The Crow Indians


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Visions . . . were the basic means of controlling life, and virtually every man tried to secure one. Yet there were men like Littlerump who failed even after repeated self-mortification. They were, we may guess, folk unsuggestible even in fasting and solitude or in other ways disqualified for the part of seers. More numerous, I take it, were those who gained supernatural experience of a sort but not of the kind backed by outstanding success; reliance on their revelation might thus be tempered by a measure of hard-headed skepticism. Yet all men crave the life values, so the Crow fell back upon the notion that supernatural power could be transferred: the vision still remained its fountainhead, but its benefits could be transferred by purchase or inheritance. These practices were tied up with a number of significant conceptions.

In the first place, the feather, rock, or bundle that symbolized the power granted to a visionary had a potency in its own right. By teaching the relevant rules the owner could therefore bequeath or transfer it to a close relative, who thus became a beneficiary without himself enjoying direct spiritual contacts. For instance, Strikes-at-night had escaped poverty by obtaining a Horse medicine. When she showed it to me, its virtue, she explained, was still there, for her son Bullweasel, over whose bed she kept the bundle, owned plenty of horses.

The idea of transmission appears again and again. The outsider who wished to buy especially valuable medicines was at first treated as an undesirable intruder. When Flat-head-woman wanted to gain part ownership of the Sacred Arrow the chief holder demurred: "Why do you want this so badly? You are not related to us, you are a different person altogether." Then Hillside, the speaker’s brother and thus himself joint owner, interceded, "He was the comrade of my dead younger brother. They loved each other, that’s why I wish to give it to him. Don’t say any more against it." Sometimes a person coveting a particular medicine slyly got into the owner’s good graces until native etiquette made refusal impossible. Thus, Strikes-at-night, when still destitute, found out that the owner of Horse bundle needed a new tent cover. Being a good tanner, she offered to assist in the preparation of the hides, which she tanned whenever the owner brought back hides from the chase. Thus, she tanned fifteen hides, sewed them together, and put up the tipi. Now the owner’s wife asked what pay she would like to get. Then Strikes-at-night explained that she was poor because her husband was blind and that she wanted to acquire the Horse medicine. The other woman got angry: "If you had told me before, I should never have let you finish the hides. Now I can hardly refuse you." For a long time she remained silent, at last she asked my informant to bring her husband. She told the couple that she had hitherto refused to adopt anyone. However, "Now you have worked hard on this tent and finished it. I have thought it over and I will give it to you." Strikes-at-night added: "The other people were telling me I was very cunning because of the way I got the medicine. I had merely followed my husband’s directions, but they all laid it to me."

In other words, power with its symbols could be transferred in whole or in part. That compensation should be paid for the benefit of a vision was, indeed, so firmly rooted an idea that some ceremonial privileges had to be paid for even if a son got them from his own parent. However this be, the Crow could indefinitely extend the range of beneficiaries from a vision. In such cases the visionary (or transferror) was conceived to stand to the purchaser in the same ceremonial relationship as the supernatural being to the visionary: as the supernatural adopts the visionary as his "child" so the owner of a medicine becomes the buyer’s "father."

Every sacred object was revealed in a vision, but it could also stimulate a vision. . . . Child-in-the-mouth told me . . . he was once so poor that he had to travel afoot. He was not yet a member of the Tobacco order, but his mother-in-law had inherited a Tobacco necklace and through her daughter she sent my informant out fasting with it. He was blessed by an aged couple, who promised him wealth and good luck generally. He subsequently went to war, struck coups, captured guns, and was never poor thereafter. Flat-head-woman’s case was similar. He had received a sacred arrow from the owners of the Arrow bundle. When they felt that he knew the associated rules, they sent him out on his own. To quote him: "I was now to have visions of my own. I did not see an arrow as they did, but a long species of grass. I would see the stalk flying like an arrow and follow it with my eyes till it alighted somewhere, then I would go thither. From now on everything depended on myself. I had visions of different things. I made a little notched stick about four inches long myself, because I had a vision to that effect. If the enemy had stolen our horses and I put this on their tracks, they would sleep too long or be otherwise delayed, so we would catch up if I led the party." . . .

