Church and tradition harmonize on the Crow Reservation

Story by Sam Waldorf, photos by Bethany Blitz

St. Charles Mission and Parish, a Catholic Church and school on the Crow Indian Reservation, has fully incorporated Crow traditions into its services. From art-to-prayer; rectory-to-sweat lodge.

Inside the building there is a statue of Mary next to a miniature tepee. On the wall is a purple blanket with a geometric design, green, orange and red triangles. In front of the blanket hangs a crucifix. In the hallway is a map of the Crow Indian Reservation. On it, simple words: What would Jesus do?

Ninety-five percent of the St. Charles mission is Native American, said Father Randolph Graczyk, who has been the Father at St. Charles since 1975. Some data sources estimate that about 51 percent of people in Big Horn County, which makes up the majority of the Crow reservation, identify as Catholic.

Christianity and Catholicism came to the Crow reservation in the 19th century through missionaries. The Crow reservation has become iconic in the way its people have managed to maintain a firm grasp on their tribal traditions even as organized religion found a foothold.


Nathaniel Garcia, 12, puts away the burning cedar used for a cleansing ritual at St. Charles Mission. Garcia decided to become an assistant for Father Randolph Graczyk after he saw other boys doing it. LEFT: A cross stands at the top of a hill overlooking Crow Agency. Missionaries brought Christianity to the Crow Indian Reservation in the 19th century.

“Christianity has really taken hold on the Crow reservation,” said Mark Clatterbuck, a professor of religion at Montclair State University who has studied Native American encounters with Christianity on the Crow reservation for the past seven summers. “Not just in a religious way, but socially and politically.”

There is conflict between some of the more extreme Christian groups and traditionalists, but most of the Crow people have adopted Christianity into their culture in a way that works.

Earlier this year, the Crow legislative branch passed a bill creating a 33-foot tall sign next to the interstate in Crow Agency, which states “Jesus Christ is Lord on the Crow Nation.” The blue, pink and red sign replaced, if not reinforced, an old plywood version that was created by the Crow Revival Center more than 20 years ago.

The bill used tribal funds to create the sign, which upset some people on the reservation, but the message is something almost everyone agrees with.

For a majority of people, Jesus Christ is the Lord on the Crow Nation.

IT ONLY takes two turns to get from the St. Charles Mission to the home of JR Goes Ahead: a right turn onto the highway passing through Pryor, and then a left onto a dirt road to his renovated cabin.

Goes Ahead fixed up the cabin so his family could move in. He has lived there, off and on, since 1946 when he lived there with his grandmother and about 20 others.

Pryor is a small town under two hours away from Crow Agency, the hub of the Crow Indian Reservation. Goes Ahead travels to Crow Agency most days of the week for work as game warden. He is a third generation game warden in his family.

Goes Ahead is a congregation regular at St. Charles. He has black hair a quarter of the way down his back, a black collared shirt and cowboy boots.

At the age of 11, Goes Ahead lost his mother. The Crow have strong familial ties. So, as his relatives stepped in Goes Ahead felt like he gained four mothers. No one was more instrumental in his upbringing than his grandmother, Sarah Goes Ahead, a devoted Catholic.


JR Goes Ahead and Dorothy Spotted Bear waft cedar smoke onto themselves as a purifying ritual after mass at St. Charles Mission. Wafting cedar is a Crow tradition integrated into the Catholic Church on the reservation.

It’s a formative time for a dramatic shift. Goes Ahead remembers his father explaining that the form of religion he practices is his choice, but that he will always be Crow.

Goes Ahead is Catholic and has grown up with both Christian and traditional influences. He said he has never had a problem practicing both because they fit well together.

“We’ve always been a spiritual people,” Goes Ahead said. “But when Christianity came to the reservation, we became a people of faith.”

Goes Ahead sees himself as one of the last people to grow up in the old, warrior Crow tradition.

“I am proud to be Crow, and I am probably one of the last few guys that grew up as a warrior,” said Goes Ahead, who sat wearing a t-shirt which read “Crow Veteran,” and a camouflage-print hat. “But I am not like some of the men that came before me.”

Goes Ahead joined the Army in 1975 and returned in 1982. The experience seemed to strengthen his faith. He had something higher than himself to turn to, in dire times such as battle. It reaffirmed the idea of God and higher powers in Goes Ahead’s mind.

“When you are in a fox hole, in the cold, I would get down and ask for spiritual guidance,” Goes Ahead said. “And there is something protecting me.”

The Crow beliefs he had practiced growing up and his belief in Christianity, are and were, something he could fall back on when things got difficult.

