In 1855, in what is today Wyoming and Montana, the Crow Indians seemed to face imminent extinction. They suffered raids from neighboring tribes, pressure from white settlers, and disease. Today, the Crow Indian Reservation occupies 2.2 million acres. 7,900 Crow live on the reservation, out of a tribe of 11,000 members, 85 percent of whom speak Crow as their first language. The Crow think of themselves as a modern nation that conducts relations with the U.S. government and the state of Montana. Unlike most other Indian tribes, they were never defeated in battle and continue to live on the land they believe God gave them. The single person to whom this is most due is Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Crow, who led his people through a period of immense cultural change from their life of intertribal warfare and hunting to farming on a reservation in modern America.
Plenty Coups’ story can help us navigate our own immense cultural changes. Today conservatives, progressives, and everyone in between feel the cultural ground shifting under us. Political battles are conducted in apocalyptic terms, in part because many no longer feel at home in our country as they once did. The Right must storm the American cockpit to wrest control from the terrorists; the cultural guardians of the Left must remain vigilant lest democracy die in darkness. We fear impending civilizational collapse due to technology, attempts to obliterate our cultural inheritance, and the imminent death—or intractable persistence—of liberalism. These changes may affect the milieu in which we live, but they do not absolve us of the persistent question of how to live well. Indeed, they leave us asking a new question: how do we live well at the end of a world?
Classical philosophy teaches us that living well is an activity, not a feeling. Virtuous actions require virtuous skills and habits, and those in turn require stories and examples of how one lives in a virtuous way. In a sense, living well at the end of the world is no different from living well in times of social stability and flourishing. Human nature remains constant, as do the things that make us flourish and fail. But we need to learn how to flourish in a time of deep cultural change, and we need to learn from moral exemplars who have done this in a particularly effective way. We need help struggling over what can and cannot change, and how we should faithfully adapt to what once was inconceivable.
Plenty Coups is such an exemplar. Changes that European nations weathered over centuries happened to him over the course of decades. His story is not one of detachment from politics or retrenchment in tradition. It is rather the story of a politics of moderation that saved a people and preserved as much as possible when much more might have been lost: the story of navigating tradition and modernity when the latter overtakes the former at warp speed. It is a story of how hope can fuel prudence and courage while still allowing for lament over forms of life now lost. It is the story of trying to learn how to live well at the end of one world and the beginning of another.
Warriors and Clans
By the time Plenty Coups was born in 1848, the Crow had begun to encounter white Americans, but their way of life remained largely unchanged. They hunted buffalo for food and defended their land against neighboring tribes who desired it. Crow society was organized around the activities necessary for their survival, especially for success in hunting and war. Much of the tribe’s social life was organized around forming children for the roles they would play. Fathers, uncles, and grandfathers led boys in exercises that cultivated martial strength; mothers, aunts, and grandmothers praised the deeds of famous men, living and dead. Late in life, Plenty Coups recounted to Frank Linderman, his white biographer, that “always in our playing there was the object of training ourselves to become warriors.” These games prepared the young Crow physically and mentally. “We scattered then,” Plenty Coups recalled, “each boy feeling the thrill a grown warrior knows when he is going into battle. I have felt them both, and they are the same.”
The Crow most accounted for brave deeds called coups, which forced the enemy to acknowledge the boundaries of their territory. Each clan within the tribe had its own coup-stick, and the head of the clan’s war party would carry it into battle. A Crow warrior would plant the stick in the ground or hit his enemy with it, thereby demarcating the boundary of Crow territory beyond which the non-Crow enemy must not pass. He would hold his ground without retreating or leaving the stick, or he would die trying. Linderman recounts the many ways of counting coups:
To count coup a warrior had to strike an armed and fighting enemy with his coup-stick, quirt, or bow before otherwise harming him, or take his weapons while he was yet alive, or strike the first enemy falling in battle, no matter who killed him, or strike the enemy’s breastworks while under fire, or steal a horse tied to a lodge in an enemy’s camp, etc. The first named was the most honorable, and to strike such a coup a warrior would often display great bravery.
In other words, the Crow did not value a simple tally of kills and thefts, but the mutual recognition of a boundary. In his book on Plenty Coups, the philosopher Jonathan Lear observes that during battle “it was crucial that the enemy recognize that he was about to be destroyed”; after the battle, it mattered “that the tribe recognize that you got the enemy to recognize that you were the victor before you struck him down.” This was essential for the maintenance of Crow reality and boundaries in the face of their enemies. Hence the significance of the first and greatest type of coup: You strike your enemy to establish the boundary of Crow reality, then kill him for violating it.
