The original lands of the Crow or Apsáalooke peoples were east of Yellowstone National Park in Montana/Wyoming, the Absarokas, across the Basin to the Big Horn Mountains, and southeast to the Wind Rivers. This story, recounted to anthropologist Robert Lowie at the turn of the 20th Century, reveals the esoteric visionary experience of a young Crow, and his interest to visit the Land of the Birds.
“The Crow Who Went to the Birds’ Country,” A Crow (Apsáalooke) Myth
As Told by Crow Informants to Robert H. Lowie in 1918
A young Apsáalooke Crow fasted, wishing to see the country where the birds lived. It was in the springtime. On the fourth day he fasted and a meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) came and wanted to adopt him, but the Crow did not want to be adopted. He would not take its medicine, saying that he wanted to see the birds’ country. It told him to ask the rest of the birds that would come to him, also that the birds’ chiefs were Seven Cranes (Grus canadensis), who would tell him what they decided to do about it.
All the birds coming back in the spring came to him, but he refused to be adopted. He told all of them he wanted no medicine, but wished to see their country. The nocturnal Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) wanted to adopt him, but he refused in the same fashion. “The Seven Cranes will come tomorrow, and then you will know what they will do.”
The next day the Seven Cranes came and sat down next to the Crow. All were as big as himself, except one who was larger, and was their chief. One Crane wanted to adopt him, giving him medicine to become a war captain, but he said he wished to see their country. The next Crane wanted to give him a picketed horse, but he refused to take medicine for it, insisting on seeing their country.
The next Crane wanted to give him medicine for coups, but he declined. The next Crane offered to give him medicine for doctoring, but with the same result. The chief came and asked why he would not take any medicines since all Indians wanted medicine, but he answered, “I want to see your country. That is why I have fasted.”
“Go home. When we come in the fall, we may take you there.”
In the fall this man came to the place where he had fasted. The birds were going home and all of them came to the young man, who told him that the Seven Cranes were thinking of taking him. When the Nighthawk came, he said the Seven Cranes would be there the next day, and he came and sat by him.
The Cranes came. The largest had a pipe and gave it to the Crow, but he would not smoke, saying he was not there to smoke, but to see the birds’ country. “You are the only Indian who wants to do this, so we’ll take you. We’ll take you next fall.”
The next spring, this young man went to his fasting-place. The birds came back and each one said they were going to take him. till Nighthawk came and announced Seven Cranes’ arrival the next day. They came and told him they would take him in the fall and bring him back the next spring; he should tell his folks not to mourn for him, and he should wait for them in the fall, when they would come. After they had left, he went home. He did not go to any war parties.
VISIONS AND DREAMS. The importance of visions in the life of the Crow can hardly be overestimated. Not only the general course of sacred ceremonies but even such details as particular songs or specific methods of painting are traced to visions. Through them it was possible to rise from abject poverty to affluence and social prestige. Even war parties were, at least in theory, wholly dependent on them, for a man organized one only when prompted by a vision or when dispatched by another man who had received such a supernatural communication. — Robert Lowie
Next fall he came to where he had fasted. The birds were going home. Every bird came and talked to him, saying they would take him. The Nighthawk came and said the Seven Cranes would come the next day. Then the Seven Cranes came and sat by him, smoked with him, and said they would take him. He laid down his arrows and blanket. The biggest one told him to get on his back. The sang songs before starting, then flew up. He set out on the back of one of the birds. Looking down, he saw people and their camps. Finally they came to where the sky touches the Earth and stopped. All the birds were there. They liked him and wanted to touch him. He asked the Seven Cranes whether that was their country. They answered no, they would see it the next day.
The next day all the birds got in a row next to the sky-hole with the Seven Cranes on the left side. The largest was chief of all. He took his comrade’s hand and sang a song. With his pipe, he raised the sky and told the birds to go. He lifted it high enough for the six other Cranes and himself. The sky closed down. They flew over the water and saw a black spot. The bird said the spot was his land and the man would see it.
When they came nearer, it became larger and larger. It was land when they got there. The birds had tipis. The first one was the Meadowlark’s, painted yellow and with the top black. The rest of the birds’ tents were all painted differently. The cryptically-gray-black-brown-colored Nighthawks’ tent had a Nighthawk figure on the rear, and the chief of the yellow Sandhill Cranes had a big yellow tent.
When the man got off, all the birds who had stayed at home wanted to see and touch the Indian. He stayed in the Cranes’ tent. but went to different tents in the camp, and looked at everything they had. He had no meat to eat while there. The Cranes made arrows for him and showed him where the deer were. He killed one. Deer were not afraid of him, so he went right up and shot one. They told him not to bring meat to the tent. One Crane came and ate with him, finally all of them came. Thereafter, the Cranes ate meat. After that, many birds would eat with them. There was no winter, but many cherries and plums.
