This week’s blog is courtesy of WWW member Natalie Bright, who shares with us her experience at Chief Plenty Coups State Park, a field trip taken by the WWA organization. Natalie’s insights are a great read for anyone who has an interest in history and the west, and she generously shares these photographs and moments with her WWW network as well. Enjoy!
“Thank you for coming to Crow country. The land you are standing on is mixed with Crow blood.” ALDEN BIG MAN JR.
The Western Writers of America conference held in Billings offered several field trip opportunities. I hopped on a bus and enjoyed a sack lunch while we journeyed to the Crow Nation to learn about Chief Plenty Coups.
Chief Plenty Coups State Park is located on land still occupied by the Crow Nation south of Billings, Montana, a tribe once occupying the Yellowstone river valley from Wyoming, Montana and into North Dakota before being pushed west by the Cheyenne and Sioux. We walked the land and toured the home of one of the great Chiefs, best known for protecting the original homeland of his people and guiding by example for five decades. The land is everything, and all exist together as an inseparable whole.
The State Park is peaceful and beautifully kept. There is a calming spirituality about the grounds, especially around the sacred spring, and I couldn’t help but think about the previous generations that might have walked the same pathways. There is an unmistakable positive energy and perfect place for reflection.
Becoming chief at age 29 in 1876, Plenty Coups was known to be fearless and cunning, as well as a wise and eloquent speaker.
Our tour started at the visitor’s center where we were allowed into the basement vault. In Native American tradition and reverence, sweet grass was burning to cleanse the air and our presence was announced before entering. Upon his death in 1932 his home and everything in it was preserved. We viewed several significant items from the collection. Pictures were allowed but are prohibited from being posted on social media.
The home we toured is the only preserved home of an Indian leader. The original portion was constructed in 1886, built near his sacred spring to fulfill a vision he had as a young boy. Impressed with a tour of the stately Mount Vernon on his first visit in 1880, Chief Plenty Coups planted cottonwood trees, gardens, and orchards, and introduced farming and ranching upon his return. He even opened a store to sell fruit from his orchard. Because of a vision, Chief Plenty Coups believed that he would die inside that house, so he lived most of his life in a tipi located nearby. A second story, wood floors and window were added in 1890.
The most interesting room was a second-floor chamber where he kept his medicine bundles and personal ceremonial items. The walls and ceiling were papered in large floral-patterned cloth, and the room was furnished with an iron bed, personal photos, and keepsakes. The door was kept locked during the time that Chief Plenty Coups was alive. Visitors recall hearing movement at night believed to be from the sacred medicine bundles and guardian spirits. The ceremonial bundles signify a spiritual path for either individual or for the well-being of the tribe as a whole.
In 1909 a spacious front room and additional second floor rooms were added, making it the only two-story house in the country. The large, open fireplace was fashioned after the one at Mount Vernon. A wide porch stretched across the entire front with views of a meadow and the Pryor Creek valley. The front room reserved for visitors was kept bare, with no furniture, rugs or pictures. Euro-American visitors entered by the front porch and were usually not invited into other parts of the house, unless they were considered to be close friends.
Crow people entered through the door of the original house, leading them into the kitchen as trusted friends and family. They were also allowed to visit the tipi. Both tribal and personal business was conducted in this way.
The Chief was so impressed with Mount Vernon and inspired by the fact that people could visit the home of a great white chief, he left his home to the State of Montana, preserving his legacy for others to learn about and know.
“For though he was a man of his people and of the world, he was even more so a man of the spirit. Not one ordained of the cloth, he sought insight and guidance from his incredibly intense personal spirituality, from deep and powerful currents within himself and his strong connection to the natural world.” RICH PITTSLEY, 2001
Photos by N. Bright. Chief Plenty Coups State Park, Montana.
Natalie Bright is an author, blogger and speaker. http://nataliebright.com