A Thousand Miles from Crow Country
Story by Alex Miller, Photos by Trevor Reid
The metal beige cabinets are giants, silently holding secrets within their spacious compartments. They are 12 feet tall, and stretch 10 yards long in the dull fluorescent light of the collections room. Stories have been told for decades on the Crow reservation about what is hidden within these metal titans. The secrets have been hidden for more than a hundred years.
A group of 15 Crow – traditionally known as Apsáalooke – tribal members were anxiously waiting outside the double doors that led into the quiet collections room.
Riley Singer arrived the afternoon before. Within one of those cabinets were sacred objects that belonged to his family, objects that no one in his family had seen for 120 years.
Many have heard stories of how their history was sold and taken to Chicago. They have heard stories of what is hidden within the cabinets for years. Stories of shields that belonged to warriors like Sees the Living Bull. Only a handful of Crow, like anthropologist and war shield expert Aaron Brien, have seen the sacred objects first hand.
Voices bounced off of the concrete walls while the group discussed the mysteries that hid just 30 feet from them. Before entering, Singer handed Brien a small glass jar. Singer was personally invited because of his extensive knowledge of Crow customs and traditions.
Brien opened the jar. It contained rust-colored clay. He dipped his index finger into the soft earth and drew a ring around his forearm for protection.
Singer explained that the clay is meant to protect them from the objects. War shields, tobacco pipes, tobacco bundles and other items that carry spiritual weight all have a certain protocol in how they should be handled, he said. Should they break the protocol, the rings provide protection from the spiritual consequences.
“Those things don’t belong to us, individually,” Singer said. “We don’t know how to handle those objects.”
This is the concern for the Crow, as it is for many tribes throughout the world. Over the past two decades, tribes have been attempting to reclaim items purchased or stolen from ancestors that are stored in vaults and exhibits in museums and private collections.
The Crow tribal members were in Chicago for the grand opening of the “Apsáaalooke: Women and Warriors” exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. The exhibit, curated by a tribal member, is among the first of its kind. It is the culmination of a cooperative effort between the museum and tribal members, giving the tribe some authority to tell its own history in its own words.
The cabinets separated and created a narrow passageway between them. Traditional outfits adorned with elk teeth, tobacco pipes and shields were neatly tucked away shelf after shelf. Janine Pease, an educator and founding president of Little Big Horn College, gravitated toward a pink buckskin dress adorned with hand sewn beads.
Then the war shields were brought out, stacked one atop the other. They will eventually make their way to the exhibition, but at that moment they belong to the Crow again.
Nina Sanders, an enrolled tribal member, was invited to curate the show. It was not easy, with plenty of back and forth between her team and the museum. Both parties struggled to create something that is both meaningful and true to the tribe, but also casually educational for the general public in a major metropolitan area 1,000 miles away.
Everyone in the room was there for the opening of the exhibition. This was the moment where they could finally touch and feel the power of what was hidden in those cabinets. Many of the stories that Singer and Pease heard were becoming real, and the emotions connected to them were bubbling to the surface.
“We’re seeing all these Crow being reborn,” Brien said.
Sanders, who was raised by her grandmother on the Crow reservation, had previously worked with Indigenous artists to help curate their work for smaller showcase galleries. “Apsáaalooke: Women and Warriors” is her first big exhibit, which she worked closely with co-curator Dr. Meranda Roberts, a Paiute tribal member.
Sanders brought together a team of Crow community members to tell this story, ranging from archaeologists to artists. That is where Brien came in.
Brien, an anthropologist and expert on the war shields, is one of the many contributors to the exhibition. He was invited to lead the handling and display of the vast collection of war shields under the museum’s care.
Brien’s involvement with the exhibition seemed coincidental, but Sanders said the power of the objects, specifically the shields, brought everything together.
The shields were the perfect focus for the exhibition. Generally they are associated with warriors, but Crow women cared for them and held their stories. Crow cultural systems are matrilineal, filled with strong female leaders. So it made sense to put women first, Sanders said.
The exhibition took a year to create. It was a difficult process, with tense moments of back and forth between Sanders and the museum team. Sanders and Roberts faced pushback from the museum on nearly everything. The Field Museum, which Sanders referred to as a colonial institution, was stuck in its ways of operation, she said.
Sanders used the tribe’s voices as the primary sources telling the story of their artifacts, not the museum. She wanted to change the perspective of how not only the Crow, but Native Americans in general, were viewed in the context of a museum.
One instance Sanders and Roberts both pointed to is the display of a tobacco bundle, which appears right at the entrance of the exhibition. Outside of its plexiglass domain and in the hands of a member of the Tobacco Society, the bundle would always be in the presence of ground cedar wood.
