Evelyn Old Elk, 89, stands proudly in the living room of her home in Crow Agency, glancing up at a wall where portraits of her 10 biological children hang in order from oldest to youngest. The painting on the wall behind her is a portrait of Evelyn as a young woman.

Next to Evelyn Old Elk’s door is a photograph of her deceased husband’s grandfather, Curley, a scout for General Custer.

Perched precariously on her television is the portrait of a grandson with the bounty from his first buffalo hunt. An orderly line of Marine portraits take up a row of a bookshelf and prom pictures take up another.

Nearly 50 family photographs decorate Evelyn Old Elk’s living room. Throughout the home are hundreds of pictures of Evelyn’s 229 decedents.

Ten of those pictures are Evelyn’s special pride. The graduation photographs of her 10 children represent the core of Evelyn’s family. She tells the stories of their successes and struggles from her spot on the sofa, but mostly she just enjoys the view.

"I like to sit here and watch them," the 89-year-old Evelyn says as she looks up at the photographs of her two daughters and eight sons and pats the "I Love Mom" pin on her cardigan.

Her children are the spokes of her life and Evelyn is the hub that holds her family together.

The Old Elk family further radiates to include 84 grandchildren, or 87 "if you count some of the strays," her daughter Dora Rides Horse says.

Next come 103 great-grandchildren and 29 great-great grandchildren.

But, Evelyn’s family numbers more than her couple-hundred descendents.

Evelyn is an elder in the Whistling Water clan, one of 10 clans that define the 10,000 members of Montana’s Crow tribe, the majority of whom live on 2.2 million acres south of Billings.

For the Crow Indians—unlike any other Montana tribe—clans are another measure of family and an important identifier in their culture.

Evelyn is a traditional woman and the Whistling Water clan, the largest Crow clan, plays a significant part in her life.

Evelyn with lives her son Andrew—he’s the one sporting a cheeky grin in his graduation photograph—and his wife, Janet, and four children. Andrew recently returned from law school in Vermont. He studied environmental and tribal law and now works for the tribal chairman.

"When he went to law school, I said ‘Take your family. Let them see the world,’" Evelyn says.

They returned to the reservation largely because of Evelyn. " We wanted our kids to know her," Janet says. "We wanted to be close to her."

The seams of the small house stretch to accommodate the seven people who live there and the relatives and friends who continuously drop by.

"This is how family gets this tight. We all live together," Evelyn says.

With Andrew and his son, Royce, at a powwow in Colorado, Evelyn jokingly wonders how she will get by until they return since the family won’t let her cook anymore after several minor kitchen fires. Royce, 19, cooks her breakfast now.

"Royce is my right-hand man," she says. "He’s gone so we’re going to starve."

Evelyn remains a busy woman. She is home companion to ailing Crow elders—some of them younger than she, many of whom are members of her clan. In that way, she stays connected to the world beyond her door and to her clan.

The Crow tribe is the only plains tribe with a clan system. The clans, "ashammaliaxxiia" in Crow, are matrilineal, meaning that children belong to the clan of their mother and all adults in the clan are mothers and fathers to children in the clan.

"If you were in the Whistling Water, too, you would be my sister, and your children would be my children, and my children would be your children," Evelyn says.

The expanded sense of family is especially important in raising children. Evelyn herself was raised by a clan mother, and the clans were influential in the raising of her own children. Crow custom says that parents do not discipline the child because that’s the role of the father’s clan. They discipline in part by teasing, which is meant to keep the child humble. That is balanced by the mother’s clan, whose members praise and build self-esteem in a culture in which boasting about oneself is not permitted.

Crow custom says that the mother’s clan fulfils emotional and physical needs, while the father’s clan promotes the status of their clan children.

"You rely on your father’s clan for advice, guidance and prayers whenever you do something important," Evelyn’s daughter-in-law Carlene Old Elk says. "The father’s clan are the ones we have the greatest respect for. When we see one of our clan uncles, we pay for their meal or give them a couple of dollars so they continue to remember us."

