Recollections of Joe Medicine Crow
Some 14 years ago I sat in the back of a van along with a group of Little Big Horn College students on their way to pick up Joe Medicine Crow before going across the border to Ucross, Wyoming, home of the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery and temporary display area of the Barstow Collection of ledger art.
The art was mostly done by Crow (Apsaalooke) and Hidatsa warriors who lived on or passed through the Crow Reservation agency from 1879 to 1897. It depicted intense battle scenes and also dances, gatherings and bison hunts. Bureau of Indian Affairs clerk William H. Barstow noticed that Natives liked to draw and encouraged them to re-create scenes of their lives by giving out ledger paper and colored pencils to do so.
With the bison nearly extinct and the nomadic way of life near its end, the art was created during a time that Crow Chief Plenty Coups later described this way: “When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground … . After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”
When Barstow died in 1908, his collection wound up in an obscure trunk in Roundup before it was rediscovered in 1930. Most of the collection was purchased by Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University-Billings) where it remained in vaults for decades before research by Professor Adrian Heidenreich brought the work’s importance to light at a 1985 Yellowstone Art Center showing.
The collection was to be shown publicly for only the second time in its existence since 1985 at Ucross, and when we picked up Medicine Crow you could tell he was feeling spry and excited about the event as he joked with everyone he came into contact with.
Passing on history and tradition is what he lived for. On top of that, much of the work in the collection had been done by Joe’s own grandfather Medicine Crow, as shown by Barstow’s notes and the crow drawn above Medicine Crow’s head that depicted him in the autobiographical works.
In the van Medicine Crow and I sat on the same seat. We soon passed by the tiny town of Wyola, and as he began to speak the students respectfully quieted down. He told us the town was named Wyola because there used to be a main train station there, and that’s where people waited for loved ones to arrive. Hence, its name was translated into English as “The Place We Wait.”
During the whole drive he was full of stories. Full of tidbits. Full of facts. Eager to teach. I’d come as a young journalist to write a story on the event, but I wanted to absorb as much as I could from this respected yet humble man. I hung onto his every word.
Since he sat near me, he of course asked me my name and wanted to know who my relatives were, as is typical of tribal people. They always seem to know someone related to you, or they might even be somehow related to you.
I told him my name but also said I wasn’t Crow but Northern Cheyenne. Our tribes were bitter enemies back in the day. As an old school Apsaalooke, he said, “Ah, Isashboosha, then!” using the Crow word for Cheyenne. He shook my hand, smiled warmly and told me a quick tale about my people.
Later, during his Ucross speech, he made a wisecrack about the Cheyenne and drew a big laugh—at least among the Natives present. Some whites looked uncomfortable, wondering whether it was polite to laugh since a few students were of course Cheyenne. He looked toward me with a knowing grin and glint in his eye. I nodded and smiled. Good one, I thought.
Although he probably would have told the joke anyway, since it was a Crow-inspired event, Indians generally will only tease people they like or are comfortable around.
After his speech I followed him closely as he spoke about the drawings. The art told numerous tales of battles between Indians not always recorded by white historians, but passed along from grandfathers to fathers to sons like Joe Medicine Crow.
Until the 1870s, Crow casualties in war parties had numbered just a few at most in small skirmishes. But casualties sometimes turned to dozens as every hill, mountain and river valley was fiercely fought over in attempts to control the last prime hunting areas of Crow land alongside the Rocky Mountains and Northern Plains in Montana and Wyoming.
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