The tribe of Indians known as the Crows[50] are entitled to the very marked distinction of being the most manly in their conduct in its relation to the whites. The integrity of their friendship has been tested on many occasions, and they have never proved false to their protestations. Their chiefs declare that a Crow was never known to kill a white man excepting in self-defence.

As has been the fate of the North American savage since that dark December day when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, the Crows have been driven year after year from one of the most beautiful natural regions on the continent. Not only have the whites been the usurpers, but both the Sioux and the Cheyennes have been instrumental in confining them to a constantly decreasing area, until now the remnant of a once great nation is the ward of the government, and located on a limited reservation.

To prove that Ab-sa-ra-ka, as the tribe designated their beautiful hunting-grounds, was rightly named, it is only necessary to quote a conversation which took place at a council held at Fort Philip Kearny, in July, 1866, when the following question was asked of Black-Horse, the Wolf-That-Lies-Down, Red-Arm, and Dull-Knife: -

"Why do the Sioux and Cheyennes claim the land which belongs to the Crows?" To which these chiefs answered: -

"The Sioux helped us. We stole the hunting-grounds of the Crows because they were the best. The white man is along the great waters, and we wanted more room. We fight the Crows because they will not take half and give us peace with the other half."

It is claimed that the Crows sprang from the Gros Ventres of the Missouri, whose language they speak. The Gros Ventres were a very weak tribe, or band, who had, by incessant wars with the surrounding tribes, become reduced to a very insignificant number of warriors. It is alleged, according to their tradition, that the Crows became a separate nation nearly two hundred years ago, because the tribe was becoming too numerous.

In the early years of the century the head chief of the Crows was A-ra-poo-ash. The celebrated Jim Beckwourth[51] had already become a leader among the Crows, and shortly after the death of A-ra-poo-ash was unanimously chosen in his place.

The Blackfeet were always very persistent and unrelenting enemies of the Crows, and some of the most bloody combats recorded in savage warfare occurred between these two tribes.

Once, while in the Crow village, a party of Blackfeet, numbering thirty or forty, came stealing through the Crow country, killing every straggler, and carrying off every horse they could lay their hands on. The Crow warriors immediately started after them and pressed them so closely that they could not escape. The Blackfeet then threw up a semicircular breastwork of logs at the foot of a precipice, and awaited the approach of their enemies. Logs and sticks were piled up four or five feet in front of them, which thoroughly protected them. The Crows might have swept over this breastwork and exterminated the Blackfeet; but though outnumbering them, they did not dream of storming the little fortification. Such a proceeding would have been altogether repugnant to the savage notion of warfare. Whooping and yelling, and jumping from side to side like devils incarnate, they poured a shower of bullets and arrows upon the logs, yet not a Blackfoot was hurt; but several of the Crows, in spite of their antics, were shot down. In that ridiculous manner the fight continued for an hour or two. Now and then a Crow warrior, in an ecstasy of valour and vainglory, would scream forth his war-song, declare himself the bravest and greatest of all Indians, grasp his hatchet, strike it wildly upon the breastwork, and then, as he retreated to his companions, fall dead, riddled with arrows; yet no combined attack was made, the Blackfeet remaining secure in their intrenchment. At last Jim Beckwourth lost patience: -

"You are all a set of fools and old women," cried he; "come with me, if any of you are brave enough, and I'll show you how to fight."

Beckwourth instantly threw off his trapper's suit of buckskin, stripping himself naked as were the Indians themselves. Throwing his rifle on the ground, he grasped a small hatchet, and running over the prairie to the right, hidden by a hollow from the eyes of the Blackfeet, he climbed up the rocks and reached the top of the precipice behind them. Forty or fifty young warriors followed him. By the cries and whoops that arose from below, Beckwourth knew that the Blackfeet were just beneath him; then running forward, he leaped from the rock right in the midst of the surprised savages. As he fell, he caught one of the Blackfeet by his long, loose hair, and dragging him toward him, buried his hatchet in his brain. Then grasping another by the belt at his waist, he struck him a stunning blow, and gaining his feet, shouted the Crow war-cry. He swung his hatchet so fiercely around him that the astonished Blackfeet crowded back and gave him room. He might, had he chosen, have leaped over the breastwork and escaped; but this was not necessary, for with devilish yells the remainder of the Crow warriors came dropping in quick succession over the rock, and rallied around him.

The convulsive struggle within the breastwork was frightful; for a few moments the Blackfeet fought and yelled like pent-up tigers; but the butchery was complete, and the mangled bodies lay piled together under the precipice. Not a Blackfoot made his escape.