Most of the 10 clans have hundreds of members, which makes for a large family indeed. For Evelyn, the clan system is a way of life. Like breathing, it just is, she says.

Clans establish the social boundaries and provide a support system. "The clan system is how we govern ourselves, how we respect one another," she says. "You won’t be lonely and you will always have enough to eat."

Carlene came to the Crow Reservation as a community development volunteer in the 1960s. She quickly learned the value of the clan system, and was adopted into the Big Lodge clan.

"It’s one of the things that has provided another level of strength for the families, for the people, for the tribe." Carlene says. "Through the clan system, you have another set of people concerned about you, another relationship. It’s a real strength. I know it’s a real strength.

"There’s so many ways you get family. You are born into one, you have a clan, and there’s adoption. Obtaining relatives is a lifelong process."

Evelyn’s family includes more adopted children than she can count, including Sister Dorothy Kundracik, a Catholic nun, and Carlene, Evelyn’s daughter-in-law.

Evelyn even adopted Lady Bird Johnson during the first lady’s 1965 visit to the Crow Reservation. Evelyn gave her the Crow name "Mia iche–de-lushia alc lekh dilcah" (Pretty Walking Lady) and has received Mother’s Day cards from her for the past 37 years.

The first lady later invited Evelyn to a National Prayer Breakfast in New York City, where Evelyn got to see the Statue of Liberty.

When Evelyn adopted Sister Dorothy, at daughter Dora’s request, the nun was dressed in Indian clothing with a shawl and belt. She became part of the family during a Crow Fair celebration and was given the Indian name Woman Who Never Married.

Through traditions such as the annual Crow Fair, clan members pit their skills against rival clans and perform ceremonies learned from earlier generations. Evelyn’s son Dan Old Elk, 62, was trained as a sun dance chief by his clan fathers and is passing that knowledge on to his Whistling Water clan children.

Dan’s clan has helped him become what he is today, a member of the tribal legislature with an interesting past.

He first became involved in tribal government at the age of 23 after begging his grandfather to help him get elected.

"My grandfather had many friends and relatives and a lot of kids so he helped that way," he said. "He worked for the tribe before, and he taught me how to campaign, how to talk to the elders."

After getting that taste of politics, Dan went to California. He says he stormed Alcatraz in the 1969-71 occupation of the island by groups of Indians and was in movies with Robert Redford and Raquel Welch. He owned a construction company that built houses until, he says, tribal politics bankrupted his business.

When he returned to his roots on the reservation, he asked his clan fathers to find something for him to do that involved working with children. His clan fathers came through for him, and Dan worked with abused and neglected kids. He also helped run a camp in Tucson, Ariz, where he tried to heal the pain of Los Angeles gang members, Idaho skinheads, and troubled teenagers from all over the world by incorporating Native American behavior and teachings like sweat lodges into their lives. "It’s dark and safe so they can tell us things they’ve never said before, like about gang initiations," Dan says.

When he decided to try tribal government again, Dan asked his clan fathers if they thought it was feasible. They encouraged him to run and he won one of 18 legislative seats from among six tribal districts.

"If one of your clansmen is being elected for any office," Evelyn says, "you have to show your support. The one with the largest family wins elections."

Dan returns the favor. "Yes, I use my tribal position to help my clansmen," he says. "For example, whatever projects they want to work on, I help them with that."

Clan mothers and fathers are meant to be there for the everyday business of life. They pray for safe journeys. They discipline children and provide counseling.

"In modern society, you’re taught to use clergy, counselors and teachers, but they don’t fulfill the same role as clan uncles," Dan says. "When we know one of the kids has a problems, my brothers and I get together and we talk about what we can do
"When you discipline your own kids you get angry, but when other family talks to kids, they aren’t angry and they listen."