After a while, he heard a crier say they would start in one month for the Indians’ country. He had found an eagle tail and brought it to his tent. The Cranes asked why he had that. He told them the Indians like eagle feathers very much, so they gave him a great many, and he made himself two war bonnets, which he kept in his tent.
There was no limitation either as to age or sex, so far as seeking a vision was concerned. Little boys sometimes fasted, not because their parents had urged them but probably because they had listened to others talking about visions and desired to try it for themselves. On the other hand, middle-aged and even old men would go out fasting. Young girls did not seek visions, but when older they might and did. Usually this happened when a relative had been killed by the enemy or even died a natural death. Thus, Young-crane chopped off a finger joint when her first husband was killed and fasted for two days after her daughter’s decease, though without receiving a revelation. — Robert Lowie
When it was time to go, they made him wings, and he went with the Seven Cranes. When they came to the place where the sky touches the Earth, the Big Crane gave the man a pipe, and told him to sing a song. He did so and lifted the sky with a pipe; then all the birds cheered. All the birds passed under it to the other side and he stopped them. All the birds then had a parade, dressed up as though for a fight. This Big Crane told the man to pick out whatever medicine he liked. He took the medicine of a crane, a hawk, and a condor. The Big Crane himself gave him medicine, so he had four medicines. All started then. When they came to the site where he had fasted, all sat down.
The four different birds who had given them their medicine stayed to tell him what to do and how to use it. The other birds left, but the Seven Cranes stayed there. All of these gave him medicine and told him they wanted to see his people. So he told them to stay while he went to his people, who were camped close by. He came to a man out hunting, who told him his relatives had mourned him. The visionary told this man to go back to camp, make seven sweatlodges and pemmican (dried bison meat ground with fat and berries) ready, for he was coming to camp with his father. The man told his father the son was back and they were to make seven sweatlodges.
Young men [or women] went out to seek visions of their own accord. Before going they swam, took a sweatbath, and rubbed themselves all over with sagebrush. Before sunrise they went out, taking sage and ground-cedar for their bedding, for all the animals liked these plants. When they came back from their fast, they had a sweat-lodge made and told their vision. Unless a large sudatory was seen in the vision, a small one was used. Visionaries might announce their vision to famous men either in the sweatlodge or at a feast. — Robert Lowie
When the seven sweatlodges were made and ready, the young man came to camp with the Cranes. When they arrived, they went to the seventh sweatlodge, all the doors of which faced east. there was pemmican in there. The Seven Cranes ate pemmican, also the young man. Seven other men were also in the sweatlodge. When they got into the sweatlodge it was very hot, and the Indian made a noise like a crane. He went into every sweatlodge, and into the last one the Seven Cranes went with him. It was really hot, then he no longer sang like a crane.
He got out, and largest of the Cranes told him to dive facing upstream. Then they came to the young Crow’s lodge and ate pemmican. When done eating, they went outside and the Seven Cranes flew away.
The Seven Cranes told him to go on the warpath right away. Soon he started as captain. When close to the hostile camp, he was going to make medicine, and told his followers to pile up buffalo chips as high as possible. He said if he climbed on top and any of the chips fell, he should turn back. Then he sang four songs, and at the end of each they cheered him. After the fourth song, he walked up the pile, and stood on the top. He came down and none of it fell down. Everyone cheered when he did this. The Cranes had told him within four days he would kill a whole camp of enemies; but there was a woman there who was to be his wife and whom he should not hurt, and she would ride a pinto horse and wear an elkskin dress.
One Blue Bead: “My medicine was good for war. I took it with me on the warpath. When I saw the enemy, I sang my song and tied it to my back. This is my song: — mi rakakam, bowik. I am a bird, I am coming.”
On the fourth day, the war party came to a camp. All the men went out buffalo hunting, and the whole party ran on the camp, killed the remaining men and took the horses, tore the tipi covers and broke up the poles, and captured the elk-dress woman, who was good-looking. They got the horses together, among them a pinto. The man took this pinto to the woman and made her ride it. Before the hunters’ return, they left, and he caused a storm. It rained. He got back to camp, having taken plenty of captives, women and children. They went through the camp with the first coup-striker in the lead. After that, he married the woman captive, as well as a Crow woman, and thus had two wives. He gave his medicine to his son, who also became a war captain.
The Crow, called the Apsáalooke in their own Siouan language, or variants including Absaroka, historically lived in the Yellowstone River valley, which extends from present-day Wyoming, through Montana and into North Dakota, where it joins the Missouri River. In the 21st century, the Crow people are a Federally recognized tribe known as the Crow Tribe of Montana, and have a reservation located in the south central part of the state.
Lowie, Robert H., “Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians,” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume XXV, Part I, New York, 1918.
Lowie, Robert H., “The Religion the Crow Indians,” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume XXV, Part II, New York, 1922.