Plenty Coups (ca. 1848-1932) was one of the first of the Crow to settle down and begin farming after reservation settlement.
Plenty Coups was the last of the traditional Crow chiefs and led the tribe in its transition from the "buffalo days" to reservation life. He served with the U.S. Army at the Battle of the Rosebud in 1876. However, Plenty Coups is best remembered for his leadership of the tribe after reservation settlement. He was among the first of the Crows to settle down, begin farming, open a store and build a two story log home. He often negotiated for his people with U.S. representatives, both in Washington and on the reservation, in the many attempts to reduce or open Crow lands to further white settlement between 1880 to 1920. After 1904, he was effectively recognized as the single most important Native American tribal leader both by the federal government and his own people. He represented all American Indians at the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Washington in 1921. He died in 1932, still fighting for the rights of his people at the end of his life.
The last of the traditional Crow chiefs was born not far from present day Billings, Montana around 1848. His name was given to him by his grandfather, from a dream that the boy would count many coups (a war deed), live to an old age, and become a chief. At some point in his life, he was also given the name Bull That Goes Into (or Against) the Wind. He was a member of the Sore Lips clan of the Mountain Crow, one of the three divisions of the tribe. His father Medicine Bird died when Plenty Coups was young. His mother was named Otter Woman and he had a sister named Goes Well. Plenty Coups was first married at the age of 24 to Knows Her Mother. His last two wives were Kills Together and Strikes the Iron. Though he married about 12 different times, he had only two children, both of whom died young. Plenty Coups adopted and raised some poor children, but he told Frank Bird Linderman in his biography American that he considered all the Crows as his children.
The Crow were often at odds with their neighbors the Lakota Sioux, and Plenty Coups was no exception. At the age of nine, he lost a brother who was killed by the Lakota. Grant Bulltail, whose grandfather was raised by Plenty Coups, explained that in all two brothers and the parents of Plenty Coups were killed by the Lakota. According to Linderman. after his brother was killed Plenty Coups went on a fast, as he did on several occasions throughout his life, in hopes of receiving a vision which would give him power and direction. In his greatest vision, he saw the buffalo disappear and spotted buffalo, or cattle, appear in their place. A forest was destroyed by a storm, except for a single tree. This tree held the lodge of the Chickadee, who survived the storm because he was a sharp listener who learned from others and knew where to pitch his lodge.
The dream was interpreted to mean that the cattle which replaced the buffalo represented the whites taking over Crow country. The tree which survived was the Crows, who would survive the coming of the white man because, like the Chickadee, they listened and learned from the experiences of other tribes and placed themselves (pitched their lodges) in the right place. This powerful vision guided Plenty Coups throughout his life. It told him to adapt to and cooperate with the whites so the Crows would survive and prosper. It guided him as leader of the tribe through the difficult times ahead.
With the aid of his powerful visions and medicines (objects with spiritual power), Plenty Coups became a feared warrior. He joined the Fox warrior society early in his career. Tribal historian Joseph Medicine Crow explained that Plenty Coups was particularly noted for horse capturing, one of the four war deeds required to become a Crow chief. The four deeds were: the capturing of a horse picketed in front of an enemy lodge (tipi), the leadership of a successful war party, capturing a weapon from an enemy in combat, and striking the first coup (hitting an enemy with the hand or an object) in a battle. Plenty Coups was able to achieve each of these deeds many times over. He became a chief by the age of 25 or 26, and, by the age of 30, had completed each of the deeds four times. In 1876, he fought alongside General George Crook and Chief Washakie of the Shoshones against the Lakota and Cheyenne in the Battle of the Rosebud. Eight days later, other Crows served as scouts for George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Though Plenty Coups earned a strong reputation as a war chief, he did not become a peacetime leader of his people until he became a reservation chief. He began to rise in importance in the mid to late 1870s or early 1880s. As noted by Frederick Krieg in "Chief Plenty Coups: The Final Dignity, " the government recognized him as head chief by 1890. However, it may not have been until after the death of Chief Pretty Eagle in 1904 that his people gave him the same honor. Plenty Coups demonstrated his power in 1908, when the tribe abandoned an internal factional struggle and united behind him to fight the first of the bills which proposed to open the reservation to white settlement. From that time on, he played the leading role in the political struggles over this issue, which eventually resulted in the Crow Act of 1920.
