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Bill Yellowtail, Apsaalooke (Crow)


Published April 23, 2020

“My reservation community will thrive in the twenty-first century only if we re-energize our traditions of private entrepreneurship and self-reliance.”

Bill Yellowtail, Apsaalooke (Crow)
Former Montana state senator and Katz Professor in Native American Studies at Montana State University

Bill Yellowtail grew up on his family’s cattle ranch on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Holding a degree in geography from Dartmouth College, Yellowtail has been a rancher, educator, fishing guide, Montana state senator, and congressional candidate. An expert canoeist and fly fisherman, he was named Angler of the Year for 1991 by Fly Rod and Reel magazine.

He served as regional administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration, with responsibility for six western states and twenty-seven Indian tribes. Bill received the Dartmouth Environmental Network’s 1994 annual award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to protection of the environment, and he received the Mary G. Ross Award for exemplary service from the Council of Energy Resource Tribes in 1999. He serves on the boards of directors of Humanities Montana, the Burton K. Wheeler Center, and the National Audubon Society.

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The Apsaarooke have always held this as the highest of traditional values: we are masters of our own destiny.

In English, we are the Crow Indians of Montana.

The oral record says that Biiduuke – Our Side as our people called themselves even before they became known as Apsaarooke – took charge once, long ago, and separated forever from our agrarian brethren, the Hidatsa of the Knife River Country. After a long odyssey, the Apsaarooke were divinely instructed to take command of the Big Horn Country of Montana and Wyoming.

As the old saw goes, the only constant in Crow history is change. Crows drove their evolution from sedentary agriculturists to buffalo people of the plains. Then horses revolutionized technology, territory, economy and culture. Crows became captains of commerce between the southwestern horse tribes and the Missouri River trade center, exchanging horses and buffalo robes for garden produce and European metal goods.

The first encounter with Europeans in 1742 was harbinger of a new era of foreign policy. The Crows learned quickly and became sharp diplomats in the new style. Later, the fur trade brought a new prosperity founded on natural resource extraction. Eventually, treaty-making reflected increasing pressure from American greed for land and gold, forcing Crows to negotiate shrewd contracts for goods and services in exchange for cessions of territory. The Crow made a strategic choice of allies during the Great Sioux War. They sided against their age-old foes, the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne, to re-take control of the Big Horn homeland from those invaders.

Acknowledging the reality of the end of the buffalo, Crow leaders petitioned for the tools and technology of ranching and farming on their land base, which remained the most fertile and verdant in the entire region. Crow individuals and families selected land allotments to suit their preferences of economy and community.

Plenty Coups, last great chief among the Crows, embraced education as the key to the future:

Without education you will be the white man’s victim; with education you will be the white man’s equal.

Plenty Coups, ever the keen statesman, recruited young, Carlisle-educated Crow spokesmen to prevent Congress from opening the reservation to homesteading in 1917. One of those young leaders, Robert Yellowtail, became influential in formulation of the Indian New Deal in 1934.

The recitation of Crow progressivity can go on and on. The point here is to illustrate that the Apsaarooke have thrived through history by relying on these innate strengths:

➢   Strategic pragmatism

➢   Proactive adaptation

➢   Statesmanship and shrewd diplomacy

➢   Aggressive entrepreneurship

➢   Commitment to cultural identity

➢   The dignity of self-sufficiency

However, it is only honest to acknowledge that our community has not escaped the social, governmental, educational, and economic manifestations of poverty.

Nonetheless we can boast our terrific litany of high achievers; keepers of tradition, language and spiritual life; statesmen; independent businesspersons; whole and healthy persons of every sort.

I propose that the crux of our plight is a poverty of spirit. It is a malaise, a personal and communal depression, even hopelessness. Whether personally, directly affected or not, the atmosphere is frustrating to the entire community.

I cannot help feeling that our problems are founded somehow in dependency: a loss of the dignity of self-sufficiency. How this crept into our history and whom to blame are less important than what to do about it in order to move forward as a community of whole, healthful persons. The death trap would be to allow our circumstances to determine our identity.

We, the Apsaarooke, must absolutely remember, recover and rely on the values that have sustained us as persons and as community for ages:

We are in command of our Destiny. We have personal agency. We are not victims, and we have dignity.