Plenty Coups’ name at birth was Chíilaphuchissaaleesh, “Buffalo Bull Facing The Wind,” but his grandfather had a dream that he would be a chief, live to be very old, and count many coups. He gave him the name Alaxchiiaahush, meaning “Many Achievements” or “Plenty Coups.” This was known widely among his people such that even as a boy, Plenty Coups felt obliged to live up to his name and become a leader among those his age. He grew into a formidable warrior and became a chief by twenty-five, having accomplished three of the four required war deeds in one foray.
“After This Nothing Happened”
In another period of Crow history, Plenty Coups’ life would have continued like this until old age or death took him. Instead, as the Crow put it, the buffalo went away. White settlers hunted down and drove away the herds that had fed the Crow. The U.S. government confined them to a reservation and forbade intertribal warfare, rendering it impossible to count coups. Because of this massive disruption, it was no longer possible for the Crow to live a good life in the way they knew. In one of the most moving passages in his account, Linderman records how this marked a break in Plenty Coups’ life and self-understanding:
Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. “I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,” he added sorrowfully, “you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.”
After this nothing happened. You know that part of my life as well as I do. Lear notes the force of these phrases. It is rare for anyone to claim that another who is not his close kin knows his adult life as well as he does. And it is even more astonishing for Plenty Coups to claim that during the latter decades of his life nothing happened. During these years, Plenty Coups became an avid farmer, winning prizes at agricultural shows. He made many trips to Washington, D.C., to defend the rights of the Crow. After visiting Mount Vernon and coming to admire George Washington, he arranged to donate his home to the nation; it remains a state park in Montana today. And he was chosen to represent the Indians who had fought in World War I at the ceremony to dedicate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. These are not the actions of a depressed or inactive person. What, then, did Plenty Coups mean when he said that they took place in a time in which “nothing happened?”
Lear takes Plenty Coups to mean that the concepts by which the Crow understood themselves and their place in the world disappeared; there was a “breakdown of that in terms of which happenings occur.” It was no longer possible to perform many of the acts that constituted excellence as a Crow and shaped the life of the tribe and its members. Lear offers the following analogy to explain this: Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering your favorite dinner, a buffalo burger. The waitress replies that the last buffalo was killed last week and, since there are no more buffalo, it is now impossible to order a buffalo burger.
Now imagine a situation where the social institution of restaurants disappears. People used to go to special places and pay to have food cooked and served to them; now, they do not. In this scenario, it is impossible to order a buffalo burger because “no act could any longer count as ordering.” This is what happened to the Crow, but on a grander scale. They could no longer perform the actions that constituted an excellent life, and if they tried, they would not be meaningful acts but simulacra underscoring the vanity and failure of the attempt. The Crow medicine woman Pretty Shield put this predicament more simply and directly: “I am trying to live a life I do not understand.”
There were two possible responses to losing a way of life. One was to claim that the traditional way of life was the only form worthy of Crow excellence, and to fight to the death to preserve it. In the summer of 1887, after intertribal warfare had been forbidden by the U.S. government and the Crow’s nomadic life was largely extinguished, a group of young Crow set out to avenge the Blackfeet tribe’s theft of horses. They captured Blackfeet horses and paraded them through the Crow camp—a clear act of counting coups decades earlier. Their leader, a twenty-five-year-old named Wraps His Tail, stuck his gun in the belly of the agency interpreter, pulled it away, and fired into the air—another coup, in another time. Shots were fired in the presence of the agent, and the young men rode away. The agent ordered them arrested as horse thieves, and the young men failed to win a following or great respect. In the end, the young rebels surrendered before meeting the U.S. cavalry. Wraps His Tail tried to escape but was shot in the head point-blank by a Crow policeman working for the agency.
Plenty Coups chose another way. Linderman recounts that when he was nine years old, he went off to the Crazy Mountains in Montana to dream. He prayed, fasted, and cut off the end of his left index finger—a common practice of sacrifice to evoke divine pity. On his second night he saw a herd of buffalo spread wide across the plains from a hole in the ground, countless and without number. Then they all disappeared. Next from the hole came bulls and cows and calves that did not behave like buffalo. By their appearance and behavior, Plenty Coups could tell: “They were not buffalo. They were strange animals from another world.” Plenty Coups was frightened and did not understand what he saw. Then he saw an old man and was told that it was himself. The man disappeared, and Plenty Coups saw a fierce storm coming on a dark forest. The Four Winds struck down the trees and living things in it, destroying every tree but one. He asked himself what this meant and heard this reply:
Listen, Plenty-coups. … In that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee. He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes or failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words. But in all his listening he tends to his own business. He never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains success and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself. There is scarcely a lodge he does not visit, hardly a Person he does not know, and yet everybody likes him, because he minds his own business, or pretends to.