Plenty Coups' strong dedication to his people was evident. He advocated a policy of cooperation with and adaptation to the whites. However, he also expressed resentment toward the white man. He told Frank Linderman in Plenty Coups that "[w]e made up our minds to be friendly … but we found this difficult, because the white men too often promised to do one thing and then, when they acted at all, did another. They spoke very loudly when they said their laws were made for everybody; but we soon learned that although they expected us to keep them, they thought nothing of breaking them themselves … we know that with all his wonderful powers, the white man … is smart, but not wise, and fools only himself." In 1914, artist Joe Scheurle accompanied Plenty Coups on a tour of a Chicago zoo. As quoted in C. Adrian Heidenreich's article "The Crow Indian Delegation to Washington, D.C., in 1880, " Scheurle wrote that "the superintendent of the zoo brought out a trained chimpanzee which immediately began searching Plenty Coups' pockets. When asked how he liked the animal, Plenty Coups replied, 'No! No like him, much like white people."' Toward the end of his life, having witnessed about 50 years of the new reservation life with its changes, Plenty Coups told Glendolin Wagner in the book Blankets and Moccasins that "nothing the white man has given can make up for the happy life when vast plains were unfenced."
Plenty Coups preferred the old lifestyle of the "buffalo days" to the new ways. Even in his adaptation to the new lifestyle forced on the Crows, he tried to retain many of the tribal traditions. Plenty Coups became a Catholic in 1917, when he was baptized at St. Xavier, Montana, yet he also continued to practice traditional Crow religion. On one occasion, as Norman Wiltsey noted in his article "Plenty Coups: Statesman Chief of the Crows, " Plenty Coups once scolded his men by telling them to work in the new way, but also to continue to fast and sweat in the traditional way. He said, "I am ashamed of you, self-pity has stolen your courage, robbed you of your spirit and self-respect; stop mourning the old days—they are gone with the buffalo. Go to your sweat lodges and cleanse your bodies so you may be fit to pray to Ab-badt-dabt-deah ["Akbaatatdía", God] for forgiveness. Then clean out your dirty lodges and go to work!"
Although Plenty Coups supported many of the tribe's traditional ways, he also fought to preserve his people's control over Crow land, resources, and lives. In these battles, Plenty Coups proved himself a strong leader. Krieg describes an 1890 meeting in which Plenty Coups stated, "I would like to see all of [the Crows] supplied with wagons, plows, mowing machines, and such farming implements as they may need. … I want the men who have cattle here on the Crow lands … to make them work and teach them the white man's ways so that they may learn… we want to cut our own hay; we want the white man to buy hay from us; we don't want to beg and buy our hay from them. This is our land and not white men's … if they won't employ Crows to work, put them off entirely." In 1893, while negotiating with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad over the construction of a railroad in the Little Big Horn valley, Plenty Coups demanded that Indians be hired by the railroad company. On another occasion, he asked that the tribal herd be distributed among the Crows and that the Crows be consulted in management of tribal affairs.
Plenty Coups also realized early that good education was necessary for the tribe to prosper. As cited in Norman Wiltsey's book Brave Warriors, he told the Crows that "education is your most powerful weapon. With education you are the white man's equal; without education you are his victim." Yet, he did not see education as a way for the Crows to blend into white society while forgetting their own people. As he told Glendolin Wagner for Blankets and Moccasins, he wished them "to go to school and become well educated … then … to come back home on the reservation and work their land." Even even with a partial adoption of white ways, Plenty Coups encouraged a strong loyalty to the tribe and tribal self sufficiency.
It is easy to say that Plenty Coups was an assimilationist, eager to cooperate with the whites at the expense of his own people. However, the circumstances and historical context suggest that the Crows were threatened with not just cultural, but actual physical, extinction. In addition, though Plenty Coups was friendly to whites, it was not any great love for whites or admiration of their ways that guided his actions, but what was best for the Crows. Just as the military alliance with the United States in the 1860s and 1870s was the best policy at that time for the tribe—to preserve Crow lands and lives—so too did the adoption of the new ways enable the people to survive a new threat—starvation and the taking of the remainder of Crow lands by the government and white farmers and cattlemen.
Plenty Coups demonstrated his leadership during the difficult period of adjustment to reservation life in three ways: in his advice to the people, in his own life, and in his political leadership and statesmanship. He urged the people to get a good education and to farm their land, as well as to continue to practice their traditional Crow religion. Plenty Coups put his beliefs into practice in his own life. He was one of the earliest and most successful farmers on the reservation. He had established a garden by 1882. After he settled in what is now Pryor, Montana in the mid 1880s, he often exhibited at agricultural fairs the largest potatoes in Yellowstone County. Eventually, he developed a farm where he also raised apples, grain, wheat, hay, and oats. Plenty Coups also lived in a log house, eventually building the only two story log house among the Crows. This building and his barn can still be seen today in Pryor.
Few other old Crow chiefs had accomplished more war deeds than Plenty Coups, but none could match him as a political leader and statesman around and after the turn of the century. An impressive, dignified speaker, he showed his negotiating skill in dealing with ranchers, railroad companies, and often with the U.S. government. He met with Indian agents, tribal attorneys, and congressmen over such issues as irrigation projects, grazing leases, and land cessions. At times, he requested that the government provide farm equipment and training, improved schooling, and that it lease out tribal lands for oil and gas mining with the revenues going to tribal members. He often called meetings with tribal members over these same issues. Officials of railroad companies also found that he was a tough bargainer, yet fair.
While Plenty Coups may have been cooperative with the whites regarding such issues as farming and education, land was quite a different matter. Between 1880 and 1921, he traveled to Washington, D.C., at least ten times to fight proposed land concessions by the Crows. The heaviest period of travel took place in the ten years between 1908 and 1918. During this time, the Montana congressional delegation made its strongest effort to open the reservation to general homesteading. The Crows recognized these proposals as threats to the well-being of the tribe, and the people ended their factionalism and united behind Plenty Coups to defeat the measures. Although other leaders played roles in uniting the Crows, it was Plenty Coups who was the guiding figure, especially in the Congressional hearings in Washington D.C.
Still, Plenty Coups and the other older chiefs were aided in their victory by young Crows and mixed bloods, the first generation to be educated in the white man's schools. Young men such as Robert Yellowtail were especially valuable as interpreters, and their schooling also served as their training ground for future tribal leadership. The victory over the general opening of the reservation served as the ultimate proof of the wisdom of Plenty Coups' vision. The chief's advice that education is "your most powerful weapon" with which "you are the white man's equal" was correct. Yet, true to the spirit of the old ways of the warrior, after Senator Thomas J. Walsh withdrew his bill at a Senate hearing in 1917, Plenty Coups approached the senator and reached out toward him with his cane, symbolically striking a coup.
The defeat of the general opening of the reservation ended Plenty Coups' heavy involvement in tribal affairs. Although he no longer wielded political power, he still occupied the role of an elder statesman for Native Americans. In 1921, the War Department chose him to represent all Indian tribes at the Burial of the Unknown Soldier of World War I in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. On November 11, 1921, in the presence of the President and high ranking men from the victorious Allied nations, Plenty Coups placed a wreath of flowers, his war bonnet, and his coup stick at the tomb. The war bonnet can still be seen today at the cemetery. Though informed that only the President was to speak, Plenty Coups did make a speech which was actually a prayer. It was the last speech made before the coffin was lowered.
