A pragmatic friendship

What could the connection possibly be between a World War I French army marshal and a Plains Indian chief? When I stumbled across a photo in a museum of Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Crow Chief Plenty Coups together, I was stopped in my tracks. I had to start digging to learn the story behind this unlikely image; it seemed so odd that they could have anything in common.

- Chief Plenty Coup life mask, Western Heritage CenterA good way to dig around to get a sense of a place is by visiting small regional museums, and we’ve enjoyed those we’ve come upon as we’ve traveled east. So we were poking around in the excellent little Western Heritage Center in Billings, Montana, which has a fine collection of Plains Indian artifacts, including a life mask of Chief Plenty Coups. He was the last great Crow war chief, who led his people in the transition from the “buffalo plains” to the reservation. In other words, he chose to lead his people in giving up their land, their freedom, their way of life, and their pride, instead of leading them into war and extinction.

Chief Plenty CoupAs I’ve learned more of the stories of the native people of the west—stories we’ve all heard before, but with added resonance as we’ve crossed the Nez Perce trail and the big skies of the Plains Indians—I am newly awake to the Sophie’s choice dilemma all of these tribes confronted. In the face of the invasion of powerful people who coveted Indian land, who often lied, whose overwhelming force and straight-up greed confronted the Indians, they had to choose. Some tribes initially accommodated the whites, but learned their word couldn’t be trusted. And having no experience with lawyers and contracts, they sometimes signed treaties they didn’t understand, or that were later changed by congress before being ratified.

And while some politicians and settlers genuinely pushed for fairness and respect for the rights of native peoples, the west was largely lawless. When gold was discovered, or when pioneers struggling to make a go of it found better farmland, they usually ignored the treaties. And the military threatened war if the tribes didn’t move to ever smaller and more remote reservations.

Crow Chief Plenty CoupsPlenty Coups* was a member of the Sore Lips clan of the Mountain Crow (the Apsáalooke, meaning People of the Big Beaked Bird; “Crow” is the white man’s name). He was known as one of the great warriors of his time, living up to his name by earning “many achievements”, over 80 feats of valor in combat against his tribal enemies—the Crow hated the Sioux in particular—and he was named chief of the Crow at age 25. In the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he bragged that he never fought against the white man. In 1876, he fought with General George Crook and the Shoshones against the Lakota and Cheyenne in the Battle of the Rosebud. Eight days later, other Crows served as scouts for George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Crow chief Plenty CoupsBut his alliance with the white people was a pragmatic choice in the face of extinction. He was a warrior, but he chose peace and survival. And he rose to be a great leader of his people through his diplomatic, political and negotiating skills, fiercely defending their rights, especially land rights, with ranchers, railroads, and the government.

In 1921, he was so respected that the War Department chose him to represent all Indian tribes at the Burial of the Unknown Soldier of World War I in Arlington National Cemetery. So on November 11, alongside the President and the victorious Allied nations, Plenty Coups placed a flower wreath, his war bonnet, and his coup stick at the tomb. And Chief Plenty Coup, Crow, Apsáalookethere he met the World War I supreme Allied commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France, who later visited Plenty Coups in Crow country and was adopted into the Crow tribe.

Why did some leaders, like Plenty Coups, choose to save their people by cooperating with whites, giving up life on the buffalo plains for farming on the reservation; while others, like the Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull, chose liberty and the dignity of fighting the invaders, even though it meant they’d be hunted to the death? Do we appreciate the stunning, terrible choice they had to make?

Plenty Coups, Chief of the Crows, Norman A. ForsythPlenty Coups said, “Our leading chiefs saw that to help the white men fight their enemies and ours would make them our friends… We had always fought the three tribes, Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho… Our decision was reached… because we plainly saw that this course was the only one which might save our beautiful country for us.”

But lest we think he was blinded by friendship, he also said, “With all his wonderful powers, the white man … is smart, but not wise, and fools only himself.”

 

 

*His Indian name was Alaxchiiaahush, meaning Many War Achievements. There’s a good book recounting his reminiscences as told to Frank B. Linderman: Plenty-Coups: Chief of the Crows

Photos:

  1. Masthead photo: Group portrait including Chief Plenty Coups and General or Marshall Foch, French Army, 1921. L. Tom Perry Special Collections; Photograph Archives; 1130 Harold B. Lee Library; Brigham Young University; Provo, Utah 84602; http://sc.lib.byu.edu/ 
  2. Life mask photo: Chief Plenty Coups life mask, Crow, circa 1904. WHC 1991.80.01, Western Heritage Center, Billings, Montana, http://www.ywhc.org/index.php?p=24
  3. Crow Chief Plenty Coups, Baumgartner Studio, circa 1895 (WHC 1985.06.086) http://www.ywhc.org/index.php?p=22
  4. Crow Chief Plenty Coups, Baumgartner Studio, circa 1895 (WHC 1985.06.086) http://www.ywhc.org/index.php?p=22
  5. Plenty Coups, Crow, ca 1909, http://amertribes.proboards.com/thread/271/chief-plenty-coups-photographs?page=3
  6. Plenty Coups and President Harding, dedication to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1921, http://iiamericas.org/photos-and-videos/
  7. Chief Plenty Coups with daughter, photographed in 1907-1908 by Norman A. Forsyth

2 thoughts on “A pragmatic friendship

  1. Thanks for uncovering this. The juxtaposition of Foch with and Plenty Coups is startling and fascinating. The story reminds me that although Indians were rarely passive victims (disease being the most important exception), their choices were generally all bad ones.

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