltail, and I am the emcee. It includes traditional prayers, drumming and dancing, and invited guest speakers. In June of 2011 and July of 2012, Wales Bulltail, Grant’s brother, led a spirited tipi raising for which he uses humans to represent each of the poles of a Crow tipi, describing the symbolism of each pole.
In 2012, Wales selected a woman from the audience to be the coyote pole, keeping watch over the tipi during the day, and selected a reverend to be the owl pole, to watch over the tipi at night, and the overall impact of the human tipi generated a great spirit of respect for the traditions. The ceremony concluded with dancing for which all of the participants were invited and instructed.
The ceremony is possible because ownership of Heart Mountain Ranch has passed into the hands of the Nature Conservancy who maintain it as a land trust, allowing day use by anyone who respects the conservation ethic that guides management of the property. Hence, the ceremony is not built on the return of sacred land to Crow tribal members, but rather on the space of the Nature Conservancy’s preservation of the ranch as a land trust. We’re restoring memory, and hoping that this first step will lead to broader efforts to restore Crow presence in the region.
As described in our commemorative bookmark, the Pipe Ceremony is “an alliance with Grant Bulltail, Nature Conservancy’s Heart Mountain Ranch, and Christ Episcopal Church to remember Crow heritage and collaborate in honor of ecological resilience.”
For many people, a highlight of the 2012 ceremony, held July 12-14, was when Linda Bulltail spoke. After describing the three mothers, the Earth, our biological mothers, and the tipi, Linda said: “Now I’m going to pray.” And with that she began to speak in Crow, and her prayer clearly transported her, and thus through her many of the people gathered, to a spiritual connection with the ancient presence of Crow tribal members on the mountain. As she spoke, tears ran down her cheeks. Others cried with her.
According to Crow cosmology, the Creator’s power is delivered in the “gift of tears” and it seemed that Linda tapped into that power. Through her prayer, she initiated the work of bringing healing across the forces that have divided the Crow from their cultural inheritance, and divided the settler and Indian communities. Afterward she told me that she could hear and feel people behind her. She thought at first that it was me coming up behind her, but she looked and I was out in the circle of people listening, so she knew that she had Crow ancestors arriving to be with her as she delivered her prayer.
Next year, the three-day festival will run from July 25-27. Our focus for the seminar will be on “tipi economy” and Dr. Laura Scheiber of Indiana University will speak about the “Talking Stones,” what she and her students are learning about tipis throughout the region. Also in the seminar will be Bulltail and John Mionczynski discussing the food and healing herbs known and preserved by the Crow. The field day will include a hike to examine the plants on the mountain. We will bring elders and children up to the tree line of the mountain to tell the creation story and the story of Foretop’s Father—the Crow name for the mountain, derived from the special relationship that their famous ancestor Foretop had with the mountain.
The ceremony will be held on the Common Ground Ranch, a certified organic beef ranch on the shoulders of the mountain, whose owners, Rod and Dr. Lynn Morrison have invited us to host the event. By hosting the ceremony, they open the possibility for youth to sleep out, drum around the fire at night, and allow for a larger gathering than did the limited access on the Nature Conservancy land.