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Contrary Warriors: The Crow Indians by Dana Williams

 

The Crow Indians live on a reservation near Billings, Montana. The ironic thing about this reservation is that more than half of the land is leased by non-Indians.

When the United States government first encountered the Crow Native Americans more than a century ago, they treated them very badly (and that's putting it delicately). The culture of the Crow was essentially turned inside out by laws forced on them by the government. They were forced to speak English, converted to Christianity, prohibited from hunting, forced to farm, and couldn't even travel off the reservation land without permission. Every single treaty or agreement initially made between the Crows and the US government was violated and ignored, as more and more of their cultural and human rights have been restricted and taken away.

Later on the government also abused its relationship with the tribe, with the help of Congress and the Committee of Indian Affairs. Senator Walsh from Montana tried to pass a bill in Congress that would give away Crow land to homesteaders without any compensation, permission, or consultation of the Crows living there. The government built a dam on the Crow River, and controls its management (and the more than $18 Million in earnings every year) due to a disorganized Crow government. And, for a while, the government took the wealthy coal resources found on the reservation land, but now they control the development themselves.

The Crows have been marginally successful at resisting this constant attack on their land, resources, and culture. They have fought back through self-education of cultural traditions, general education, the strength of the family, and through the militant, legal actions of the Crow leader Robert Yellowtail.

Yellowtail was a lawyer when Walsh tried getting Congress to steal Crow land, and he fought back on Congress' terms and his culture's terms; in addition to his skill at legal maneuvering and knowledge of law, he also employed the strong spiritual influence of the tribe, such as praying to the Great Spirit. He also brought in hundreds of buffalo from Yellowstone National Park to repopulate the reservation, where the buffalo now flourish in great numbers.

The problems facing the Crows currently (and many other tribes in the US) are the abundant leasing and allotment of Crow land to ranchers, which has consumed more than half of their reservation, with no profit to the tribe. Banks do not readily give loans to Crows because of their poor credit and the poor economy on the reservation. The Indian Agency operating in the interests of the reservation and tribe has many problems: they have no true authority over their own affairs (they are under the jurisdiction of the Committee of Indian Affairs), they are divided in their visions of the future, and acts half-heartedly and without teeth.

There are specific things that must happen for the situation of the Crows to improve. First of all, for them to remain an independent, autonomous, and distinct group in American society, they must take every necessary action to preserve their culture. This includes their traditions, religion, language, art, etc. This can be accomplished through education, greater tribal unity and direction, and constant preservation of their distinctness when encroached upon by outside forces and influences.

Secondly, they need to have control over their own resources: this includes the coal supply, the ranches, and the Crow River Dam, which was ironically named "Yellowtail Dam". This is crucial because if a group cannot make a living off their own land, especially with industrially rich resources, something is seriously amiss. The level of unemployment on the reservation is phenomenally high; the jobs are there, if only they could have control over them and hire their fellow Crows.

The last issue the needs to be dealt with is the political and legal aspect of the Crow's problems. What they need in order to strengthen themselves is a legislature that the people can agree on, completely support, and entrust with the responsibility of acting in the best interest of the whole tribe. To do this they need the Indian Agency to have the power, jurisdiction, and guts to make the important decisions and to create their own projects. The umbilical relationship with the government has inhibited the reservation for longer than a century, and has allowed them to be continuously exploited by private and government interests. The Crows, and all Native American tribes, need to be freed from their subjugated position to the US government and its agencies.

 

Political Geography