This January I had a mind stopping moment. I’d picked up a copy of the autobiography of Chief Plenty Coups by Frank Linderman. The Chief of the Crow Indians was over 80 years old when he relayed, by sign and through an interpreter, the story of his life to Linderman, a white man whom he trusted and was his friend.
Plenty Coups was born in the mid 1800’s, a time when the Crow were still living free, just as they’d done for thousands of years. Buffalo, their main food source, were plentiful. Few white men were on the land when the chief was young. It was Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Crows, who led his people onto the reservation.
“After the buffalo were gone, nothing happened.” he said. From that time on, he lived in a square house on a reservation.
One morning I awoke unable to sleep. I picked up the book at around page 30, where Plenty Coups begins to describe his second vision quest at nine years of age. His first one he considered unsuccessful. Now he was determined more than ever to complete his quest. After fasting for several days and nights, Plenty Coups cuts off a finger (a tradition among Crow men who were seeking vision), then passed out and had a detailed vision. He was lead under the earth by a helper, through a tunnel crowded with buffalo. After a day and a night walking crowded by buffalo under the ground, they (the Man-Person and Plenty Coups) emerged from the tunnel and sat on a knoll.
“Then he (the Man-person) shook his red rattle and sang a queer song four times. ‘Look!’ he pointed.”
Plenty Coups saw buffalo emerge from the hole, out of the ground, in great numbers. They blackened the plains and spread wide, going in every direction. “Everywhere I looked great herds of buffalo were…pouring out of the hole in the ground to travel on the wide plains. When at last they ceased coming out of the hole in the ground, all were gone, all! There was not one in sight anywhere…”
“I turned to look at the Man-person beside me. He shook his red rattle again. ‘Look!’ he pointed.”
“Out of the hole in the ground came bulls and cows and calves past counting. These, like the others, scattered and spread on the plains. But they stopped in small bands and began to eat the grass. Many lay down, not as a buffalo does but differently, and many were spotted. Hardly any two were alike in color or size. And the bulls bellowed differently too, not deep and far-sounding like bulls of the buffalo but sharper and yet weaker in my ears. Their tails were different, longer, and nearly brushed the ground. They were not buffalo. These were strange animals from another world.”
“I was frightened and turned to the Man-person, who only shook his red rattle but did not sing. He did not even tell me to look, but I did look and saw all the Spotted-buffalo go back into the hole in the ground, until there was nothing except a few antelope anywhere in sight.”
“Do you understand this which I have shown you, Plenty-coups? he asked me.”
“No! I answered. How could he expect me to understand such a thing when I was not yet ten years old.”
Now Plenty Coups and the vision-person went back into the hole and came out again. Now the Man-Person pointed to an old man sitting in the shade, alone, by some trees and square house.
“Look well upon this old man,’ said the Man person. ‘Do you know him, Plenty-Coups?’ he asked me”
“This old man is yourself, Plenty-Coups,’ he told me.
Plenty Coups had seen, in his vision at nine years of age, himself sitting by the exact the same house (of course, he lived in a tipi at 9 years old, not a square house), the same stream, the exact same spot where he lived on the reservation as an old man.
I read this line with goose bumps.
When Plenty Coups finished his vision quest in the Crazy Mountains, he went back to his tribe and related all of it to the elders. Plenty Coups had never heard of nor seen cattle. Neither had most of the Crow at that time. But the medicine man had seen some to the east on the plains and understand Plenty Coups vision to mean that the buffalo would disappear and cattle would take their place. Along with other elements I didn’t mention in the vision, the Medicine Man interpreted the Chief’s vision to mean he would not have children of his own and that he would be a great leader and lead his people to safety in the midst of great change. All would come true.
Think about it: if Plenty Coups could see all this at age nine, in some way his life and destiny were laid out before him at birth; maybe not the details, but the broad brush strokes. Never would a nine-year old Indian living freely in 1850, think for a moment that he would be living in a square house as white men do, with all the buffalo gone.
Sometime in the early 1900’s, Plenty Coups, now living on the reservation, visited Mt. Vernon. He saw that Washington’s home was preserved as a park for the public. He asked that his home be preserved after his death as a Park for all peoples. Last month I finally visited Plenty Coups State Park. These photos are from that visit.