Inspire Me – Plenty Coups

Gifted with impressive speech and a dignity of presence, Plenty Coups was recognized as the outstanding chief of his time.

Chief of the Crows. Chief of Chiefs.

The word coup (pronounced “koo”) is defined by Webster in two distinct ways. Most English speakers recognize it as the, “forceful overthrow of an existing government by a small group.” The lesser-known definition is, “a brilliant, sudden, and usually highly successful stroke or act.” Plenty Coups

Pronounced ah-lok-chia in the Crow language, it means war deed. It is the highest achievement for a Native American warrior and represents the act of being the, “first to strike or touch the enemy in battle.”

Eye of the Beholder - Inspire Me - Plenty Coups

There is an English phrase that captures the spirit of this meaning … an Act of Valor. defines valor as, “boldness or determination in facing great danger, especially in battle; heroic courage; bravery.”

In the old days of the Great Plains Indian, a war deed allowed one to Count Coup.

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This was a way of life back then, and it carried significant implications for a young brave. It was a defining moment for his life, representing the rite of passage into manhood. It earned eligibility into social groups, a spot in the hierarchy of the tribe, and even allowed for the privilege of marriage.

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Counting coup was typically done with a coup stick; a length of wooden branch adorned with various carvings, lashings, and feathers unique to each warrior and his tribal customs.

It served as his visual resumé, displaying his achievements for all to see.

This was the life of Plenty Coups, Chief of the Crows.

Meaning, Many Achievements, he counted coup many times, earning celebrity status among the Crow people. His prestige extended to other tribal nations, and eventually earned him international recognition in 1921 as Chief of all Chiefs when he was invited to the dedication ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Over 100 years later, many will wonder why the U.S. government would include Plenty Coups in such a revered ceremony, or why he would even want to go. Most people today have such a limited knowledge about the Indian Wars that they’ve probably never even heard the name of Plenty Coups.

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Plenty Coups, circa 1880
Eye of the Beholder - Inspire Me - Plenty Coups
Plenty Coups, circa 1920
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Plenty Coups, circa 1908

There is some insight about this in Emma Tanner’s November 2022 article, Beyond the Invitation: Chief Plenty Coups and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

  • Inviting Chief Plenty Coups to the ceremony may have been motivated by the fact that the fallen soldier could have been of Native American descent.
  • Native Americans were born into a warrior culture, creating the perception that they were better suited to dangerous combat missions. This led to a startling statistic, where Native Americans died at a rate five times higher than other soldiers.
  • Joseph K. Dixon is quoted in a letter to the Secretary of War after the 1921 dedication;

What more fitting than that this race of people … should have a place in the ceremony, for doubtless hundreds of unknown Indian graves are scattered from the sea to the Alps?… It will give added distinction to the ceremony—the fact that the First American Warrior should lay his tribute on the grave of the Latest Hero of War—an Unknown American Soldier.

Joseph K. Dixon, 1921
  • An article from the Washington Herald published the day after the ceremony discussed how the nation’s “First Warrior” paid his respects and honored a soldier from the “Now”. According to the author, the two men, “had nothing in common yet had everything in common.
Eye of the Beholder - Inspire Me - Plenty Coups

As the ceremony neared its conclusion, Plenty Coups rose from his seat and approached the sarcophagus of the unknown soldier.

He took off his war bonnet and placed it on the casket along with his coup stick and spoke.

I feel it an honor to the red man that he takes part in this great event, because it shows that thousands of Indians that fought in the great war are appreciated by the white man. I am glad to represent all the Indians of the United States in placing on the grave of this noble warrior this coup stick and war bonnet, every eagle feather of which represents a deed of valor by my race. I hope that the Great Spirit will grant that these noble warriors have not given up their lives in vain and that there will be peace to all men hereafter.

Chief Plenty Coups, 1921

Frank B. Linderman wrote, “So devoted was he, and so widely known in his advocacy of good feeling between his own people and white men, that he was chosen as the representative of all the Indian tribes, to place the Redman’s wreath of flowers upon the grave of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington.

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I visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2017 and learned about the 1921 dedication event. I never knew the name of Plenty Coups or his place in American history until I saw his coup stick and war bonnet on display.

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The encounter left quite an impression on me, as I realized how special this man must have been in order to receive such an honor.