His sister, Dora, 67, agrees. "In olden days, parents were friends. They didn’t discipline; the clan did that. About 60 percent of people are still traditional and that’s still going on," she says.

Clan mothers and fathers are also meant to be there for the high points and low points in life. They cut the cake at birthday parties and provide comfort at funerals.

"We grieve together. We’re clannish. We support each other when we go through death and bad luck," Dan says.

A person’s very name is a result of the clan system, for it is clan mothers and fathers who do the naming.

Dan tells his Indian name, "Takes-a-Bow," as he mimics drawing back a bow's string. The name was given to him by his clan fathers in honor of a clan father’s brother. Naming such as this ties the clans closer together.

"They’re like my children from then on," Dan says. "I remember them in prayers and sweats." He has named more than two dozen people from names he says came to him in dreams or visions.

It takes a clan to raise a child in the Crow culture, and clanswoman Dora does her part. Like her mother Evelyn before her, Dora, 67, raised far more children than the five she gave birth to. Dora has raised about 45 children.

She describes herself as "child crazy." Dora may soon adopt Manuel, 9, and Eva, 4, who live with her now. As Dora, who works at Little Big Horn College, helps students get ready to take the high school equivalency test, Eva proudly prints her name on scrap paper: "EVA," or sometimes "VEA." She is a giggly girl who Dora described as "more than a handful at times." But never a burden.

"It’s never caused any hardship. They’ve never been a bother, but my eyes get tired at the end of the day," she says.

Dora, a widow for the last 20 years, uses clan fathers to help fill in the male role for the children she has raised.

She doubts that Manuel and Eva will be the last children she adopts.

When Dora takes a spot next to her mother on the couch, the resemblance is striking, but there is a difference in their hands.

Evelyn’s hands are wrinkled with time and bent by arthritis.

"See all those boys?" she says as she points a gnarled finger at the graduation pictures. "When they were growing up, I had to wash all their overalls on washboards. That’s what I tell the little kids when they ask me why my fingers are crooked."

Time has left its mark on Evelyn, and Evelyn has left her mark on her family.

According to her children, two big values their mother stressed were the importance of education and neatness.

"Mom encouraged all of us to get an education," Dan explains. "She said, ‘They can put you in jail. They can take everything away from you, but you still have your mind.’"

Dora, the first in her family to graduate from college, adds: "She was always being educated, more than other women her age, so she stressed that in her children."

Evelyn attended mission schools and military-style schools when she was growing up. From those she got an education and a passion for tidiness.

"She’s a neat freak from all those years in the military-like schools. She passed on values from the ordered life of the schools," Dora says. "We used to call her the "Commanding Officer, the C.O." We always thought she didn’t know, but later she said, ‘And I always knew you called me the C.O.!’"

Evelyn is more of a softy when it comes to her children’s children. They are her treasures.

For the Crow, wealth is not defined by dollars.

"I’m a wealthy woman," she says, "maybe not in terms of material goods, but definitely in family. That’s why kinship ties are so strong."


Clans extend family beyond blood

Yellow lights and a campfire glow are a beacon in the dark field seven miles from Hardin.

Inside the open shed, eight Crow women disrobe in the golden glow while another brings coals from the fire to the sweat lodge.

When enough coals are piled in the sweat lodge, the women crawl into the blanket-covered mound constructed out of willow by a licensed Crow man.

The women form a ring in the sweat lodge and lower the flap that acts as the door. The sweat lodge is plunged into complete blackness.

The woman next to the coals pours water on them, and the sweat begins. The smell of bear root hangs on the hot, wet air. Sweat splashes off the women as they slap themselves with straw switches to stimulate their nerve endings.

They pray and gossip in the Crow language. They are purified in body and spirit by the sweat.

They are women united by blood, custom and clanship.

Two women are of the Whistling Water clan. They are known by tradition as the great orators of the clan society—and its liars.