In 1833 a band of Blackfeet, superior in numbers to the Crows, most unmercifully whipped them. On their return to their village one night in August, shortly after the fight, there was a grand display of meteoric showers, and although the Crow warriors were ready to face death in any form, the wonderful celestial display appalled them. They regarded it as the wrath of the Great Spirit showered visibly upon them. In their terrible fright, they, of course, looked to their chief for some explanation of it. But as Beckwourth himself was as much struck with the wonderful occurrence, he was equally at a loss with his untutored followers to account for the remarkable spectacle.

Evidently, he knew, he must augur some result from it, though his own dejected spirit did not prompt him to deduce a very encouraging one. He thought of all the impostures that are practised upon the credulous, and his imagination suggested some brilliant figures to his mind. He thought at first of declaring to them that the Great Spirit was pleased with the expedition, and was lighting the band on its way with spirit lamps; or that the meteors were the spirits of departed braves, coming to assist their worldly brothers in another impending fight; but he was not sanguine enough of possible results to indulge in any attractive oratory. He merely informed his warriors that he had not time to consult his medicine, but that as soon as he could he would interpret the miracle in full.

When his band of warriors arrived at the village, he found all of the people's minds still agitated with fear at the late phenomenon. Every one was talking of it with wonder and amazement, and the chief's opinion was demanded at once; they were expecting it, and wanted to know what the consequences were to be. Admonished by his recent defeat, Beckwourth now had no trouble in reading the stars. He told his warriors that they had evidently offended the Great Spirit; that it was because of his wrath they had suffered defeat in their excursion to the Blackfeet country, and returned with the loss of twenty-three warriors. He then told them that a sacrifice must be made to appease the wrath of the Great Spirit, and he recommended that a solemn council be convened and a national oblation be offered up.

Beckwourth knew that he was doing an absurd thing, but the superstition of the people demanded it, and he must cater to their desires because it was popular.

The camp where the Crows then were was a mourning-camp, in which, according to their religion, "medicine" would have no effect. The camp was, therefore, moved to another place, about ten miles distant, in order to properly offer up the sacrifice.

All the leading men and braves assembled in council, and Beckwourth, as their great medicine-man, was consulted as to what kind of an offering should be made which would effect its purpose of appeasing the wrath that was consuming the tribe.

Beckwourth retired for a while from the council, telling the chiefs he must consult his medicine. Returning in a short time, he ordered them to bring out the great medicine kettle, which was of brass, capable of holding ten gallons, and was worth ten buffalo-robes. It was then ordered to be polished until it shone as bright as the sun's face. That being done, Beckwourth ordered the warriors to throw in all the most costly and highly prized trinkets, or whatever they cherished most dearly. It was soon filled with the band's choicest treasures. Keepsakes, fancy-work, in which months of patient toil had been expended, knick-knacks, jewels, and rings so highly regarded that the costliest gems of emperors seemed poor in comparison. All these were thrown into the kettle willingly, along with a bountiful contribution of fingers[52] until it could hold no more. Then weights were attached to it, when it was carried to an air-hole in the ice where the river was very deep, and there sunk with becoming ceremony, young maidens habited in the best apparel bearing the burden.

The great sacrifice completed, the minds of the people were relieved, and the result of the next war-party was anxiously looked forward to, to learn if the oblation was accepted by the Great Spirit. The crying and lamentations continued, however, unabated, so much to the derangement of Beckwourth's nervous system that if he could, he would have gladly retired from the village to seek some less dolorous companionship.

The incantations seemed to have had a good effect, for on another expedition shortly afterward the war-party returned with lots of scalps and thirteen hundred horses, which they had stolen from the Blackfeet.[53]

The Crows enjoyed a practical joke as well as their more humorous white brethren, as the following incident will attest.

In the summer of 1842 a war-party of about two hundred Crows invaded the Sioux country by way of Laramie Pass, penetrating as far as Fort Platte and beyond, in pursuit of the enemy.

A few miles above the fort, they stopped a lone Frenchman, an employee of one of the fur companies, who was rather new to the region, and also green in everything that pertains to Indian methods. They began by signs to inquire the trail of the Sioux (the sign for that tribe being a transverse pass of the right front finger across the throat), which the poor Frenchman interpreted as their intention to cut his. He immediately began to bellow like a calf, accompanying himself with an industrious number of crosses, and a most earnest prayer to the Virgin to graciously save him from his impending fate.

The savages, noticing his strange conduct, and regarding it as an evidence of fear, were disposed to have a little fun at his expense. Then mounting him upon one of their spare horses, they tied his hands and feet, and led him to one of the trading-posts of the American Fur Company, as a prisoner.

The gates of the fort were, of course, closed, but the Crows demanded immediate admittance, declaring they wanted to trade. What goods were wanted by them? was asked by the officer in charge; to which the leader of the savages replied, tobacco.

