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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Feb 04 2020

‘Montana Has Always Been Indian Country’

Indigenous panel discusses cultural importance of the Crazy Mountains and other public lands


Last year, I began working with members and officials of the Crow Tribe in an effort to protect Awaxaawippíia (pronounced a-wuh-kaw-wah-pee-uh), which loosely translates as “Ominous Mountains.” That’s the Crow name for the Crazy Mountains, and it’s also the title of a film that MWA produced in partnership with Dr. Shane Doyle, an Apsáalooke educator and tribal member.  

Featuring interviews with five tribal members, including Doyle, our eight-minute film explores the cultural and spiritual connection the Apsáalooke (Crow) people has to the Crazies. We are urging the Forest Service to honor that connection by protecting the Crazies in its revision of the Custer Gallatin National Forest plan, which is due sometime this year. 

In January, MWA organized three screenings and invited a panel of Crow and other tribal members to speak afterwards. The screenings packed the house at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, again the following night at the Shane Lalani Center in Livingston, and later that month at the Billings Public Library.

The panels offered an indigenous perspective on the Crazies and other public lands that are sacred to Montana’s tribes, a perspective that’s far too often overlooked and marginalized when discussing the places that we now call public lands.

The Bozeman panel, made up of Apsáalooke, Niitsitapi (Blackfeet), and Lakota tribal members, discussed a variety of topics ranging from the cultural importance of the Crazy Mountains to how treaty rights should play a role in the future management of public lands. 

Crazy Mountains Panel Discussion - Jan. 14, 2020 in Bozeman, Montana

The panel:
Moderator: Dr. Shane Doyle – Founder of Native Nexus Consulting and member of the Crow Tribe.
Frederica Lefthand – Dean of Academics at Little Big Horn College
Loren Birdrattler – Katz Endowed Chair of Native American Studies at Montana State University and member of the Blackfeet Tribe
Michael SpearsActor and member of Kul Wicasa Oyate Lakota Lower Brulé Tribe of South Dakota
Adrian Bird, Jr. - Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office lead monitor and member of the Crow Tribe
Johnny Tim YellowtailCrow Tribal Historic Preservation Office monitor and member of the Crow Tribe
Tennison Big Day – Student at Montana State University and member of the Crow Tribe

Dr. Shane Doyle, panel moderator and founder of Native Nexus Consulting, pointed out that, in the mid-19th century, almost all of Montana was reservation land. 

“The only place that was not designated as one specific tribal area was Gallatin Valley – this was designated as a common hunting ground for all of the groups that were in the region,” Doyle said. “So if you look back, the history of Montana has always been Indian Country, both legally and culturally.”

The importance of tribes having a say in the management of the Crazy Mountains and other sacred places isn’t just a matter of equity, but of honoring treaty rights.

“That’s what our family died for, for an agreement to fight no more over these lands,” said Michael Spears, an actor and a member of the Kul Wicasa Oyate Lakta Lower Brule Tribe of South Dakota. “If I’m going to be honest with myself and who I am and where I come from, then I believe they should be upheld –  that they should have a precedence, that they should have power.”

Bayleigh Bird Hat, a MSU student and descendent of Chief Bell Rock of the Crow Tribe, was in attendance. Bird Hat’s grandfather gave her a Crow name, which translates as “Prays on the Highest Mountain,” after fasting in the Crazy Mountains. 

“It’s been a dream of mine for many years, just to go up [to the Crazies] and fast and pray,” Bird Hat said before the panel discussion started. “I’m really thankful that I go to school here in Bozeman, because every time that I go home and come back, I get to pass those mountains that give me that name.” 

For generations, the Apsáalooke people have retreated to the Crazy Mountains to fast and pray and receive visions and dreams, many of which have been passed down from generation to generation, such as the vision Plenty Coups had at the top of Crazy Mountain that foretold of white settlers moving in and overtaking Crow territory. 

“It’s because of [our ancestors’] prayers that we’re here today, that we’re still living, that we’re still breathing,” said Adrian Bird, Jr., the Crow Historic Preservation Office lead monitor. “It’s because of what they did for us and said for us in their prayers that we’re here. And it’s in our prayers that our little ones will be sitting here one day telling your grandkids about this place.”

Learning about how the Crazy Mountains and Crow culture are intertwined has given me a whole new perspective of these mountains and a renewed resolve to work towards ensuring their protection. I’m confident you’ll feel the same after watching “Awaxaawippíia,” which you can view here

Emily Cleveland
Senior Field Director

Emily works on developing collaborative land management efforts and building grassroots support and partnerships in the Gallatin and Madison Ranges, the Snowcrest Mountains, the Ruby Valley, the Crazies, and the Beaverheads. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking, camping and exploring new places.
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