Religion is all about spirituality and love, Goes Ahead said.

In Crow tradition, people believe in a creator, or a maker, sometimes referred to as Akbaatatdia.

“He made us in the image of everything,” Goes Ahead said. “We are all equal.”

People on the Crow reservation see the creator, and the Christian idea of God, as the same person. They are praying to a higher power, who created everything.

When Christianity came to the reservation the Crow people saw this belief in spirituality as something similar to that of their own.

Goes Ahead also said that people see a similarity between Catholic saints and the historical chiefs and animal spirit guides in the Crow tradition.

“We’ve seen other religions come and go, but we have stayed Catholic because it assimilates so well with our beliefs,” he said. “In the past the Crow people have been given religion and education. In the future, we need to make sure to teach them who they are.”


A group of hymn singers perform for Robert “Sonny” Chandler at his memorial service. Sonny passed away on March 28, 2015.

AS THE Crow hymn ended at a funeral in Crow Agency all that could be heard were the cries of the family. Everyone got up and formed a line. The family, in particular the mother and the daughter of Robert Chandler, were the last to rise.

People walked by Chandler’s silver Casket with an American flag on top, Chandler was a military man. Under the flag laid a blanket with a distinct Native American design.

Two of the people walking by the casket were Chandlers’ nephews, Allie Bird In Ground and his brother. Like most religions, death is an important part of both Christianity and Crow beliefs.

At the funeral itself, the family intermingled both Christian and Crow traditions. The singing of traditional Crow hymns followed a sermon by a Christian pastor, who used the phrase “ Praise God” as if it were a comma.

During a time of death, the harmony of both Christianity and traditional Crow beliefs shines through. People of all beliefs come together to celebrate life, with song and prayer.

Clatterbuck, the professor of religion who spent seven years on the Crow reservation, said that many of the younger generations that he has spoken to have tried to reconnect with their Native American roots, but that it can be difficult when many people around them were raised in Christian households.

Jon Bird In Ground has tried to reconnect with the Crow traditions after going back and forth between religions in his earlier years. But nowadays on the Crow reservation, Jon and Allie both said that practicing only Crow traditions can be tough and can lead to ridicule.


Pastor Jay Simpson leads bible study at the Mountain Crow Worship Center where he has been senior pastor for six years.

“They don’t want you to do it at all,” said Allie, who has the word “Native” tattooed on his left arm, and the word “American” on his right. “They try to find a way to scare you. They will say you are going to hell, or that you will go to hell.”

The brothers said, for at least some heavily religious people, worshipping outside an organized church is akin to devil worship.

“As kids we were always taught even if you don’t follow them, respect them,” Allie said of different religions. “But it’s hard to respect Christians, when at the same time, they are not respecting your religion.”

“If they know you are traditional, they will kind of act weird around you, and say stuff behind your back,” said Jon Bird In Ground. “Every time we are having a cultural event, they set up and have a revival tent outside.”

At night, Jon said they will sing loud and try to interfere with the traditional events.

“It is sort of a problem,” Jon said. “But the bigger problem is that they are teaching their kids the same thing.”

ONCE A year, right before Thanksgiving, the St. Charles school celebrates Clan Day.

In Crow culture, the clan system is one of their most important beliefs and practices. The clan system is passed down on through the mother, with the Crow society being matriarchal. People then have an extensive tree of clan aunts and uncles, and clan brothers and sisters, who are no different than their blood relatives.

The idea is that people can always depend on their clan aunts and uncles, to wish them good thoughts, or be there when they need help. They are also very close to people of the same age in their clan, their brothers and sisters.

At St. Charles school, Clan Day is about teaching the children about the clan system. The kids are asked to invite one of their clan aunts or uncles to come with them to school. Father Graczyk said that most of the students were not learning who their clan aunts and uncles were, so they wanted to do something about that.

The kids give their clan aunts and uncles gifts, and then everyone has a banquet together. Since St. Charles adopted Clan Day a couple years ago, most of the schools on the reservation have done the same.


Father Randolph Graczyk leads Sunday mass at St. Charles Mission in Pryor, Montana. Graczyk lived on the Crow reservation for over 40 years. He is mostly fluent in the Crow language and is even writing a dictionary.

Clan Day is something Father Graczyk thought of, and St. Charles was the first school on the reservation to have such a day.

“The clan system holds everything together,” Graczyk said. “I think in everything we (the school) do, we try to be respectful of Crow culture.”

Throughout his lifetime, Graczyk has proven this to be true.

