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
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
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
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
"This is how family gets this tight. We all live together," Evelyn
With Andrew and his son, Royce, at a powwow in Colorado,
Evelyn jokingly wonders how she will get by until they return
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
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
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
clans were influential in the raising of her own children.
Crow custom says that parents do not discipline the child
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
and is passing that knowledge on to his Whistling Water clan
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
island by groups of Indians and was in movies with Robert
Redford and Raquel Welch. He owned a construction company
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
with children. His clan fathers came through for him, and
Dan worked with abused and neglected kids. He also helped
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
When Dora takes a spot next to her mother on the couch, the
resemblance is striking, but there is a difference in their
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
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
"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."
family beyond blood
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
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
"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."
back to top...
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.
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.
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.