The lasting bond between the Crow tribe and the Crazy Mountains.
BY JESSIANNE CASTLE
From 11,000 feet, Crazy Peak sends whispers in all directions across the landscape. It looms on the horizon northeast of Livingston, Montana, joined by the severe angles of its brethren, all gazing upon the Yellowstone River as it makes its meandering decent to the Missouri. Snow holds tight even in August on the tops of these mountains and in January whispers from the pinnacle are caught on gusts of wind that send crisp snowflakes tumbling into the air.
It was in the summer of 1857, during the short recess when winter relinquishes its stony grip on the mountains, when a 9-year-old boy tied his horse at the base of Crazy Peak and climbed toward the sky. He stopped near the top and waited, seeking spiritual guidance and blessing.
On the fourth day of prayer and fast, the boy was given a vision. Looking out across the valley, he saw the buffalo disappear into the ground to be replaced by the white man’s cow. He saw the white man come and change the land, and he experienced a mighty storm that destroyed all but one tree in an ancient forest. Within the surviving tree, the boy saw a chickadee.
Now known as Chief Plenty Coups, the young boy came to be a great leader for his people, the Apsáalooke, or Crow tribe. Plenty Coups’ vision guided his people, and many tribal historians believe it was key to the tribe’s survival.
Awaxaawippíia, or the Crazy Mountains, are no longer a part of the Crow Reservation, but their power remains prominent in Crow Country. And as Montanans seek ways forward together amid explosive growth in the Greater Yellowstone, a powerful statewide recreation economy and the already palpable effects of climate change, the story of the Crazy Mountains offers something more.
When young Plenty Coups—or Alaxchíiahush in Crow— came down off the mountain, he rushed to his camp to share news of his dream.
“It took a strong leader to get to that high of elevation and put his knees on those rocks, without food and water, and to get an understanding of what his purpose is in life; of who he is,” said Adrian Bird Jr., a tribal historian with the Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office, located in the Crow Agency 60 miles east of Billings. Bird’s eyes flashed as he recounted the story. “He wasn’t thirsty when he got down to the bottom of the mountain. He wasn’t hungry. He was excited.”
Apsáalooke elder Yellow Bear interpreted the dream at the time to mean that Plenty Coups would witness the disappearance of the buffalo. It was foretelling of what would come to pass in less than a half century, and Yellow Bear said in order to survive the Crow would need to be like the chickadee, a bird notable for its ability to listen and adapt.
Plenty Coups wasn’t the first to seek a gift in the Crazy Mountains, nor has he been the last. A rich oral tradition attests to the fact that for hundreds of years, young Crow boys have journeyed to the Crazies—and the Beartooth Mountains to the south—to seek blessings.
“We’ve heard stories of Crow chiefs and medicine men who would go up into the Crazies specifically because they are high and treacherous,” said Roberta Bird, Adrian’s wife, and an employee at the Crow Agency Department of Education. “When they were searching for a prayer they would physically try to get their body close to the Creator or God or whatever you call Him in order to pray and fast and to search for answers or prayers or good things.”
Given the powerful Crow Medicine in the Crazy Mountains, their name makes sense. Awaxaawippíia, the Birds say, is translated roughly as the Snowcapped, Ominous or Amazing Mountains.
“It’s still our land, we still have strong traditions and culture and language, all of those things are still intact.”
The young chief embodied the message of his vision, guiding his people to adapt and to work cooperatively with the white man. Crow warriors subsequently acted as scouts for the U.S. Army and leaders sought to compromise with the U.S. government. In Montana, their efforts drew the admiration of Bozeman’s founder.
“John Bozeman really loved the Crows at one point,” Adrian Bird Jr. explained, “for their protection, for their friendship, for their way of using the land. They shared their knowledge of what they used to do and how they lived and what they lived off of. We worked together and this is how far we’ve come.”
“I think that’s why we still have our reservation,” Roberta added, a smile dancing across her face. “It’s still on our land, we still have strong traditions and culture and language, all of those things are still intact.”
Even though the Crazy Mountains are nearly 100 miles from the current reservation, Crow boys still seek solace from the mountains today and the tribe actively advocates for wilderness protections on the national forest land within the 140,000-acre island mountain range.
“It’s more about the sacredness of the mountains and our ties to it,” Roberta said. “We’re not trying to exclude anybody. You wouldn’t want trash and ATVs and things running in the middle of your church.”
The land around the Crazy Mountains, a mosaic of sagebrush hills and fertile river bottoms, was settled by homesteaders in the late 19th century like much of the Greater Yellowstone. Tribes were shuttered onto reservations through a long procession of treaties, making way for miners, ranchers and towns.
The Crow Reservation was established in 1868 at Fort Parker, a fully stockaded military post located on Mission Creek 10 miles east of Livingston. The mighty Crazy Mountains were nearby sentinels for the Crow until the agency was moved in 1875 to Absarokee on the Stillwater River farther east. In 1883, the Agency was established where it is today in eastern Montana. Along the way, the tribe relinquished its hold on its historic territory, but the Crow still maintain interest in the land.
It was 100 years later, in 1966, when Sarah Anzick’s family purchased land in the Shields Valley near Wilsall, a land graced almost daily with fiery skies as the sun rises over the Crazy Mountains. Nestled in the cradle of the Bridger Mountains and Crazies, Anzick says the landscape was her playground. “It was a very special place growing up,” she said, admitting, however, that she knew little about the area’s history.
Anzick was 2 years old in 1968 when construction workers found stone artifacts at the base of a high bluff on her family’s property. Later, they unearthed the 13,000-year-old remains of a male toddler, who had been buried with more than 100 stone and bone tools—all thoughtfully covered with red ochre.
“This is probably one of the most important skeletal remains found,” Anzick said on the phone from her home in the Bitterroot Valley. Anzick went on to become a molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health where she studies the relationship between genetics and disease.
In the early 2000s, Anzick partnered with archeologist Mike Waters at Texas A&M University and geneticist Eske Willerslev at the Centre for GeoGenetics in Denmark in order to analyze the ancient child’s genetics.
It was a time of controversy. A few years earlier, in 1996, two college students wading in the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, discovered the remains of a 9,000-year old skeleton, now known as the Kennewick Man and considered among the oldest complete skeletons ever found. The discovery threw speculation into the ancestry of contemporary Native Americans and launched a protracted legal battle between the U.S. government, native tribes and paleoanthropologists over whether ancient remains should be reburied.
“We share with each other our stories, our concerns and our vision. I think those are the ways we overcome those gaps and barriers.”
Understanding the inherent risk in her quest to learn the child’s ancestry and after visiting with several tribes in Montana, Anzick and her team continued their research, guided by Doyle, though the work remained controversial among the tribes. One tribal member was interested in learning what science could glean, but another was opposed to the work.
Anzick’s tone was cautious, a pronounced reverence in her voice. “I have so much respect for tribal communities,” she said. “I had to figure out that balance because I’m a scientist too. It’s really that quest for knowledge.”
Ultimately, analysis of the toddler’s ancient DNA revealed the boy and his relatives to be direct descendants of many contemporary Native American tribes, but most closely related to those originating in Central and South America. “All of us are 99.9 percent identical,” she said. “In that .1 percent of difference, how big is that difference? I felt like the little child gave us a gift for all of humanity but it was time to lay him to rest.”
In 2014, the ancient boy was returned to the earth, once again in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains. He was reburied near the original site where he was found and tribal representatives from around the U.S. attended the ceremony.
As owners of the land, the Anzicks remain stewards of the little boy and the artifacts once placed in his grave. Anzick says her family will protect the site but often allow access to those who ask and one day hope to install a memorial. The artifacts—chert, porcellanite, antler points and tools— are currently on loan at the Montana Historical Society in Helena where the public can visit.
“I think it’s really great that resource is there for everyone to go and enjoy and learn from,” Anzick said, adding that she thinks Native engagement is critical and that it’s important to find ways to work together. “How can we advance the well-being of humanity and science with the involvement of Native American communities and not leave them out?” she asked. “Really it’s communication and interaction, relationships and bonds, and trust. Trust is huge.”
Bent over in a chair in the tiny Livingston airport, Shane Doyle is quiet, composed despite the loud hum of small airplanes coming and going outside. He’s just stepped off of a six-seat Cessna 210, having circumnavigated the Crazy Mountains.
Nodding north, Doyle says his Crow ancestors wintered on the Judith and Musselshell rivers and sometimes camped in the Shields Valley and along other tributaries of the Yellowstone River. Doyle lives in Bozeman and is the program coordinator at the American Indian Institute. A Crow tribal member, he’s sought guidance twice in the Crazy Mountains through prayer and fast.
Doyle and other Crow members have asked the U.S. Forest Service to uphold treaty rights that recognize the tribes still have interests on lands that once existed on the reservation. A part of that recognition is to manage the Crazies as a sacred landscape—without new roads or trails.
“It’s going to be hard … for people to traverse that territory and that’s the way it should be,” Doyle said. “They’ve never been an easy range to navigate through. They’ve always been hard and I don’t think it’s up to us to make that easy.
“There are other sacred areas all over,” he added, referencing sites from the three forks of the Missouri to the Black Hills to central Missouri. “I think it’s real important people are aware of that.”
Doyle is among a strong cohort of Indigenous peoples seeking to reclaim their tribal heritage and achieve recognition in mainstream society after Euro-American colonization destroyed Native lifeways. He was a collaborator and principal performer in Bozeman’s Mountain Time Arts opera performance of Standby Snow: The Chronicles of a Heatwave produced in August of 2019, in which he sang about Plenty Coups’ vision, a prophecy Doyle interprets as a foreshadowing of climate change.
He says for Montanans to move forward together in the future, we all need to engage in conversation. “We share with each other our stories, our concerns and our vision. I think those are the ways we overcome those gaps or barriers.”
One way to prompt that conversation is through imagery.
Francesca Pine-Rodriguez grew up on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations and in Billings and has been an active advocate for tribal representation in Bozeman. A member of both tribes, she says settlers moving West were sold on maps and images portraying a wide-open, unpopulated landscape.
“It’s just amazing how powerful pictures are [but] all of that was just a fantasy,” Pine-Rodriguez said. “It was really a recipe for disaster when the settlers came because they were basically bought and sold on a lie.”
A board member of the Montana movement seeking to rename the federal holiday Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Pine-Rodriguez says she was recently asked to be a model in a public art project about recognizing tribal heritage. For the project, Mountain Time Arts commissioned Montana Crow photojournalist Adam Sings In The Timber to photograph five Indigenous women who live in the Gallatin Valley as a part of his national “Indigenizing Colonized Spaces” photo series. The images illustrate that wherever people go in North America, they are on Native land.
“Moving everybody forward together is recognizing real history,” Pine-Rodriguez said. “It’s recognizing that the land you walk on every day was a tribes’ [land] in all of North America. And to recognize it is a minimum. The next step is to honor and celebrate it.”
That recognition and celebration is just what Sings In The Timber hopes to achieve. After graduating from the University of Montana School of Journalism, he moved to Chicago and dedicated his career to capturing Native lifeways through photographs to empower Indigenous Peoples, while also educating the non-Native world.
For Sings In The Timber, reclaiming his people’s cultural history expands to the very basic use of the word “Indian.”
“Growing up, I was Indian,” Sings In The Timber told me during his recent trip to Bozeman. “[But] Indian is no longer a part of the next generation for me.” Instead, he prefers to use words like “Indigenous” or “Native.” “Out here, we don’t say ‘Indian’ anymore.”
The Crazy Mountains overlook so much more than a landscape. They are keepers of the stories of the past, and they could provide keys for the future. Those who live in the shadow of the Crazies know of their beauty, and others, those who’ve experienced or heard stories of their power, can feel their presence from afar. “Yes these are sacred [mountains]. I can feel it,” Adrian Bird Jr. said. “I can feel it seeing them from the highway.”
From all directions, the Crazies stand as united peaks, working cooperatively to give sanctuary to life, to trees, flowers, wildlife, birds—even the chickadee, one of Montana’s songbirds that stays through the winter and sings to the quiet, snowy landscape.
“We need to work together,” Adrian said. “I know about these mountains, my son knows about these mountains. I want my grandson to know about these mountains and what has taken place here.”
A freelance writer and Bozeman native, Jessianne Castle enjoys telling the stories of the West.