"What have you got to trade for it?" was then asked.

"A white man," was the answer.

"A white man?" asked the surprised commander. "What do you want for him?"

"Oh! he is not worth much. A plug of tobacco is his full value!" was the response by nearly all the warriors.

The commandant, seeing through the savage joke, and on recognizing the unfortunate Frenchman, told the Indians they might possibly find a market for him at the other fort. He did not want to purchase.

The savages paraded around the walls of the post for a few minutes, and with a salutation of terrible war-whoops, dashed off for Fort Platte.

When they reached Fort Platte, having tumbled two platforms of their dead enemies on the trail,[54] they told the same story to the commanding officer, who felt disposed to humour their joke and accordingly gave the tobacco to the savages. Upon this they turned over the Frenchman, nearly frightened to death, and rode away in pursuit of the Sioux.

Many years ago a missionary went among the Crows. He was admitted to an audience of the leading men, and commenced, through an interpreter, to tell them the story how sin first came into the world, and how all men had become bad, whether white or red. Then he proceeded to explain the principles of Christianity, telling the savages that he had come among them to do them good, to show them how to be happy, and declaring that unless they listened to him and worshipped the Good Spirit as he instructed them, they could never reach that happy country into which good people alone found admittance after death.

A venerable chief then arose and said: "My white brother is a stranger to us. He talks evil of us, and he talks evil of his own people. He does this because he is ignorant. He thinks my people, like his, are wicked. Thus far he is wrong. Who were they who killed the very good man of whom he tells us? None of them were red men! The red man will die for his friends - he will not kill them! Let my paleface brother talk to the white man. His own people - they are very bad. He says he would do us good! He does us no good to chide us and say we are bad. True, we are bad - and were we as bad as the palefaces, it would become us to listen to him. Would my brother do us good? Then let him tell us how to make powder and we will believe in the sincerity of his profession - but let him not belie us by saying we are bad, like the palefaces!"

The Crows also have their legends of enchantment, as have other tribes.

Once upon a time a party of Crow Indians were out hunting the buffalo, and they had with them a blind man. As he was a great hindrance to them, they put up a teepee on the bank of the Stinking Water for him, and told him to remain there until they returned.

They left him something to eat and built a fire for him. Then they drove a stake in the ground and stretched a lariat to the Stinking Water so that he could drink, and they also stretched another lariat to the timber, and told him to follow that and he could get wood. Thus they left him, and shortly after their departure another party of Crows came along, and they, too, had a blind man with them; so they concluded to follow the example of the first party, and leave him to keep the first blind man company.

The two blind men sat down and spent their time in telling stories; but the two hunting-parties were detained, and the two blind men ran out of provisions, and became very hungry. They sat at their fire and wondered what they should do for something to eat. Finally they could stand it no longer, and one of them suggested that they go down to the river and catch a fish to eat.

"No," said the other; "Sak-a-war-te (the Great Spirit of the Crows) told our people to hunt the buffalo, and it would make him very angry for us to catch and eat fish"; but hunger getting the better of him, he consented.

They went down to the water, and it was not long before they caught a large fish. They came back to their teepee, made a fire, and proceeded to cook their fish. They were sitting on either side of the fire talking, and when the fish was done, Sak-a-war-te came quietly in and took the fish out of the pot over the fire. Soon they discovered that their fish was gone, and then they began to accuse each other of having taken it. From words they came to blows, and while they were fighting, Sak-a-war-te was standing there and laughing at them. At last he spoke to them and told them to stop fighting - that he, Sak-a-war-te, had taken the fish to try them.

He then said that they were bad Indians; they had broken his commands to his people, which was to kill only the buffalo. But he said he would try them again. He told them to go to the Stinking Water, and take some mud and rub it on their eyes, then to wash it off and they would see. Then he told them they must obey him and go hunt the buffalo. Then he left them.

They did as he told them to do, and in a short time they could see. Then they sat down and talked over matters; but their hunger increasing and the hunting-parties not returning, they at last were compelled to go down to the river and catch another fish.

They had no sooner landed a fish than they both lost their sight again. In remorse they sat by their fire once more, and again Sak-a-war-te came to them, and told them what bad Indians they had been, but said he would try them once more. So he told them a second time to go down to the river, to take mud and apply it to their eyes, then wash it off, and when they had received their sight, they should never again take fish, for if they did they would become blind and never again recover their sight. They must hunt only the buffalo. They did as the Great Spirit had told them to do, and immediately received their sight once more. Then they went and made them bows and arrows, as Sak-a-war-te had said they should, and while they were thus employed, their friends returned from the hunt and gave them food. The hunters were very much surprised to find that the men had recovered their sight, and when they were told how it was accomplished, all said they would ever after be good Indians and hunt only the buffalo.