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Plenty Coups was inspired by George Washington. Learn More

I was in Montana a couple years later and discovered Plenty Coups State Park.

In something like a full circle moment, I knew I had to visit this place and learn more about the man I had encountered in Washington D.C.

I toured the property, walked through Plenty Coups’ log home, and explored the Sacred Spring.

I also went to the Visitor Center and bought a book and poster.

After reading the book and conducting research for this article, I’ve developed a much deeper appreciation for Plenty Coups. I am inspired by the life he lived, and I think he would be pleased to know that his story has given me a better understanding of the culture he grew up in.

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When Plenty Coups sat down with Frank B. Linderman in 1928 to tell his story, the 80-year-old Chief asked Frank directly, “Why do you wish to write down my words?

Linderman answered, “If you tell me what I wish to know, and I write it down, my people will better understand your people.

Frank had already established some trust with the Chief, having met a few years before while driving mares through the area. Plenty Coups remembered that meeting, referring to Frank as, Sign Talker.

He replied, “You are my friend, Sign Talker, I know your heart is good. I will tell you what you wish to know, and you may write it down.

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Plenty Coups was probably the last legitimate chief who lived during the Old Ways of the Plains Indian.

I greatly appreciate the style of Linderman’s completed work.

It is a very fact-based presentation of what Plenty Coups said, presenting a first-hand account of his life experiences.

With almost no editorial speculation, or interpretive musings by the author, the reader gains a more accurate perspective.

I’d like to share a few notions from the book that have left a lasting impression on me.

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Speaking of the Dead Plenty Coups

There was serious reverence among the Crow people for those who have passed on.

“The names of the dead are seldom spoken by the Crows. “They have gone to their Father, Ah-badt-dadt-deah, and like Him are sacred.” This custom makes the gathering of tribal history extremely difficult. For a time, Plenty-coups would not violate this tribal custom which was threatening my success in getting his story. But finally, as his interest in his tale grew, he realized it was necessary, and graciously, and I believe a little fearfully, he named many men and women who had passed away.”

Frank B. Linderman quoting Plenty Coups, 1930

I drew a similar conclusion as Linderman, about the difficulty of gathering tribal history. It’s no wonder we know so little about the old ways. More than merely a lack of written records, there was this cultural belief system about not speaking of the dead.

They Started Young Plenty Coups

Crow society was designed to develop young boys, preparing them for the day of counting their first coup. Tribal Elders devoted time and attention to it, constructing physical and mental training activities disguised as play.

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Chasing and catching butterflies was all about building a runner’s endurance.

Swimming at sunrise in cold water developed mental toughness.

There was daily training with the bow and arrow, not only to develop shooting skills, but to strengthen young arms and shoulders for stronger and more deadly hunting bows.

Practice missions were designed, where young boys were trained to sneak into villages and take a piece of meat from the drying rack without being caught. This was meant to simulate the act of entering an enemy village and cutting the rope of a tied horse. Called “cutting a horse”, this deed entitled the performer to count coup.

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Medicine Was Everything Plenty Coups

The Crow had a deep, spiritual connection to the animal world. Besides the notion of physical training in the chasing of butterflies, there was a belief in the ability to be blessed with the grace and swiftness of the creature if you rubbed its wings over your heart. Similarly, swimming skills could be enhanced by being slapped with a beaver tail.

Crow people believed that all manner of animal skills could be granted by carrying a small leather pouch (medicine bundle) filled with the essence of the creatures one wished to be like. The contents of these bundles were secret and sacred, known only to the possessor.

For Plenty Coups, he revered the Chickadee and Weasel. There were likely other contents in his medicine bundle. It was common practice for one to include tobacco seeds in the pouch.

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Dreams were a significant part of Native American medicine.

Entire rituals were built around the sweat lodge, fasting, and isolation, all designed to seek a vision from the spirit world (Helpers).

These visions represented answers about life and often provided a prophetic glimpse into the future.

When dream-guidance from the Helpers combined with an awareness of one’s personal kinship to the animal world, the strength and meaning of a young brave’s medicine became clear.

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At the age of 9, in 1857, Plenty Coups experienced a significant dream-vision. It revealed to him that his medicine was the Chickadee. The Helpers told him that the Chickadee is least in strength but strongest of mind. His skills were listening, gaining wisdom, and learning from others’ successes and failures. The Helpers explained that it is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.

