Today I thought we’d journey into the past, but the more recent past. Usually I blog about the early or mid 1800?s, but today I hope you’ll come along with me as I tell you the story of an incredible man, Robert Yellowtail, a Crow Indian hero.
The picture to the left is not of Robert, but of a handsome youth taken about this same time in history. He is definitely Crow — easily identified by the style of his hair and accessories. Robert may have looked similar in his youth. Robert Yellowtail was born on August 4, 1889, but was boarded at a government school, away from any of his parents and any influence from his tribe at an early age. He was only four years old. The 1890?s were an extremely difficult time for the American Indian in general. Not only was it forbidden by “do-gooders” and government agents for the American Indian to practice their traditional way of life, but Indian land was being looked upon as desirable by powerful corporations who had influence over the government and Indian agents. Land was needed. Land was important. And here were the Indians with “lots” of land, or so it was said.
It was also a tough life at government schools. No youngster was allowed to speak his own language, or to practice any skill that might be similar to that of the old ways. The idea was to “kill” the Indian and “give birth” to a “red-white-man.” Yellowtail was both intelligent and stubborn and gave his teachers much trouble (so would I have done, I like to think). So much was this the case that Robert was sent to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. California was more tolerant in those days, and here he did very well and graduated in 1907. He studied law at the Extension Law School in Los Angeles, where he would go on to earn a law degree via correspondence courses. His main interest was to use the law to help his people. He also learned to play the clarinet, an instrument I also play.
In 1910, senator Thomas Walsh introduced a bill to open up the Crow reservation to homesteaders. Crow Chief Plenty Coups (one of the most famous chiefs of the Crow) knew he needed someone with knowledge of the law, someone with knowledge of the white man’s ways, and someone stubborn and intelligent enough to fight for the Crow. He called upon Yellowtail, and Yellowtail rose to the occasion.
It was a seven year struggle, a battle that was fought in courts and in Congress, with Walsh attacking the Crow and Yellowtail in particular ferociously. However, finally, the Crow won this battle much because Yellowtail was an experienced orator and he went on to speak for hours at the Senate — much like a filabuster. He simply refused to give up. At last he won, and the reservation lands were kept under the control of the Crow. Yellowtail was only twenty-eight years old.
- In 1919, Yellowtail was needed again in Washington D.C. to help write and fight for (if need be) the 1920 “Crow Act.” Here he shined. Using his experience in law for the good of his people, he went on to ensure that Crow Lands would never be able to be taken away from the Crow again.
It’s also important to note that because of Yellowtail’s work, the American Indians were at last “given” the right to vote in 1924.
In 1934, Yellowtail went on to become the Superintendent of the Crow Indian Reservation. This might not sound like the accomplishment that it was because he was the first Indian superintendent of his own tribe. Working under the duty to improve his people’s lot in life, the culture of the Crow flourished under his leadership.
Yellowtail was also a prosperous rancher. And sometime in the mid-30?s he managed to get the ranchers (whites in the area) to return 40,000 acres of land. Under his leadership buffalo were brought back to the reservation, as well as some breds of horses and cattle.
The only controversy that shadowed Robert Yellowtail’s life was what happened at Bighorn River. Commissioners and unelected officials wanted to damn up the Bighorn River. Yellowtail was completely against it. In fact fighting that damn consumed him. The Bighorn Canyon (which the damn would cause to be flooded) was considered sacred. The tribal council sided with Yellowtail, but as we know, those with unscrupulous morals often take underhanded roles to accomplish what they want.
Unity of the Crow began to crumble under the onslaught of rumor campaigns. Yellowtail, himself, was said to be willing to sell out the tribe. It was all a lie, but even to this day, this haunts his image. In the end, Yellowtail was forced to negotiate or lose everything. He rose to the challenge and demanded the government pay the Crow tribe $1 million a year for 50 years. And when those 50 years were finished, the Crow would get their land back.
More rumor campaigns ensued. In the end, Yellowtail lost and the government got everything and paid an equivalent of only $600 per tribal member. Yellowtail was downtrodden, and the funny thing about it is that the damn is named after him.
But there was another battle ahead, which came much later, in the 1970’s. This time it was over mineral right (coal) and this time, despite rumor campaigns and attempts to blacken his name, he won.
Yellowtail lived to a ripe old age of 98, but he lives on in the legacy that he left. Because of him, the reservation retained most of their land, they were able to govern themselves and they hadn’t sold away their mineral rights (and by the way, the offer was a pitance). It was a different sort of war that he fought, he was a different sort of warrior, but he will never be forgotten so long as the Crow people live.
One of my favorite books, LONE ARROW’S PRIDE. is a book about the Crow, about one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and about a legend that lives on and on. Here’s a link to purchase the book: http://store.samhainpublishing.com/karen-kay-pa-1676.html?PHPSESSID=4e63634b1e976d1c82d650c8199c8ade
Now, here’s my question for you today: In an age where criminality becomes more and more the “norm” for a society, do you think a hero, similar to Robert Yellowtail, with honest concern for his people, has a chance to exist?
Although my gut answer is “not in this environment,” because all he’d have to do is raise his head a little and assassination might loom in his future, a thing no man does without consideration. Still, I’d like to think that such a hero can still exist. What do you think?