Crow (Native Americans of the Great Plains)

The Crow (Kro) self-designation was Absaroke, after a bird once native to the region. See also Hidatsa.

Location The Crow traditional homeland was south of Lake Winnipeg. By the late eighteenth century they inhabited southwestern Montana and northern Wyoming. Today, most Crows live in Bighorn and Yellowstone Counties, Montana.

Population There were about 4,000 Crows in the late eighteenth century. There were 8,491 enrolled members of the tribe in 1991.

Language Crow/Hidatsa is a Siouan language.

Historical Information

History The Hidatsa-Crow lived originally in the Ohio country. From there, they moved to northern Illinois, through western Minnesota and into the Red River Valley, south of Lake Winnipeg. There they remained for at least several hundred years, beginning around the twelfth or thirteenth century, growing gardens and hunting buffalo.

Pressured by newly armed bands of Ojibwas and Crees, the group moved southwest to Devil’s Lake in the mid-sixteenth century and then again toward the upper Missouri River, north of the Mandans, where they continued to hunt and grow corn. In the late seventeenth century, the Crow struck out on their own toward southwestern Montana and northern Wyoming and the vicinity of the Yellowstone, Powder, and Mussellshell Rivers. During this period, they separated into mountain (southern Montana and northern Wyoming) and river (lower Yellowstone region) divisions.


The Crow acquired horses, probably from the Shoshone, and became full-fledged nomadic Plains Indians during the mid-eighteenth century. In addition to the Crows’ warring and raiding activities, they also traded with the Shoshone and other Great Basin and Plateau groups for horses that they then exchanged with easterly tribes. Whenever possibly they avoided non-Indians. During that period they were considered a wealthy tribe with many horses. Their land between the Yellowstone River and Big Horn Mountains contained plenty of pasture as well as excellent natural defenses.

Major smallpox epidemics struck the people in 1781 and 1833. Crow boundaries under the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty included about 38.5 million acres, mostly in the Yellowstone region. The Powder River country remained in dispute between them and the Lakota. However, their lands were drastically reduced in 1868 and again in subsequent years. During that period the Crows became seminomadic, building winter camps that included a few log cabins. In much of the 1860s and 1870s, Crows served the United States as scouts in the Indian wars, especially against the Lakota and the Nez Perce.

Despite their help to the United States, the U.S. government treated the Crow no differently than it did any other Indians. By the late 1880s the Crow had been forced to cede most of their remaining land. Catholic missionaries and boarding schools had made inroads into the reservation and into Crow culture. Many aspects of traditional Crow culture, such as giveaways and the Sun Dance, had been outlawed in 1884. It was also illegal to leave the reservation without permission and to sell a horse to another Indian. In the seven years from 1914 to 1921, Crow horse herds declined from roughly 35,000 to less than 1,000. Some leaders, like Chief Plenty Coups, urged accommodation, especially in the area of education.

American Indians on horseback at Buffalo Run, Yellowstone, circa 1924.

American Indians on horseback at Buffalo Run, Yellowstone, circa 1924.

Meanwhile, the Crow developed a tribal council that managed to keep the Bureau of Indian Affairs staff at arm’s length and provide them with a semi-independent decision-making body. In the 1950s, the government coerced the Crow into selling their rights to the Bighorn Canyon, where it built the Yellowtail Dam, ironically named for one of its chief opponents. In 1981, legal ownership of the Bighorn River passed to the state of Montana.

Religion Like other Plains Indians, the Crow placed great importance in supernatural guardian helpers acquired in dreams or during vision quests. Their main ceremonies included the Sun Dance, the Medicine Lodge, and the triennial Tobacco Society ceremony, performed by both men and women in honor of the tribe’s sacred plant.

The existence of the Tobacco Society conferred benefits on both planters and the tribe as a whole. Payment of a high fee entitled one to membership in the society and the right to learn and perform the associated songs and dances. The proper place for planting tobacco was determined by consultation over ranking members’ dreams. Seed preparation and planting were highly ritualized, although the area was always burned over first.

Planting was followed by a dance and then a feast. In a subsequent ceremony, new members were adopted into the society; this ceremony was also highly ritualized and included fees paid for various honors, painting, dancing, singing, and sweating as well as the acquisition of medicine bundles. Members observed various behavior restrictions during the year. The harvest was also accompanied by ritual.

American Indians near lodges at Buffalo Run, Yellowstone, circa 1924.

American Indians near lodges at Buffalo Run, Yellowstone, circa 1924.

Government Each of about 13 matrilineal clans was led by a headman selected on the basis of his war record. A council of chiefs governed the tribe; one member of the council was head of the camp. Each spring, one of the men’s military societies was appointed camp police force, which was charged with maintaining internal order, supervising the buffalo hunt, and regulating war parties.

Customs Generosity was highly valued among the Crow, as with most Plains tribes. For instance, the leader of a successful raid was entitled to all its plunder but was socially obligated to give it away.

Unlike most Plains nomads they were organized into matrilineal clans. Most girls married before puberty to men outside the clan, and most men purchased their wives. Pre- or extramarital sex was not punished, but female chastity was valued. Wives were also gained by inheritance and capture.


Mother-in-law and father-in-law taboos were observed.

Parents spent a great deal of time nurturing, teaching, and encouraging their children to prepare for life as adults. There were no orphans, as orphans were immediately adopted by aunts or uncles. Children rarely, if ever, received corporal punishment. Instead, "joking relatives" used pointed humor to keep people in line.