The lodges of countless Bird-people were in that forest when the Four Winds charged it. Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person. Develop your body, but do not neglect your mind, Plenty-coups. It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.
Plenty Coups returned to his tribe and recounted the dream to its elders. Yellow Bear, the wisest man in the lodge, said that Plenty Coups had dreamed a great dream:
He has been told that in his lifetime the buffalo will go away forever … and that in their place on the plains will come the bulls and cows and calves of the white man. I have myself seen these Spotted-buffalo drawing loads of the white man’s goods. And once at a big fort … I saw cows and calves of the same tribe as the bulls that drew the loads.
The dream of Plenty-coups means that the white man will take and hold this country and that their Spotted-buffalo will cover the plains. He was told to think for himself, to listen, to learn to avoid disaster by the experiences of others. He was advised to develop his body but not to forget his mind. The meaning of this dream is plain to me. I see its warning. The tribes who have fought the white man have all been beaten, wiped out. By listening as the Chickadee listens we may escape this and keep our lands.
Yellow Bear said that the Four Winds represented the white man and the trees the tribes of the plains. The Chickadee’s lodge in the one remaining tree was the lodges of the Crow, who maintained peaceful relations with the white men. Despite their many enemies, white and Indian, they would keep their homes by learning from the mistakes of others. Plenty Coups himself, Yellow Bear said, would go on to live differently from how the Crow had lived. He would be chiefly known for bravery and would live to an old age. “Your dream was a great dream. Its meaning is plain,” the other elders concluded.
Plenty Coups’ dream guided him and the Crow in the years that followed. His utmost concern was that the tribe keep the land they loved, even if they could not live on it in the way they once had. The Crow allied themselves with white settlers and the U.S. government against their long-standing enemies, not because they loved the white man or hated the Sioux—though, he admitted, “the complete destruction of our old enemies would please us”—but because that was the clear way to save their land.
Looking back, Plenty Coups said his heart sang because he and his people acted as they did: “And it was my dream that taught us the way.” He spent his life trying to learn by listening, like the Chickadee, and helping his people become healthy. This would necessarily include learning from the white man all they could, “because he is here to stay, and they must live with him forever.” Plenty Coups wanted them to preserve their traditions, to cling to the memory of their fathers, to go onto mountains and see visions as he had—but he also wanted them to learn farming and adopt the white man’s religion, as he himself did.
Wisdom, Prudence, and Courage
Plenty Coups was a paragon of the prudence that helped the Crow survive. He could see that technological and cultural changes forced his people into a new way of life. Though the war he waged would change, the goals would remain the same: keeping the Crow alive on their land and rooted in as many traditions as could be preserved. Clarity about these ends allowed him to adapt the means to attain them and to help his tribe find new forms of meaning and excellence when they could no longer practice the old ones.
In Catholic terms, Plenty Coups practiced a kind of organic development of faith and culture similar to that of Jacques Maritain, John Paul II, or Benedict XVI. He recognized that the old order under which his people lived was dead and not coming back, but that the goal of keeping their land and flourishing on it might be possible. A pure traditionalism like that of Wraps His Tail would lead to failure. Hence, he would need to take real risks by giving up some traditional forms of life and taking up new ones. His story offers another argument for theological chickadee virtue: discernment guided by a hermeneutic of continuity that would hold fast to what was essential while changing what could no longer be effectively practiced.
One might argue that Plenty Coups abandoned authentic Crow life and virtues instead of fighting to preserve them intact, as Wraps His Tail did. He traded courage on the battlefield for “learning from the wisdom of others”—the kind of moral one might find in a liberal story for children. The Crow themselves do not believe this, and Lear makes a persuasive argument that Plenty Coups’ chickadee called for a new form of courage that came from the Crow tradition but was adapted to his new circumstances. History had made traditional acts impossible for him, but that did not render courage as a human excellence impossible. Indeed, courage would be much needed during such a time of cultural devastation and transition. But, in the terms of the philosopher Bernard Williams, the concept of courage had been a thick concept, embedded in clear practices, instead of a thin or notional one. Plenty Coups would need to thin out courage so as to find new ways of being courageous.