It took numerous requests from Sanders to get the conservation department to get on board. Even still, they put branches rather than ground cedar in the display.
However, these misunderstandings were probably to be expected. Even at its root purpose, a museum’s idea of preserving artifacts for education and enrichment through the ages goes counter to tribal customs.
“We believe everything has a life, and if you preserve something for all eternity, you’re not allowing life’s natural cycle of life and death to happen,” Sanders said. “And that can be hurtful to not just the object, but the people around it and the community it comes from.”
Jaap Hoogstraten, the director of exhibitions for the Field Museum, advocated for Sanders’s and Robert’s requests about the display of items. The conservation department rarely compromises, Sanders said. Working on this exhibition was a huge change for the museum and how they accommodate community voices.
“This is brand new territory. Usually for my department we don’t question what [the] conservation [department] requires us to do,” Hoogstraten said.
The exhibit is massive and sprawling, occupying 6,000 square feet within the museum.
“It’s our commitment to our people that drove every single one of us. At the end of the day we put up with so much because we knew that this was what our people needed,” Sanders said.
Brien first came into contact with Sanders while working on an article about the shields. Brien knew that the Field had the war shields because he had cited a photo from the collection. When he was younger he knew little about the shields.
Like many Crow, Brien had heard stories of their existence, but not much else. He reached out to Sanders hoping to get more photos, which led to a conversation on what he knew about the owners of the shields. From there, he was invited to be a cultural advisor.
The Field collection has a long history, one that Sanders said stems from the idea that institutions of the United States had attempted to establish the country at the turn of the 20th century as being culturally rich. The tribes, considered “disappearing” at the time, were the perfect subjects. S.C. Simms, the head anthropologist for the Field Museum in 1900, purchased hundreds of items between 1900 and 1903.
Simms had purchased nearly every war shield he could, spending $491 on 142 shields. That is roughly $3 per shield, an invaluable amount of money for the Crow who were settling into their new reality of reservation life.
Many anthropologists like Simms were gathering sacred objects from tribes across the country in a similar fashion. Some would land in museums, but many were gathered to be shown off at the Chicago World’s Fair.
Dr. Timothy McCleary, the current archaeologist for the Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office, has studied Simms’ notes on his days in the field. Simms would typically buy from the sons and grandsons of the original owners, paying no more than $10 for a shield.
These transactions were done with little joy for the Crow in most cases. One such instance was Simms’ interaction with a tribal member named Spotted Tail. Initially, Spotted Tail refused to sell his shield to Simms, McCleary said. Simms bartered with him, reaching a price of $9. Spotted Tail agreed, but before he parted with the shield he grasped the sacred object in his arms and began to weep.
“At what point is this shield more important than this man’s emotion, and his connection to his shield,” McCleary said.
The March opening of the exhibit was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the week’s events were canceled and the museum closed under quarantine during what would have been the exhibit’s first full week. But there was still time for the Crow families that were allowed to move through the 6,000 square foot space during a public unveiling.
Through the glass double doors that lead into the space visitors were immediately greeted by the sounds of electronic kick drums and snares with what sounds like hundreds of Crow voices chanting in unison.
Supaman, a Crow rapper, produced the beat that played in juxtaposition with the sounds of male Crow voices singing ceremonial songs. The central hub of the exhibit opened up to reveal a model horse in a full set regalia.
The set was completed by Lydia Falls Down over the span of three years, and purchased by the museum in 2012. The set is all handmade in the Crow traditional style. A sea of glass beads in blue, yellow and orange cover each item.
The plastic horse is outfitted with a bridle that sits on its brown painted head like a helmet. The ears are exposed, with a center strip of beadwork and leather covering much of the snout. The beads are tightly woven together like glistening scales, catching the dull glow of the lights in the room. Connected to the bridle by bows of leather and long chains is the bit, nestled carefully into the model’s plastic jaws.
Standing around 12 feet tall behind the horse display is a 3D-printed sculpture by artist Ben Pease. The colossal, red sculpture is of a Crow man and woman in traditional attire, standing back-to-back. The giant piece is meant to represent gender equality between male and female, with the space between their backs being open for all sexual identities and non-binary genders.
The shields take up a sizable portion of the back corner of the exhibition. Seven of them are on display, each with a towering portrait of an Apsaalooke woman behind them. Brien said the men made the shields, then the women would take care of them.