Corpses were removed from the tipi through the side, dressed in their best clothes, painted, and placed on a scaffold. The bones were later buried among rocks or in a cave, except that tipis were erected over the scaffolds of great chiefs. Mourners cut their hair, gashed their limbs (or sometimes cut off their fingers), and gave away their property.

Games included the hand game, dice games, shinny, contests, and hoop and pole. Most games included gambling. Relatively high prices were commanded for various ceremonial privileges.

Dwellings When Crows lived near Lake Winnipeg and with the Hidatsa along the Missouri River, they built earth lodges. Later, women made four-pole, 25-foot-high (or higher) skin tipis of between 7 and 20 buffalo skins. The larger tipis could house as many as 40 people, but the average was about 12. The tipi owner or a special guest slept at the rear (opposite the door). A draft screen around the lower inside was painted with pictures of the owner’s war feats.

Diet Pre-Plains Crows raised corn and other crops. Buffalo were hunted by driving them into impoundments or over cliffs or by means of the mounted surround. Men also hunted deer, antelope, and other large game, sometimes by wearing the skin of such an animal and stalking it. Meat was roasted over a fire, cooked in the ashes, or stone boiled in a skin-lined pit. It was also cut into strips, dried, and stored for the winter. Women dug roots and gathered berries, fruit, and other wild foods. The Crow grew their ceremonial tobacco but traded for the everyday variety.

Key Technology Pottery predated the move to the Plains. Material goods included, in addition to the usual buffalo-based items, fire drills; bows from hickory, ash, or even elk antler; and stone scrapers and other tools. The cradle board, mostly a means of transportation, was U-shaped at the top and tapered at the bottom. Backrests for use within the tipi were made of willow sticks bound with sinew and hung from a tripod.

Trade The Crow played the role of intermediary between the Mandans and Hidatsas to the east and Great Basin and Plateau tribes such as the Shoshone, Salish (Flathead), Nez Perce, and Ute. The Crow-Mandan trade continued until the early nineteenth century.

Notable Arts Weapons were extremely finely made, as were clothing, blankets, and leather items such as decorated parfleches. There were also various ceremonial carvings.

Transportation Dogs carried movable goods and pulled travois. After the people acquired horses in the mid-eighteenth century, they became highly skilled horsemen and perhaps the best horse thieves on the Plains. They used skin rafts to cross rivers.

Dress Typical Plains clothing included, for men, a shirt, hip-high leggings, moccasins, and a buffalo robe. Women wore a long dress, knee-high leggings, and moccasins. Both used rawhide visors against the sun. Before braiding became customary, the Crow parted their hair in the middle and wore it, sometimes with additions of horse hair, as low as ground level. In the later period, women’s dresses were decorated with elks’ teeth and fur trim.

War and Weapons The various men’s societies were voluntary and not age-graded, although some were more important than others. Most or all had military, hunt, or police-related functions. The Crazy Dogs were dedicated to unusual bravery in combat. Dog Soldiers were the camp police. Some societies occasionally engaged in annual wife capturing.

Traditional enemies included the Shoshone, Lakota (after circa 1800), and Blackfeet. Allies included the Mandan, Salish (Flathead), and Nez Perce. Crows preferred to count coup rather than to scalp. Four people could count coup against the same enemy, with diminishing honor. Four war activities worthy of formal honors were, in descending order: leading a successful party, touching an enemy, stealing a picketed horse, and taking a weapon in a hand-to-hand encounter. Weapons included wooden or horn bows and arrows, stone-headed war clubs, knives, and painted, feather-decorated shields.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Crow Reservation (Big Horn and Yellowstone Counties, Montana), established in 1868, is composed of over 1,500,000 acres, of which about 400,000 are tribally owned. The 1990 resident Indian population was 4,724. The constitution dates from 1948. All adults are members of the general council, which elects four tribal officers and various governing committees. The council governs the tribe, along with the tribal court. Almost half the land base is owned by non-Indians.

An interior of a Crow Indian home in Montana, circa 1910.

An interior of a Crow Indian home in Montana, circa 1910.

Economy The reservation is rich in natural resources, such as coal, although the Crow for years had been unable to profit greatly from it. However, in 1993 the tribe concluded a settlement with the United States that called for the creation of a trust fund of up to $85 million in compensation for mismanaged mineral resource development. There are jobs with the tribal government, Little Bighorn College, and mining companies. Most agricultural land is leased to large corporations. There is also a visitor center and motel complex. Unemployment regularly tops 50 percent

Legal Status The Crow Tribe is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Most Crow people speak the native language. A matrilineal clan system and regular giveaways help maintain a semi traditional family structure. Other customs, such as traditional healing ceremonies, the giving of Indian names, and the use of medicine bundles in traditional prayers, are also maintained.

The annual fair in August, featuring feasting, rodeos, giveaways, and other traditional and semi traditional activities, is a time to renew social and family ties. Crows adorn their costumes and riding gear with expertly made beadwork, although they do not generally sell it to tourists.

Tribally controlled Little Bighorn College represents a continuing focus on educational achievement. Some Crows are Christians. Many also practice sweat lodge, Sun Dance, and Native American Church ceremonies. People still undertake vision quests, and the Tobacco Society remains active. The Crow continue to battle high unemployment and its associated social problems, such as substance abuse, as well as continuing racial discrimination.

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