The nature of a blessing often corresponds to the "father’s" natural gifts. Lone-tree became a weather magician because the Thunder had adopted him. A deer says to Raven-face: "Of all things on this earth that step on the ground there is nothing that beats me in running. By that save yourself in time of trouble." Similarly, Humped-wolf, having met a buffalo, becomes heavy and slow in battle, so that no matter what happens he shall not run away.

This type of revelation merges into another, in which the patron confers not merely the gifts of his species but his individual status or capacity. Humped-wolf’s buffalo sees him worrying over a wound and opens its mouth, which proves to be toothless. "You shall be the same as myself. . . . You cannot die until then (when you have no more teeth). That is the first thing I will give you." So the buffalo-man who blessed Hillside had gray hair and was leading a large crowd of people: " . . . this showed that I was to live to be an old man. His being leader showed that I was to be a leader of my people." Again, Full-mouth-buffalo, returning to camp, is caught by a bear. "He lifted me up so that I could see all the earth. He made me touch his teeth; he had none at all. ’You may jump among high cliffs or do what you please,’ said he, ’you cannot die. When you have no more teeth and all your hair is white, you shall fall asleep without awaking.’" Medicine-crow’s stepfather almost duplicated this legendary experience. "A bear jumped up and caught him. He thought he was being killed, but the bear held him up and asked whether he could see all the world. ’Yes.’ Then the bear said, ’Put your fingers into my mouth.’ The bear had no teeth." On the same principle, the benevolent Dwarf of a myth, whose body is "ofstone," transfers his own invulnerability to the poor man he befriends: "Now your body is of stone."

But whether the visitant transmits his individual powers or not, he commonly employs a transparent symbolism to indicate the nature of his gift. Bull-all-the-time gained a doctor’s powers while asleep in his tipi. He saw a horse fastened to a rope, which was lengthened up to him, and simultaneously heard a person sing. He was told to treat the sick; an old man with a pipestem was standing over a recumbent patient and blew over him through the pipe; the sick man rose and my informant saw all the sickness come out of the patient’s blood. He showed me the pipestem thus revealed to him. The horse stood for the horses he was to get as fees. Arm-round-the-neck had a similar promise of wealth: "I dreamt someone was kicking my foot and there were horses all round me with ropes to their necks and fastened to my body. I heard someone say, ’Wherever you go, you shall have horses.’ Ever since then I have had horses. I think this dream was given me by dogs. I was walking, followed by several dogs. I lay down under a tree, and fell asleep, with the dogs lying round me about the tent. So I thought they took pity on me and gave me horses."

Sometimes the circumstances of an apparition are set forth in simple terms involving a mere vision or audition, the adoption formula, and a few instructions and tabus by the supernaturals. Gray-bull had inherited his grandfather’s sacred bundle and went out to fast with it. "I saw a bird flying over me in a circle. It descended and went down into a canyon whistling. On both sides there were rocks. The rocks began to shoot at the bird but failed to hit it, so that it came out unhurt. . . . I did not know that I could not be shot until long afterwards. I was never shot. I kept my dreams secret, for I was afraid if I told them I might get shot. Once many Piegan were lying under a pine tree. One was some distance in front of us . . . . He shot at me when I was just above him but he did not hit me . . . . That night I dreamt and someone said to me, ’Don’t you know that you cannot be shot?’"1

1Lowie, R.H.n/an/an/an/a, , 248–250, 245–247 (Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. By permission).


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Chicago: "The Crow Indians," The Crow Indians in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . "The Crow Indians." The Crow Indians, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , 'The Crow Indians' in The Crow Indians. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from