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A national treasure; Crow elder Bulltail: Lessons to be learned from ancient legends

Crow tribal elder Grant Bulltail tells Native American stories on Heart Mountain and explains the energy contained within the mountain can be harnessed by people. ‘When you have this energy you have this harmony with everyone,’ he said. Crow tribal elder Grant Bulltail tells Native American stories on Heart Mountain and explains the energy contained within the mountain can be harnessed by people. ‘When you have this energy you have this harmony with everyone,’ he said. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

Crow tribe elder Grant Bulltail absorbed energy from Heart Mountain Friday and shared with those listening to him.

Bulltail’s presentation was part of the fourth annual Plains People’s seminar organized by Wyoming Humanities Council, Park County Library Foundation and Park County Library System.

There is energy in the earth and energy on Heart Mountain, a place sacred to the Crow.

It was gorgeous where Bulltail held court about three-quarters of the way up the mountain. Pine and aspen trees surrounded the area and provided shade in a lush meadow where insects droned lazily and hikers took a respite to eat and drink following their ascent. Butterflies, like golden aspen leaves fluttering in an autumn breeze, offered serene props for the talk.

The rigorous hike should invigorate imaginations, said Mary Keller, academic professional lecturer for the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies, introducing Bulltail and his storytelling.

“Grant is a national treasure,” Keller said,

Keller was instrumental in organizing Friday’s hike and talk and a pipe ceremony on Saturday.

The mountain does contain energy, but you must embrace the land in order for it to reveal itself and disperse its energy, Bulltail said.

In a brief biography provided by the library, Bulltail was not described as a holy man, but, with his knowledge of Crow history and their origins, it would seem that designation would not be far from the mark.

The sun created man. The wolf was the first animal that appeared on its own volition, Bulltail said.

The wolf took on the guise of “Old Man Coyote,” in one of Bulltail’s narratives.

The meteor impact theory postulates that a humongous interstellar rock struck the Earth, raising an enormous dust cloud that fully eclipsed the sun approximately 13,000 years ago. Crow folklore lends credence to that hypothesis.

“The earth was covered with dust or clouds,” Bulltail said. “Everything was dying.”

Birds stopped singing, and four-legged animals became lethargic.

Old Man Coyote, seeing the plight of wildlife, challenged birds to a hand game using bones. If the birds won, Coyote vowed to return the sun.

The birds picked a hummingbird as their contestant and the “four-leggeds” chose a turtle.

In the first match, the turtle won all the bones, and his bony spoils were stored within his shell.

Dragonfly, seeing the birds’ routing, stepped up to the plate.

“‘I’ll show you how to play it,’” he said, in Bulltail’s version, singing “’Haayaa, haayaa.’”

Dragonfly won.

“When he (Dragonfly) got all the bones, the sun started shining again,” Bulltail said.

But Coyote was a sore loser.

“‘We defeated birds,’” he claimed. Coyote, a champion for the people, gave the four-leggeds their marching orders.

Coyote told the elk to go to the mountains, proclaiming the people would eat their meat and use their hide for clothing. Pronghorns were dispatched to the prairie and would be utilized by people similarly. Coyote created horses and the bow and arrow and taught man how to use them, Bulltail said.

Beaver were instructed to build dams to provide water for trees, people and animals. Buffalo had an assignment too.

“‘The people will live by your meat and hides,’” Coyote said, according to Bulltail’s rendition of the legend.

Heart Mountain’s energy

Coyote relocated some people across the ocean where they couldn’t inflict further harm.

“They were destroying everything,” Bulltail said.

Heart Mountain’s energy was sought by Crow warriors. Those fallen in battle would return from the dead.

“It was a part of our lives,” Bulltail said. “That’s what kept us as a people.”

The Crow people’s namesake acted as a sort of early warning system.

Sometime in the 1850s, when the Southern Cheyenne hatched plans to attack the Crow, they were warned off by their northern colleagues. Crows will warn the Crow people of the pending attack, and wolves will wait in ambush, said the northern tribe.

“‘They will come and wipe you out,’” the Northern Cheyenne said, according to Bulltail.

Five-hundred strong, they attacked the Crow, but only 50 attackers survived, Bulltail said.

Bulltail enjoyed his enthralled audience.

“You people like to hear stories,” he said.

His tribe is so engrossed in the present that they no longer wish to hear the stories, Bulltail said, but these accounts have been with the people since their beginning.

The stories were carved on sticks in ancient writing, but those scribes died during a smallpox epidemic in 1834. Those historians were buried with their sticks. Bulltail said he was taught the stories by his great-grandfather, He Comes Up Red.

If Heart Mountain’s energy could be bottled, it might save today’s world a lot of anguish.

“When you have this energy, you have this harmony with everyone,” Bulltail said.

Teepee tour

Evidence of the Crow and other natives’ presence can be found at teepee rings on Heart Mountain’s shoulder and throughout the Big Horn Basin.

Laura Scheiber, associate professor of anthropology from Indiana University, Bloomington, showed the site to a group of about one dozen people plus a documentary film crew.

The crew, Mike Hanich and Alex Wardwell from Missoula, Mont., recorded the hike and Bulltail’s talk on film. Hanich is originally from Cody, and Wardwell grew up in Powell.

With a fetching view of the mountain, Scheiber stood amid a circle of stones.

The stones were used to weigh down teepees, Keller said.

“Think of it as the homes that people lived in,” Scheiber said.

A teepee represents family. Teepees were used as homes, for vision quests in the mountains and sweat lodges. There were separate teepees for dogs, and play teepees for children, Scheiber said.

A lodge would typically have a 14 to 16 foot diameter, Scheiber said.

The site is a relatively flat area and a perfect spot for what must have been a village. It offers an unobstructed view of the mountain, and a nice breeze sweeping off the peak keeps insects at bay. A small creek in a shallow gully below provides at least seasonal water.

Environmental parameters, such as the amount of precipitation and game availability, would designate the location of teepee rings, Scheiber said.

Teepee rings are hundreds to thousands of years old, she said. A group of rings could cover many periods in time and many different tribes.

Teepee rings could be considered cornerstones of native history, because they’re not going anywhere.

Others might take artifacts such as arrowheads, but people are not prone to carrying off heavy rocks because they appear to have no value, Scheiber said.

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