Eye of the Beholder - Inspire Me - Plenty Coups

Plenty Coups’ dream showed a great forest being destroyed by the Four Winds, leaving only a single tree standing.

The lone survivor was the tree of the Chickadee.

Other meaningful imagery, too numerous to mention here, revealed more insight about the coming storm and how it would affect all Native people.

The Tribal Elders interpreted Plenty Coups dream correctly. As history records, the great forest of Native culture and the old ways of life were swept away by westward expansion of the United States.

I have not told you half that happened when I was young … when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground … After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere … You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.

Chief Plenty Coups, speaking to Frank B. Linderman, 1928
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From the beginning, Crow people were friendly to the whites. There is only one known instance of tribal hostility. It was against the American Fur Company in 1834, because they had located a trading post in Blackfeet territory, a bitter enemy of the Crow.

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Vintage photograph of Crow Scouts and U.S. Cavalry soldiers. Circa 1885

Despite all that happened, they remained friendly to the U.S., even serving as allies during fierce battles at places like the Rosebud and Little Bighorn.

I believe this attitude was rooted in two factors.

1 – The Crow People Were Already Surrounded

The Crow had a long list of old enemies all around them, long before white people arrived. For generations, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Blackfeet, Flatheads, Gros Ventres, and Pecunies waged war on the Crow. Faced with so much enemy danger, it was a wise move for the Crow to join forces with the whites.

When other tribes asked the Crow to fight against the Whites, we refused. We saw that helping the white men would make them our friends. We had always fought the other tribes anyway, so the defeat of our old enemies would please us. We did this not because we loved the white man, or because we hated the other tribes, but because we plainly saw that this course was the only one which might save our beautiful country.

Chief Plenty Coups, 1928

2 – Heeding the Warning of the Chickadee Dream

It was clear in his dream vision, and in the Elders’ interpretation of it, that the Great Forest of Native culture would be swept away by the Four Winds. Only one would survive. Plenty Coups took this to heart, accepting the reality of what was to come. So, he followed the path most likely to provide a future for the Crow people.

Listening, as the Chickadee listens, we saw that those who made war against the white men always failed in the end and lost their lands.

Chief Plenty Coups, 1928
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To a degree, Plenty Coups was right. For help in the Indian Wars, the U.S. Government promised to reserve land in the 1880s throughout the valley of the Bighorn River and Bighorn Mountains for the Crow people. Sadly, their original 38-million-acre reservation dwindled to a fraction by 1910, and it was still under threat by federal land grabbers. Chief Plenty Coups, Yellowtail, and other tribal members fought back, defeating legislation in 1917 that lead to the Crow Act of 1920.

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Plenty Coups was the transitional chief of his time, leading the Crow people through a massive cultural shift that came upon them abruptly and violently.

I can hardly imagine the harshness and heartbreak of such a thing.

The Indian has startled us … and so confounds us in our final estimate of the race … from whom we might have learned needed lessons, if we had tried. Now is too late. The real Indians are gone … The change … to an … unnatural existence came so suddenly to the plains Indian that his customs and traditions could not flourish … all but perished with the buffalo … One is startled that so brief a time could wipe away traditions ages old …

Frank Bird Linderman, 1930

Much can be said, and many lessons to be learned from the life of Plenty Coups and the demise of the Old Ways. For me personally, a scriptural phrase comes to mind … It is hard to kick against the goads.

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Depiction of the Stoning of Steven, by Rembrandt

The Biblical context is Saul of Tarsus and his persecution of Christians after the crucifixion.

Saul was especially brutal against the early church, participating in arrests, beatings, and even killing Christ followers.

His objective was to stop the spread of the new religion in its tracks, using violence and intimidation. God confronted Saul by striking him blind, saying, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.Acts 26:12-18
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Those familiar with the story know that Saul later became the Apostle Paul, one of world’s most prolific harbingers of the Gospel message to the ancient world. As history has revealed, Saul fought a losing battle against the inevitable. He kicked against the goads as Christianity grew from the original 12 into the world’s largest religion, exceeding 2 billion followers.

I think Chief Plenty Coups realized something similar. Fighting against the whites would lead to the inevitable conclusion of defeat and loss. Adapting, learning, and assimilating was the only way, even though it would produce a forever heartbreak.

Romans 11:33-36

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Steve Coryell