Festivities will honor Chief Plenty Coups ancestral home

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KEYWORDS: Chief Plenty Coups Montana state park Crow tribe crow leaders war chief Indian museums
sacred medicine bundle bundles indian memorial peace park

AUTHOR: James Hagengruber, Gazette Staff Writer

“Today, I who have been called Chief of Chiefs, among red men, present to all the children of our Great White Father this land where the snows of many winters have fallen on my tepee. This park is not to be a memorial to me, but to the Crow Nation. It is given as a token of my friendship for all people, both red and white.”

      — Chief Plenty Coups during an Aug. 8, 1928, celebration marking his desire to set aside his land
         south of Billings as a park.

PRYOR — If Chief Plenty Coups visited his home and farm today, he’d probably beam with pride.

After decades of neglect, the land the last traditional Crow leader set aside as a peace park is coming into its own, historians and tribal members say.

The old chief’s log house was restored in the late 1990s. This year, a museum holding many of his possessions — and some of the most sacred treasures of his tribe — has been give a complete makeover, including a modern fire suppression system.

A celebration is planned Saturday, August 30, 2003, to mark the park’s 75th anniversary and to honor the chief’s legacy. It’s also a chance to show off the revamped museum, which includes new displays and electronic “story sticks” that contain the recorded oral histories of tribal elders.

“Plenty Coups’ dream is becoming reality,” said Elias Goes Ahead, a historian and great-grand nephew of the childless chief. “This is his vision. It’s long overdue.”

Goes Ahead said the state park has now become an example of just what the chief ordered: the coming together of two cultures. The park is managed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but many of the recent changes were driven by recommendations from Crow tribal elders.

Plenty Coups led the Crow tribe from a nomadic lifestyle to its home on a reservation. He was a voice of peace, who believed the tribe would thrive in the modern world through farming and education.

Plenty Coups gave his estate to the American people in 1928, said park manager Rich Furber. He was inspired after visiting George Washington’s plantation in Virginia. Of all the famous Plains Indian chiefs from the days of the buffalo — Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud come to mind — only Plenty Coups had a permanent home he could leave as a legacy.

There was a glitch, however. The federal government said it could not take back lands set aside for American Indians, Furber said.

When the chief died in 1932, his 190 acres of creek bottom and rolling hills were placed in the care of Bighorn County. The land changed hands again in the 1950s and 1960s, finally ending up in the trusteeship of the state. Throughout these decades, it was largely neglected. Pigs wallowed in Plenty Coups’ sacred spring. Cows grazed his grave.

Under threat of lawsuit, the state took action and built a museum and visitors center in the early 1970s. Still, many considered the facilities inadequate and under-funded. Further political and legal pressure produced the recent improvements.

The Chief Plenty Coups Day of Honor will be Saturday at Plenty Coups State Park in Pryor. The park will be rededicated and a variety of activities are planned throughout the day.

The festivities begin at 1 p.m. A re-enactment of the Pryor Creek Battle is planned for later in the afternoon. A buffalo feast is also on the agenda. Artists from across the reservation and region will be at the event displaying their creations.

Tours of Plenty Coups’ house will be offered and a variety of cultural and historical experts will give speeches.

The day is meant to fulfill the chief’s legacy that Indians and non-Indians live together in peace, said Tim Bernardis, vice-chairman of the Friends of Chief Plenty Coups.

“There just aren’t many venues like this where you get Indians and whites together,” Bernadis said. “It’s a symbol of what could be with improved relations between Crow and non-Indians.”

The state paid about $600,000 this year to add a fire sprinkler system, renovate the displays, improve the facility’s climate control and add building safety features. John and Nancy Hanna, of Cheyenne, Wyo., were hired to help refurbish the displays.

The small, round museum has been brightened and its interior opened. Displays have been added, including an electronic map of Crow Country. Plenty Coups’ life story is prominently featured, but the museum also is a tribute to the entire tribe. It includes objects of everyday life, such as cherry crushers and hide scrapers, as well as sacred medicine bundles and traditional Crow dolls.

Many of the most prized artifacts are not on display, however. They are locked in the museum’s fireproof basement vault.

Some of the most sacred items stored are medicine bundles. Many of the bundles contain organic objects, such as plants and animal pieces. Animal guides of vision seekers were often represented in the bundles by pieces of the actual animal. In Plenty Coups’ war bundle, for instance, there were the hind legs of his spiritual guide, the chickadee.

Before battle, Plenty Coups would remove the legs and tie them in his hair, Furber said.

Another bundle belonged to Chief Longhair, who left behind his medicine for the Crow people to use only in times of national emergency, Furber said.

Keeping these objects intact and spiritually viable is a challenge, Furber said. Careful plans were developed after interviews with tribal elders.

“Medicine bundles, in the Crow culture, are live, powerful things,” Furber said. “We don’t do anything with that collection until we confer with Crow elders.”

Once upon a time, the bundles were stored in trees or tepees and subject to the ice and sun of the Great Plains. In a museum vault, the bundles are susceptible to rot. Every two years, each bundle is placed in a freezer. They are frozen for two days, thawed for two days and frozen again for two days. This replicates the action of nature.

Each of the 41 bundles are wrapped loosely with waterproof, protective paper and placed on a shelf at room temperature in the vault. The shelves are covered by a white curtain and are not to be photographed or viewed by women.

“This sounds a little hokey if you’re a nonbeliever, but it makes those bundles comfortable,” said Furber, a former state game warden who was adopted into a Crow family. “Our main objective here is to take care of the Crow collection and do that with respect.”

Although many of the artifacts remain off-limits to visitors, the state park and museum have no lack of interesting things to see, said Bernadette Smith, a Crow tribal member who works at the park. Plenty Coups Park is not quite Mount Vernon, but many visitors say they are “astonished” after touring the site, she said.

“I don’t know if you could ever do justice to Plenty Coups’ legacy,” Smith said. “But would he be proud? Yes. I think he would just really love it, the museum as it is today.”

The park continues to struggle to draw visitors, however. About 15,000 come every year, compared with 400,000-some at the Little Bighorn National Battlefield 40 miles to the east. Part of the problem has been the poor quality of roads leading to Pryor, which is about 40 miles south of Billings, said Tim Bernardis, vice-chairman of the Friends of Chief Plenty Coups, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Major road improvements under way between Pryor and Billings could help, Bernardis said. There’s also talk of paving the gravel road between Pryor and Edgar, which would provide a convenient loop for tourists from Billings bound for Red Lodge or Cody.

“We hope at this point the park can really start to take off,” said Bernardis, who lives near Hardin. “Now, the trick is to draw the visitors and get the message out.”

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