"We don’t lie," one says in mock outrage. "We just exaggerate a lot."

The Crow call clans "ashammaliaxxia," which means "lodge where the wood intertwines." It is a reference to driftwood and refers to the interwoven nature of the clans.

The next day in his office at the Little Big Horn College, Lanny Real Bird, an expert in the clan system, explains, "We are all floating down the same river, and we’re united with others like ourselves."

As driftwood lodge together, so too do clan members cling together. Each individual is like a piece of driftwood, orientating by and depending on the others of the clan. The river is hazardous and without the group, the wood could be smashed by boulders in the river.

From clans come identity and personality.

"They show how you fit into the greater picture, like the spokes on a wheel," Real Bird says. "Old Man Coyote, similar to an angel, developed the population to have characteristics the society would need in clan identity. They are like personality. We have the workers, the leaders, and the complainers."

The Whistling Water clan members are seen as generous and kind.

"They will give away everything they have. These types of personalities are seen as a blessing from Old Man Coyote," Real Bird says. The Whistling Waters also were granted license to boast or lie.

Real Bird is a member of the Big Lodge clan, which comes from his mother, for clans are matrilineal. He is a child of the Whistling Water clan, meaning that is his father’s clan. Real Bird got his master’s and doctorate degrees because of the encouragement of his clan fathers.

The Whistling Water clan was originally known as Generous to Gophers, according to anthropologist Timothy McCleary. They were so generous that they would even leave food for gophers.

The name changed when a Generous to Gopher clansmen fell in love with his clan sister, a taboo in Crow society. He flirted with her by whistling at her.

The Big Lodge clan is "the best, no dispute," says Fred Left Hand, a member of that clan.

The members of the Big Lodge clan are known as hefty people because they are always working. Lately, they also have been known for their leadership roles in Crow society.

"Since 1986 we have had the tribal councilmen. They can’t unseat us," Left Hand says.

Good hunters come from the Greasy Mouth clan. They ate the fatty portions of their meat, rendering their mouths greasy

The Bad War Deeds clan, formerly Hair Remaining on Lodge for their shoddy workmanship, were named Bad War Deeds after a clan member lied about his battle prowess.

The Ties in a Bundle clan are characterized by haste, and the Brings Home Game Without Shooting clan members are thought of as intelligent—so smart they can hunt without weapons.

The Crop Eared Domesticated Animals were known for the quality of their livestock. The clan was renamed the Filth Eaters after a clan chief attacked his wife in a jealous rage and forced her to eat dung. Because of the negative connotations associated with this clan, only one man still claims membership. The others whose lineage derives from that clan now identify as members of the Ties in a Bundle clan.

Treacherous tendencies and a fear of water characterize the Piegans. The final clan was named the Newly Made Lodge because Old Man Coyote created them out of the people who remained.

Though there has been violence historically, modern clans tend to keep their rivalries confined to the basketball courts and June's Clan Day competition.

The clans themselves extend beyond those activities into the everyday lives of the Crow.

"Clans, that is who we are," says Little Big Horn College professor Sharon Peregoy. "Our lives on this earth are tied to that."

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Evelyn Old Elk, who works as a home companion to ailing Crow elders, returns to her house from an afternoon "visiting my clients," as she calls them. Evelyn has lived in this home for more than 20 years. She currently shares it with one of her sons, his wife and their four children.
Eva Rides Horse, 4, and Manuel Rides Horse, 9, watch television with their grandmother, Dora Rides Horse, 67. Dora, the eldest daughter of Evelyn Old Elk, is raising the two youngsters whose parents, she says, are unable to provide for them.
Susan White Shirt emerges from a sweat lodge on her family's land outside Hardin to tend the fire and gather more smoldering rocks for another round of sweating. Susan and her aunts and sisters, who are still inside the lodge, are not biologically related to the Old Elk family, but share ties through the Whistling Water clan. The clan system is another way the Crow define family.