Graczyk first came to the Crow reservation in 1970 as part of a summer seminarian program, and after the experience he fell in love with the people. Graczyk was first stationed in Lodge Grass for five years, before moving to Pryor in 1975.

“When I first got here, pretty much everyone spoke Crow, from babies on up,” Graczyk said. “So I’d be in gatherings with a bunch of Crow people, and I wouldn’t have a clue what was going on.”

For that reason, Graczyk decided to learn the language from the teenagers he taught, one word at a time. He learned the word for blue, shua, or the word for big toe, ichisse. Eventually, Graczyk would go on sabbatical in the 1980’s to the University of Chicago and get a master’s degree in linguistics, writing his dissertation on the grammar of the Crow language.

“People appreciate that I made the effort to learn the language,” Graczyk said.

Graczyk always reads the gospel in Crow, and always has one of the elders of the church pray in Crow during the service.

“I think they see continuity between their beliefs and the Catholic beliefs,” he said.

Graczyk is also in the process of creating a dictionary of the Crow language.

“There is a sense that the school belongs to the Pryor people, that this is our school,” he said. “For many of the kids, their grandparents, or maybe even their great grandparents went to school here.”

The St. Charles school includes preschool through eighth grade, with 126 students this year. The school is 98 percent Native American. It has almost double the students at the public school in Pryor.


Bambi Van Dyke is the principal of the St. Charles Mission School. “It’s really important to let these kids know their culture and their traditions,” she said.

Bambi Van Dyke is in her first year as principal at St. Charles where she was previously a teacher for three years. St. Charles has Crow immersion in its preschool and kindergarten classes, in which the teachers speak 100 percent Crow.

“It’s really important to let these kids know their culture and know their traditions,” Van Dyke said. “To incorporate their tradition into our teaching really helps with student achievement.”

The school has developed both a mobile phone app, “Apsaalooke,” which is aimed at teaching people the Crow language in an easy fashion, and an entire book in Crow.

In addition to teaching the Crow culture, St. Charles also teaches its students the Catholic beliefs.

“There are two things they have to buy into,” Van Dyke said. “The catholic religion, and they have to buy into their culture, because it goes hand in hand in making themselves successful.”

The sisters of the church, as well as Graczyk, do most of the religious teaching to the students. Graczyk teaches the eighth grade religion class, which consists of church history.

“It is so awesome that he takes this amount of time with the children,” Van Dyke said of Graczyk. “He has just really taken a huge interest in our school.”

Graczyk said because of the school, they are able to start handing down the Catholic faith to people in a meaningful, personal way.

Graczyk lives 50 yards away from the church in a small, one-bedroom house. St. Charles has been Graczyk’s life since 1975. Next to his light-blue house sits a sweat lodge, made of blankets and pieces of carpet, held up by arches made of bundles of willow.

In between his house and the sweat lodge, stands a fence, half tin and half wood. The fence looks like it was put up 50 years ago, and that Graczyk has never even touched it.

Graczyk uses the sweat lodge about once a week, going in there with people from the church and the community. The entire valley is cleaned out of wood, because of the amount of sweat ceremonies that occur.

“We pray to the same God,” Graczyk said. “There are different ways of praying, but I think that is one of the bands that holds the tribe together.”

LIGHT SHINED through the plastic, imitation stained-glass windows onto the books sitting on everyone’s laps in mass back at St. Charles. They are reading “The Passion of the Lord,” something that they read every Palm Sunday. Father Graczyk portrayed the part of Jesus in the reading, with other members of the congregation reading for other characters.

As the reading ended, people began to pray for things in their life, for the end of violence and the end of people’s addictions.

Soon after communion began, an elder of the tribe sang a Crow hymn. Graczyk mixed a glass of wine with a glass of water, as people lined up to drink from the cup.


Father Randolph Graczyk gives communion to people attending his church service on Palm Sunday at the St. Charles Mission. Graczyk, who has lived on the Crow reservation for over 40 years, said he has learned the Crow language and some of their practices.

After communion ended, Goes Ahead joined the rest of the church to share a meal. Soon after he would return home to his cabin, to be greeted by his dog Kibo, who made him slow to almost a halt, jumping back and forth in front of his car.

Goes Ahead walked into his house to be with his family: a wife, two daughters and a son. Goes Ahead’s family is smaller than it used to be, losing a child soon after her birth, and another child to suicide.

“We are just a typical family, going through all sorts of issues,” Goes Ahead said. “Faith, and spirituality, has kept us together.”

 For past Native News editions visit the archive here. 
read more: