How Chief Plenty Coups Chose to Preserve his Cultural Heritage

portrait of Chief Plenty Coups created by Edward S. Curtis in 1908

portrait of Chief Plenty Coups created by Edward S. Curtis in 1908

How do ethnic groups in the United States manage to adapt to mainstream society while at the same time trying to preserve their own ethnic culture?

Throughout history we see how certain ethnic groups had to either adapt to a dominant culture by exchanging their own ethnic customs and traditions for those belonging to the new culture.  We see groups of people having to either allow themselves to become “Americanized” or have opted to remain different and unique; opting instead a life of not really fitting into mainstream American society.

Groups who choose not to let go of their traditions and hang on to their past legacies are often viewed differently, sometimes to the point of disdain, by the rest of society.  Now, at the other end of the spectrum, choosing to let go completely of ethnic traditions and replacing these with a new culture brings along a whole new set of repercussions.

Can we strike a balance and choose to embrace both cultures? Will it be almost impossible because one culture will always dominate the other?  How do we as an ethnic group learn to embrace the new culture without totally turning our backs on our own?

These are the questions that resonated in my mind when I visited Chief Plenty Coups State Park in Pryor Montana in 2012.

Aside from chief Sitting Bull and Geronimo, the quintessential Native American icons of mainstream American culture, very few people know about any other American Indian chiefs.  Allow me to introduce to chief Plenty Coups.

chief Plenty Coups' Home in Pryor Montana

chief Plenty Coups’ Home in Pryor Montana

Inside Plenty Coups' log home and a bust of his likeness on display

Inside Plenty Coups’ log home and a bust of his likeness on display

Chief Plenty Coups was the last hereditary chief of the Crow Indians.  The Apsáalooke people (original name for Crow Indians) arrived in Bighorn country (southeastern Montana) in very early times and they are one of the few tribes who retain some of their original land in the United States today.

The Crow Indians have had a history of feuds and constant battles with other tribes; the most famous quarrel was that between them and the Sioux.  Even before the arrival of the Europeans, the Crow had enemies left and right.  Partly motivated by the Crow Nation’s history of warfare with other tribes, chief Plenty Coups decided to side with the ‘whites’ and “join[ed] with the whites against common enemies like the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.”[1]

Born in 1848, Chief Plenty Coups won many battles in his time and was an accomplished young warrior by the time he was made chief at the age of 28 by the Apsáalooke tribe.  He was not only highly respected amongst the Crow but by the white men as well, mainly due to his ability to lead his people into bridging the gap between the two cultures and transition from a tipi and buffalo to a settled reservation lifestyle.

But why not fight and resist being confined for the rest of his days into a reservation? Chief Sitting Bull fought until the end precisely not to be stripped away of his freedom.  It is worth mentioning at this point that there should not be judgment cast upon either of these two admirable Indian chiefs.   The times and events these two men lived through were marked by unending confusion, severe hardships and tough decisions.  Although the paths taken by these two chiefs apparently lead them in divergent directions, they stemmed from the same desire: both of these leaders cared deeply for their people and wanted to do what they felt was best for them.

Chief Plenty Coups’ decision of siding with the whites and moving to a reservation came to him during a vision quest while in the Crazy Mountains of western Montana.  According to Frank B. Linderman’s book, Plenty-coups: Chief of the Crows, chief Plenty Coups dreamed that all the buffalo were replaced everywhere on the plains by the white man’s spotted cattle.  He saw a great storm destroy the green forest, and only “one tree, tall and straight, was left standing… the Four Winds that always make war alone had this time struck together, riding down every tree in the forest but one.  Standing there alone among its dead tribesman, I thought it looked sad.  What does this mean? I whispered in my dream. ‘Listen, Plenty Coups,’ said a voice, ‘in that tree was the lodge of the Chickadee. He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom.’”

Based on this vision chief Plenty Coups decided that the Crow would have to be smart if they wanted to survive.  He quickly realized he needed to outsmart the white man; ingenuity rather than warfare.  While other American Indian tribes in the United States would be vanished by the white men, the Crow would remain standing but only if they acted smartly; by learning the “ways of the whites” and using these to their advantage.  In this way, Plenty Coups and his people would preserve their culture by finding a way and adapting to the changing world.

One way the U.S. government used to control the acculturation process towards the American Indians was to provide the Indian chiefs and band headmen American-type housing by “hoping that these leaders would set an example for their followers.”  Architecture was used to manipulate the Indians in the white efforts in order to “civilize” them (for more references on how architecture was used as a vehicle for the acculturation process see McCleary, T., Carter, T., and Chappell, E. (2005) Tipis & Square Houses. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks).

Government agents built a house for chief Plenty Coups in 1886.  Plenty Coups agreed to have an American-type house and give up his nomadic lifestyle in favor of farming.  Plenty Coups gave up his nomadic lifestyle in 1884 and became one of the first Crow to work and settle on a farm, deeded to him through the Federal Indian Allotment Act.  He opened a general store, built a home, and began farming.[2]

For chief Plenty Coups, siding with the U.S. Government forces throughout the Indian Wars and giving up his nomadic lifestyle in exchange for a sedentary one inside a reservation did not translate into giving up and giving away his freedom.  As a man who always sought wisdom he understood that if they Crow didn’t find a way to adapt to forces that were beyond their control they would perish.

I have to say, after reading chief Plenty Coups’ biography and visiting his homestead in Pryor, Montana, I have to admire his leadership and wisdom.  What I admire most about Chief Plenty Coups was his ability to adapt to the new dominant culture (the European) while at the same time retaining his cultural traditions and heritage.

I had the opportunity to visit chief Plenty Coups’ log home in 2012.  Having learned more about him since has made me appreciate his history, his legacy and his character even more.  I shared only the highlights of this remarkable American Indian chief whom I only recently discovered and wonder why we don’t hear about such leaders in U.S. History class.

These are the pictures of his home in Pryor, Montana.  His home is situated within the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana, about 40 minutes south of Billings.  The state of Montana has designated Chief Plenty Coups’ plot of land as a State Park where it preserves its original log home, sacred spring, and farmstead.  The state park was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999.

To learn more about chief Plenty Coups, there is nothing like visiting his home in Pryor, Montana; the most effective way of learning about history is through visiting the actual historic places and experiencing it first-hand.

I leave you now with this question to ponder on: can we find a way to preserve our culture in a time of great change without losing our own identity?

inside chief Plenty Coups' log home

inside chief Plenty Coups’ log home

[1] McCleary, T., Carter, T., and Chappell, E. (2005) Tipis & Square Houses. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

[2] “Chief Plenty Coups.” National Park Service retrived from

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