According to Aristotle and Lear, courage entails the risk of loss and the endurance of pain in pursuit of the good, which requires good judgment of the right action and a right understanding of what is shameful and what is fearful. It is an accurate assessment of what the right thing is and a willingness to do it despite the cost. The ideal of the chickadee helped Plenty Coups identify what was truly fine and shameful under the tribe’s new circumstances. Suicidal insistence on the former way of life and despair at an inability to live it were both shameful. The Crow now had to create a new way of life aimed at the flourishing of the tribe on its land, which entailed not hunting and war but farming and diplomacy. This new life required good judgment and the navigation of serious risks: risks that the tribe would lose their land, die out from starvation or disease, or fail to hand down their traditions because they had misjudged what was noble or shameful. Hence, Lear concludes, the Crow rightly remember Plenty Coups as a man of wisdom and courage, even if the courage he showed at the beginning of his life took a different form at its end.
Plenty Coups’ courage therefore remains an example for Christians today. It takes courage to remain faithful to the truth and to traditional practices and beliefs in the face of widespread erosion and hostility. And it takes a keen form of courage to act well in new ways despite new risks. Instead of cultivating an impotent nostalgia or foolhardy traditionalism, we must be willing to thicken courage and other virtues in new ways, to create new practices by which we live out our faith in an excellent way. In some cases, courage will entail bringing back practices that were unnecessarily abandoned out of a kind of cowardice and making them natural for the next generation.
Reflecting on Plenty Coups’ life should chasten our panic and clarify that while our world may be changing dramatically, it has not ended in the way his did. American Christians are not the Crow. We might think secularization makes religious practice more difficult or less intelligible, but we could not plausibly say that “things no longer happen.” We do not face the kind of extinction that the Crow did, and those who oppose Christian culture do so from a place of greater weakness than that of the U.S. Army on the nineteenth-century plains. The Crow reached a point of crisis at which their way of life became untenable, but Christian belief and practice are less dependent on particular cultural forms. It is still possible to live out Christian beliefs and practices, but it is more difficult to do so. We face greater risks now than we did before. It is easier for our children to apostatize or for cultural acids to erode our marriages. It will become harder to live out our convictions in public and to structure our society around our core principles. Plenty Coups shows that we need chickadee prudence and courage to face the deep changes that disorient us even if they are not as devastating as those he experienced.
As Aristotle notes, courage does not come from mere confidence or optimism. The many ills and injustices that the Crow suffered afforded them little opportunity for either. Instead, Plenty Coups’ courage was firmly grounded on his belief in the love of God and God’s election of his people, as well as the divine providence that would realize these despite circumstances to the contrary. I have articulated these ideas in Christian terms that Plenty Coups would not have used for much of his life, though he was baptized a Catholic in his later years. Nonetheless, he believed that Ah-badt-dadt-deah created his people, gave them their land, and would bring about a new—if unknown—future for the Crow.
Lear calls this “radical hope” because it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends one’s ability to understand it. But it is radical in the literal sense as well, returning to the theological roots of the tribe and its self-understanding, a hope nourished by the deepest truths of their tradition. This is perhaps the greatest lesson Plenty Coups has to offer us: Prudence and courage in the face of an unknown future make sense if they are grounded on God’s greater love for us and the promise of his abiding care. Hope impels us to hand on our religious and cultural inheritance even as many reject it. It encourages us to build new institutions as old ones fall apart.
Hope also gives us permission to mourn the loss of old forms and institutions. At the end of his life, Plenty Coups attended the inauguration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the representative of the Indian nations. Amid the soldiers and dignitaries, he took his coup stick and war bonnet and laid them on the sarcophagus with a prayer of remembrance. As he finished, a bugler played “Taps” and a twenty-one-gun salute echoed down the hills to the Potomac. Plenty Coups intended to honor the American dead, white and Indian, but he did so by doing what was now fitting for the signs of courage of his former way of life: mourning, remembering, and burying them with reverence. We too should not be afraid to mourn the loss of Christian culture in America and Europe. The increasing incomprehensibility of the human dignity of all, the ignorance of beauty in art and literature, the tearing down of social signposts toward Christ—these are all worthy of lament.
But hope reminds us that these losses are not the last word. Rapid cultural change is dislocating, at times devastating. But the Lord of history transcends cultural forms. He does not need social dominance to win victories. Plenty Coups teaches us that it is still possible to live well when the world feels like it is ending, that we need prudence and courage to adapt our ways of life to new circumstances out of our control. And what makes this possible is radical hope in God.
The featured image is in the public domain courtesy of Adobe Stock.