On March 4, 1928, Plenty Coups executed a deed of trust that set apart 40 acres of his land in Pryor to be used as a park and recreation ground for both Crows and whites. Plenty Coups had been inspired by a visit to Mt. Vernon with the 1880 delegation and wished to create a similar memorial. The deed also arranged for a museum to be set up in one room of his two story house. According to Wiltsey's article, Plenty Coups stated that the park was to be a memorial not to him, but to the Crow nation, and that it should be "a reminder to Indians and white people alike that the two races should live and work together harmoniously." Since 1962, the house and grounds have been administered as a state park. The museum was transferred from a room in the old house to a new museum building in 1973.
In the last years of his life, Plenty Coups took on the role of the official greeter of important visitors to Crow country. In addition to General James Harbord, who had ceremoniously accepted the 40 acres on the part of the government, and World War I supreme Allied commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France, Vice President Charles Curtis, who was part Kansa Indian, visited in 1928. Even in his last months of life, Plenty Coups was thinking of the good and future of his people. On November 7, 1931, the old chief made one of his last official statements. He wanted the Pryor and Big Horn Mountains on the reservation reserved from allotment, the trust period for allotments extended for 26 years, and the money from the Crow Land Claim given to the children of the tribe. He passed away a few months later on March 4, 1932.
Curtis, Edward S., The North American Indian, Volume 4: The Apsaroke, or Crows; The Hidatsa, Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1980.
Hoxie, Frederick E., "Building A Future On the Past: Crow Indian Leadership in an Era of Division and Reunion, " in Indian Leadership, edited by Walter Williams, Sunflower University Press, 1984.
Hoxie, Frederick E., Parading through History: The Making of the Crow Nation, 1805-1935, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Linderman, Frank Bird, American: The Life Story of a Great Indian, Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows, John Day, 1930; published as Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows, University of Nebraska Press, 1962.
Medicine Crow, Joseph, From the Heart of the Crow Country: The Crow Indians' Own Stories, Orion Books, 1992.
Wagner, Glendolin Damon, and William A. Allen, Blankets and Moccasins: Plenty Coups and His People, the Crows, Caxton Printers, 1933; reprinted, University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Wiltsey, Norman B., Brave Warriors, Caxton Printers, 1964.
Yellowtail, Robert Summers, Robert Summers Yellowtail, Sr., at Crow Fair, 1972, Wowapi, 1973.
Ewers, John C., "A Crow Chief's Tribute to the Unknown Soldier, " American West, 8:6, November 1971; 30-35.
Heidenreich, C. Adrian, "The Crow Indian Delegation to Washington, D.C., in 1880, " Montana, the Magazine of Western History, 31:2, spring 1981; 54-67.
Krieg, Frederick C., "Chief Plenty Coups, the Final Dignity, " Montana, the Magazine of Western History, 16:4, October 1966; 28-39.
Wiltsey, Norman B., "Plenty Coups: Statesman Chief of the Crows, " Montana, the Magazine of Western History, 13:4, September 1963; 28-39.
Bradley, Charles Crane, "After the Buffalo Days: Documents on the Crow Indians from the 1880s to the 1920s" (master's thesis), Montana State University, 1970.
Bulltail, Grant, interview with Timothy Bernardis conducted March 15, 1985.
Lowie, Robert H., "Notes on Crow Chiefs, " in Robert Harry Lowie Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Medicine Crow, Joseph, personal communication to Timothy Bernardis, May 15, 1985.
Plenty Coups Papers, held at Plenty Coups Museum, Pryor, Montana. Wildschut, William, unpublished manuscript on the life of Plenty Coups based on interviews conducted with Plenty Coups, held in the Archives of the National Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, New York. Yellowtail, Robert Summers, class lecture for "Crow History—Post-Settlement" (tape-recording), May 15, 1984, held at Little Big Horn College Archives, Crow Agency, Montana. Yellowtail, Robert Summers, "Notes on Crow Chiefs, " held in Little Big Horn College Archives, Crow Agency, Montana.