The shields are composed of two parts: the inner, thick and durable core, and the thin and malleable buckskin cover. The inner core is cut from the thickest part of the buffalo, the hump. A hole is dug into the ground and a fire is lit. The flesh is then laid over the top of this hole. The hide shrinks and hardens as water is drawn from it. This leaves a strong disk of buffalo hide, roughly the size of a bike tire rim, which is then dressed in the buckskin cover.
The original owners of some of the shields had been lost to time, and the museum-printed labels indicated this. Others were directly linked to their creators, like Wraps His Tail.
The shield, like the others on display, is held within a plexiglass box. It has a cover painted in black pigment, with eagle feathers and a sandbill crane’s head attached to the buckskin.
In the center is a red painted figure. The label says he is one of the twin boys that are often told of in Crow stories. The twins roamed the land, defeating monsters and evil wherever they went.
Brien decided, while working on this project, to write a book about the history of the shields and how they arrived in Chicago. His ultimate goal would be to repatriate the objects from the Field Museum, both those on display in the exhibit and the items that remain locked in the cabinets.
Brien said many of the stories around these shields had been lost, like faded shadows. The book is meant to change that, to reintroduce the shields to a new generation, but to also educate and remind older generations of their importance.
“I want to put it out there so that young Crow people can have what we weren’t allowed to have,” Brien said. “We’re fortunate to have a lot as Crow people, but we’re unaware of how much we’ve lost.”
He wants to go further with the repatriation. The process is difficult, requests have to be made under the umbrella of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Field Museum has a NAGPRA office to handle these types of inquiries.
NAGPRA was enacted in 1990 as a form of human rights legislation to address the issues stemming from nearly two century’s worth of exhuming the bodies of Native Americans from burial sites. According to a 1990 paper by Dr. Robert Bieder on the expropriation of human remains, the earliest recorded opening of a grave was done by Thomas Jefferson.
The practice continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, spurred by a movement to see the differences in Native American and Caucasian skulls. This spread into the acquisition of remains and artifacts by museums like the Field Museum. The repatriation act was designed to force any federally funded institution in the possession of bodies or artifacts to return them to their rightful tribal owners. Museums and universities are made to keep a complete inventory of tribal items under the repatriation act, and must comply with any requests for their return.
The law has been utilized heavily by several tribes.
In October 2019, the government of Finland returned some 600 items to the Hopi and Navajo tribes. Among them are the remains of 20 people. The items were taken over 130 years ago in what is today Mesa Verde National Park. Earlier this year in February, a headdress owned by Chief Black Coal of the Northern Arapaho was returned to the tribe by a private owner. Currently there is no legislation that covers the return of items to tribes from private owners.
However, Brien is not sure where these objects would go, should they be returned. He said some members of the community are concerned about bringing them back, saying that they could be damaging.
“My belief is that these objects, at the very least, need to be in Crow country. They have no business here,” Brien said, sitting in a basement office of the museum. “They did their part, this exhibit is our way of saying ‘Yea you have these. Enjoy them, but get ready, they’re leaving.’”
Sanders would like to see the shields and all of the other Crow objects returned to where they belong as well. Their ancestors and the power of the shields is what brought them all together, she said. The exhibition is just one part of that process.
“It’s my belief that those shields are so powerful because they have been a part of this collection for so long. They’re the ones who brought us back,” Sanders said. “They’re the ones who had us come here to bring them up, and then eventually they’ll go home.”
The group in the collection room saw shields gathered in the Simms expeditions that many considered to be just myths.
A warped shield supported by a plexiglass backing is laid onto the table. Small cracks run like veins along its surface, with two huge gashes cutting the image of a bull in the center in half. The shield was owned by the famous warrior Sees the Living Bull.
When going into battle, the cover would be removed from the heavy buffalo hide core and strapped onto the back of its owner. Sees the Living Bull’s shield has a series of markings on the side indicating successful war parties. There are over 30.
“It’s nothing like we have back home. It’s not like you’re looking at the bones of a dinosaur. It’s the real McCoy,” Singer said.
At the bottom of the shield are two rusted arrowheads, lodged into the buckskin, caught during battle so long ago.
The arrowheads were thought to be just a story. While riding into battle, Sees the Living Bull had placed his shield on his back. During the chaos he pulled two arrows from his back, leaving the two aged arrowheads that are embedded into the shield today.
Crow people heard stories about these shields, thinking they were mythical legends. Thanks to the arrowheads, those stories turned from mythical to living. Seeing the reaction that all of his Crow peers had when finally coming into contact with these sacred objects showed why Brien wants them to be returned home.
“Our sense of self is gone because there are shelves over here [full of artifacts] and different buildings thousands of miles away from Crow country,” Brien said. “We were our best people when all those objects were home with us.”
A SPECIAL PROJECT BY THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM