The Absaroke Indians of America

Information about a proud and handsome people who once resided in the extensive areas along the Missouri in North America.
Better known as 'The Crow' Indians - an appellation given to them by the White Man, either derisively or as a mistaken translation of their Indian name that actually meant 'Sparrowhawk' or 'Bird People' - the Absaroke were originally part of the Hidatsa or Gros Ventre Tribe residing along the Missouri River in North Dakota. Later on differences arose and they separated and migrated to the area around the Rocky Mountains. Tradition places this splintering around some 500 years ago. Afterwards, the Absaroke themselves gave rise to three more factions - the River Crows who drifted to the South of the Missouri, the Kicked-in-the-Bellies Crows who went to the Bighorn Basin in Northern Wyoming, and the Mountain Crows who were found in the Upper Yellowstone River and the Bighorn Mountains. Their Siouan language underwent changes after the splintering, but the Matrilineal character of the Tribe prevailed. This factor gave women a very important role in the society and, while it was rare for women to be part of the Tribal Council of Chiefs, their opinions were valued in making important decisions and they played a significant role too in the religious ceremonies. These latter remained more or less the same as the Hidatsa, performed in tune to the changing seasons of nature, and consisted of Fasting, Wound-healing and other health-giving ceremonies, Initiation Ceremonies, the Sweat Lodge, and the Ceremonial Dances like the Crow Sun Dance (banned by federal authorities in the late 1800s), the Shoshone Sun Dance (adopted in 1941), the Peyote ceremony, and the Tobacco Ceremony.

Unlike their parent tribe, the Hidatsa, who were farmers as well as hunters, these splinter groups survived mainly by hunting and trading, although they did cultivate a few Tobacco patches on the side. As their main source of livelihood was the Buffalo, they adapted a nomadic life-style. Food supplies were stored for the Winter and Winters were spent in sheltered valleys, in which period tribal legends and feats were recounted. There were plenty tales to be told as the Absaroke lived eventful, war-oriented lives. They were more or less, always at war with their neighboring tribes, most notably with the Sioux and the Dakota. Warfare was considered an essential and honorable way of Tribal life. Only those who had participated in the most number of war-parties and displayed exceptional daring could aspire for the positions of Chief within the Tribe, and so it was no surprise that nearly every single young boy dreamed of becoming a great warrior and was trained for just that purpose.

The Absaroke, due to their nomadic life-styles, had no fixed abodes, but dwelt in Teepees that could be both easily constructed and dismantled. These dwellings, numbering to about 400 randomly set-up Teepees, were decorated with colorful cloth banners. They owned many fierce hunting/guard dogs and a large number of horses. These latter were quite unknown to them until the mid-Eighteenth century which was when they acquired the first animal. There are various, entertaining stories about how this acquisition came about. One version relates that the animal was first seen by one Crow Warrior in a dream, which set him off in a search until he finally saw them along a river and managed to capture and bring them back to his Tribe. Other more plausible versions relate to the animal being either bought or stolen (stealing from the opposition was considered a skill, not a crime) from some other Tribe. The title of the Kicked-in-the-Bellies Crows arose as a result of an unfortunate first encounter with the horse - one of their members decided that the intriguing and unusual new animal needed to be examined at close quarters and, unfortunately having begun his examination from the wrong end, got kicked hard in the stomach by the annoyed creature. The man survived this introduction, but not before he had suffered from his companions a great deal of merriment. For all this inauspicious start, the horse soon became indispensable to them; in their language it was known as 'Ichilay', which means 'to search with', a reference to its usefulness in hunting and in war-raids. Eventually they, by trading, stealing, or breeding their own horses, came to possess large herds, and during their annual migrations almost every single member of the tribe was on horse-back and furthermore had pack-animals to carry their belongings. As a result they could not only travel fast, but their standing also went up amongst their neighboring tribes. Possessing so many horses not only made them the richest, they could also now easily make lightning raids on their enemies and this and the subsequent acquisition of Fire-arms gave rise to even more inter-tribal war-fare.

