For the Native American tribes of the Great Plains, the "coup stick" held special significance. In French, the language spoken by the first European trappers to interact with the Plains Indians, coup means "a strike" or "a blow." In battle, young Native American warriors would attempt to "count coup" — to touch or strike the enemy with their coup stick and ride away safely — an act of supreme bravery.
Chief Plenty Coups was certainly brave. As a child, he was called "Buffalo Bull Facing the Wind," but he earned the name Plenty Coups for his valor in the many battles between his people, the Crow (or Apsaalooke), and their longstanding enemies, the Cheyenne, the Sioux and the Blackfeet. (Some say his name was given to him as a young man by his grandfather, who proclaimed he would have many achievements. "Plenty Coups" is the English translation of his new name, which meant "many achievements.") For his valor, Plenty Coups was named chief of the Mountain Crow (one of three Crow clans) at just 28 years old.
But Plenty Coups was much more than a warrior. When faced with an entirely new type of enemy, namely the U.S. Army and a wave of white settlers, he could have gone to battle like the Sioux and other tribes and fought the theft of Native lands with hatchets and arrows. But Plenty Coups chose another path.
Guided by a powerful vision, Plenty Coups became an ally of the U.S. Army, and he used his status as a trusted ambassador to secure a permanent home for his people on a portion of their ancestral lands in central Montana and Wyoming.
With the Crow at a Crossroads, a Chickadee Pointed the Way
Plenty Coups was born in 1848, when Plains Indians like the Crow had been devastated by smallpox, a European disease to which they had no natural immunity. The National Park Service estimates that the total number of Crow had dwindled 80 percent to just 2,000 individuals at most by the mid-19th century. In addition to disease, the Crow were also under continual threat from neighboring tribes.
Plenty Coups was orphaned at 10 years old, making his fate as uncertain as his people's. At crossroads like these, Crow people might go on a "vision quest" to gain answers from spirits and sacred beings, says Tim McCleary, a professor at Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation in Montana. To receive a vision, the individual retreats to a mountain and fasts, sometimes for days, as a form of sacrifice.
"Plenty Coups went to the Crazy Mountains, which are thought to be very potent spiritually," says McCleary, who has lived on the Crow Reservation for 30 years. "All mountains are sacred, but the Crow will say that anybody who fasts successfully in the Crazies will become a chief."
Plenty Coups received his sought-after vision. He saw the disappearance of the buffalo and their replacement with cattle. Then he saw a great windstorm that blew down all of the trees in a dense forest except for one. In that last tree was a chickadee. Plenty Coups then saw a vision of himself as an old man seated next to a house.
For Plenty Coups and the tribal chiefs, the vision was clear. The great storm represented the white men, who would hunt the buffalo to extinction and destroy any tribes (the trees) that stood against them. The Crow would be the last tribe standing, but only by following the example of the chickadee, a peaceful bird.
McCleary says that the vision wouldn't have been "shocking" to the Crow, who must have understood that it was better to side with the U.S. Army in the coming Plains Wars than with the Crow's traditional enemies, the Sioux. But over the generations, the Crow have placed great importance on Plenty Coups' vision as the moment they decided to work with the U.S. government instead of against it.
Plenty Coups himself served as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Plains Wars of the 1870s, as did many other Crow. Asked later in life why he chose to help the U.S. government, Plenty Coups said: "[W]e plainly saw that this course was the only one which might save our beautiful country for us."
A Railroad Through Yellowstone Valley
Yet even being a loyal ally of the U.S. government didn't save the Crow from continued attempts to steal their land or move them to a distant reservation. In 1880, Plenty Coups traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of a tribal delegation and met with President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House.
Hayes told Plenty Coups that they were planning on building a railroad through Yellowstone Valley, the heart of Crow country, and he asked Plenty Coups to move the Crow to a reservation in South Dakota.
Plenty Coups was put in a terrible position. How could he save his people's ancestral lands without angering the government? While he pondered how best to respond, Plenty Coups visited George Washington's historic home, Mount Vernon. In his autobiography, written with the Western writer Frank Linderman, Plenty Coups says that he was moved to seek guidance from the departed spirit of Washington, the "Great White Chief."
"I said: 'Great Chief, when you came into power the streams of your country's affairs were muddy. Your heart was strong, and you led them through the war to the peace you loved... As you helped your people, help me now, an Apsaalooke chief, to lead my people to peace. I, too, have a little country to save for my children."
Eventually, a compromise was struck. The Crow agreed to sell some land to the government for the railroads, but Plenty Coups refused to move to North Dakota, and he wouldn't allow any railroad or telegraph lines through sacred Crow hunting grounds.
At Mount Vernon, Plenty Coups was also inspired to build his own homestead on 320 acres (130 hectares) of land allotted to him in Montana. He saw it as a realization of the vision in which he was seated next to a house. Later in life, Plenty Coups followed Washington's example and bequeathed his homestead to Montana to be made into a state park and National Historic Site.
His Greatest Battle Was Against a U.S. Senator
By the turn of the 20th century, the Crow's tribal lands had been greatly reduced from 38 million acres (15.3 million hectares) to just 1.8 million acres (728,434 hectares), but at least they had secured control of a portion of their ancestral lands in central Montana. Then, in 1910, a Montana senator named Thomas Walsh introduced a bill that would open the entirety of the Crow Reservation to white homesteaders.
To fight Walsh's bill, Plenty Coups needed help, and he found it in Robert Yellowtail. As a child, Yellowtail was forcibly removed from the Crow Reservation and sent to an "Indian school" in California, where he was forbidden to speak Crow or practice his traditional culture. A brilliant student, Yellowtail excelled in school and went on to earn a law degree via extension courses from the University of Chicago.
Over the course of seven years and 13 separate trips to Washington, D.C., Plenty Coups and Yellowtail were finally able to pass the Crow Act of 1920, which officially prohibited the sale of Crow lands without tribal consent.
"That's probably the most important action that Plenty Coups took in his entire career," says McCleary.
The 'Last Chief' Blessed the Unknown Soldier
One of the many ways in which Plenty Coups earned the respect of the U.S. government was his patriotic support of World War I. As many as 15,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. military during World War I, even though some weren't considered U.S. citizens at the time. Plenty Coups was vocal about young Crow men proving themselves in battle with the foreign enemy, just as they had done in earlier times against the Sioux or Cheyenne.
When the war was over, Plenty Coups was chosen by the U.S. government to represent all Native American tribes at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Plenty Coups gave a speech and said a prayer over the tomb, then he placed his coup stick and war bonnet — the magnificent feathered headdress worn by chiefs — on the casket.
When Plenty Coups died in 1932, the Crow people decided to honor him by making him the last traditional chief. While Plenty Coups had several wives, none of his children survived to adulthood, something that he also said was prophesied in a vision.
"Plenty Coups took that to mean that all of the Crow people will be his children," says McCleary.
Today, McCleary says that the total Crow population is around 14,000, with about 80 percent living on the reservation lands in Montana. Plenty Coups fought hard, in war and peace, to make his vision of a lasting Crow homeland a reality.