The Blackfeet Indians are divided into three tribes, and each tribe again divided into Blackfeet, Bloods, and Piegans. This confederation, while distinct, is regarded as a nation, and one of the stipulations was that there should never be any clashing between them; but notwithstanding this there have been many bloody fights.

According to tradition, they once lived much farther east and north, near the Saskatchewan country. Two or three hundred years ago they were driven from there by hostile tribes, and they slowly moved to the Rocky Mountains, where they have remained.

Their country, like that of the Crows, is a magnificent region - a perfect paradise for a people who subsisted wholly on wild game. Such subsistence was a necessity, too, for their mountainous range belongs to that arid portion of our mid-continent area where, without irrigation, it is doomed to a hopeless bondage of sterility. Millions of buffalo and antelope roamed the plains, and in the forest-fringed valleys and on the pine-clad divides, elk, deer, and mountain sheep flocked in immense numbers.

The characteristics of the Blackfeet were bravery, hardiness, and a ferocity that made them formidable enemies to the other tribes with which they were constantly at war. Particularly were they the everlasting foes of the Crows, from whom they stole horses by the wholesale; but very frequently the tables were turned, and the Crows retaliated, robbing the Blackfeet of thousands.

They were probably the best hunters of all the plains' tribes, and in the early days before their contact with the whites their weapons were of the most primitive character. They used merely bows with stone-pointed arrows, and they resorted to the most ingenious methods in order to capture the buffalo, which was their principal food. In fact, they subsisted almost entirely upon that great ruminant.

One of their plans to catch the huge beasts was known as the "pis-kun," literally meaning deep blood-kettle. It was really an immense corral, generally constructed just below a steep precipice, and its sides and ends enclosed by logs, stone, or brush - anything that came handy and answered the purpose. On the prairie above the precipice, wings extended out on either side, in shape of an open triangle. Into this the buffalo were carefully driven, and in their fright precipitated themselves over the brink.

The proceedings were always conducted with much ceremony, and involved a good deal of savage mummery. The sun, which was one of their deities, must be propitiated. The evening previous to the attempt to drive a herd of buffalo into the pis-kun, one of the medicine-men of the band commenced by praying to the sun for the success of the undertaking. He was the one to make the buffalo come, and early in the morning he got out his robes and started on his mission, after warning his wives that they must not show themselves, even by looking out of the door of the lodge, until he came back from his mission, but that they must constantly burn sweet grass as an offering to the god of the day.

He must necessarily fast when engaged in this duty, and when he was ready to make his appearance on the prairie the warriors all followed him, hiding themselves behind the temporary fence that bounded the pis-kun. He then dressed himself in a bonnet which was made of the head of a buffalo, and with a robe of the same animal thrown around him slowly approached the peacefully grazing herd.

Arriving in the immediate vicinity, the buffalo, attracted by the apparition, looked up. The medicine-man walked then very deliberately toward the opening of the pis-kun. Generally the buffalo began to follow him, and as he saw that they did so he increased his pace, the animals, whose curiosity was aroused, at the same time doing the same.

When the herd was securely within the corral, the hidden Indians suddenly rose from their places, yelling as only savages can, at the same instant shaking their robes, and the stampeded animals rushed headlong to their death over the precipice. Hundreds were instantly killed, while others were so dreadfully disabled as to make them an easy prey. Then commenced an indiscriminate skinning and cutting up, the chiefs and most noted warriors receiving the choicest meat.

As has been the fate of nearly all the Indian tribes west of the Missouri River, the smallpox made fearful inroads among the Blackfeet. It first appeared in 1845, and the tribe was decimated. In fact, it is said that the disease almost swept the plains of Indians. In 1757-1758, it again visited them, but was not so virulent as at its first appearance. The measles carried off thousands in 1864; and again, in 1869, the smallpox broke out in the Blackfeet villages. In 1883-1884, strange as it may appear, twenty-five per cent of the Piegan band actually died from hunger! The cause of this terrible disaster was that the buffalo had been driven from the Blackfoot country, or rather exterminated, and the tribe, which had ever wholly depended upon that animal for their subsistence, in a short time was reduced to a state of absolute starvation.

Like the buffalo, the once powerful Blackfeet are nearly all gone. The few left are living on a small reservation, and are somewhat self-sustaining. What a sad commentary! Fifty years ago the Blackfeet numbered over forty thousand warriors, and their name was a terror to the white man who had the temerity to travel through their country.

The Blackfoot account of creation is not a very definite one; portions of it are too vulgar for refined ears, but in it is to be found a story of a once great flood, which seems to be common to the cosmogony of all tribes.