The wealth and skill of the Absaroke made them a proud, independent people. They were also a very handsome lot, being tall and well-built, with fine, sharp features that, in the case of both men and women, bore tribal tattoos in the form of, mainly, 'a dot on the nose, a few vertical lines on the chin and a circle on the forehead'. These effects were achieved by pricking with a porcupine quill and scouring with powdered charcoal. The practice of face and body painting was done only by the men, and different colors and different styles of painting denoted different things. For example, a face painted either full black or red with yellow eyelids and horizontal red strips adorning the chest and arms were indicative of a seasoned warrior. Long hair was another distinctive feature of the Absaroke. Having long hair for both men and women was a matter of such great pride that it was often enough augmented with false attachments in order to reach ground-length. It was very elaborately dressed, using a heated curling stick, stiffening items like bear grease and buffalo dung, gloss-inducing items like Cactus plant tissue, and essences of aromatic plants like Castoreum or sweet grass. The following hair-styles were in fashion with the men - 'the forelock, the pompadour, topknots, bangs, braids, loosely hung hair, and many little braids'. Colored beads, shells, feathers, and elaborate head-dresses made of feathers, animal horns, stuffed birds were used for adornment. The women were comparatively staid, maintaining their hair untied or in two simple braids, with the hair-parting often highlighted with red ocher.

The clothing consisted of leggings, shirts, vests, gauntlets, and moccasins for the men, and wrap-around skirts, ponchos, leggings, and dresses for the women. These were originally made up of beautifully cured Bighorn Sheep, Deer, and Buffalo leather, and later on, with contact with the Whites, vividly colored Stroud Cloth, Hudson's Bay Blankets and Pendleton Blankets also came to be used. The clothing was embroidered and ornamented with elk teeth, dyed porcupine quills, colored beads, fringes made of leather or ermine tails or hair-locks. They were also often boldly painted with traditional geometric motifs like triangles, diamonds, rectangles, the Blackfoot U, the Keyhole, the Tadpole, and hourglasses. Similar painted motifs and also bead-work decorated the bags, pouches, and other containers that were used for holding the daily-use items.

Personal ornaments included large eagle-feather fans (usually wielded by the Chiefs), necklaces made from bear-claws, shells, beads and bone, dangling earrings (for ears pierced in several places) made from Blue-green Abalone shells, bracelets, and rings.

Weapons were also equally decorative and, considering their frequent use, made with utmost care. They principally consisted of wooden bows and arrows, the former covered with horn of the elk or bighorn and often with rattlesnake skin, and the latter tipped with bone and later iron. Battle-axes and knives were also used. And, of course, eventually, guns. Their dead were usually placed on raised platforms out in the open prairie.

Things changed in a major way - and not for the better - with the arrival of the white man. The first known direct contact between the Absaroke and the whites took place around 1790, and it doesn't seem to have impressed the former. They looked upon the new arrivals with contempt and maintained relations only for trading purposes. Soon however the White people had become so powerful that they had to take heed. There were numerous clashes between the two which ultimately ended with the Absaroke ceding their lands and agreeing to move into the Reservation in Montana that had been designated for them. This Reservation was later reduced further, so that they had to give up the Western part and remain confined in the Eastern.

Currently, the Tribe consists of around 10,000 members and is quite wealthy, having the mineral rights to the coal (mined since 1920), gas (extracted since 1930) and oil (extracted since 1930) found on about 1.i million acres of the Tribal Land. Another million acres and more are leased out to non-tribal people for grazing and farming purposes. Tourism is another profitable source of income. The Absaroke, who are not employed in the Tribal Concerns, work in various capacities outside the Reservation. The literacy rate amongst them is high and climbing steadily. The tribe has three, excellent high schools, and a college, Little Bighorn Community College, in Crow Agency, MT.
By Sonal Panse
Published: 5/31/2004
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