Marianne Millar “Plenty Coup”
Once part of the Hidatsa tribe, the Crow Indians generally lived from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to the eastern slope of the Rockies. They were considered notable traders particularly in shields, skin shirts, and buffalo robes.
The Crow called themselves the “Absaroka” or “Children of the Long-Billed Bird” and were in constant struggle against their more numerous neighbors, the Sioux and the Blackfeet, among other tribes, for their prime hunting grounds. These ancient hostilities account for the Crow’s great willingness to work with the American military against their Indian enemies.
One of the greatest Crow chiefs that worked to improve the relations between his tribe and the growing American nation was Plenty Coups. A figure of both fame and controversy, Plenty Coups belonged to the last generation of Indians to come of age as free men and to earn the rank of chief through acts of bravery. “A boy never wished to be a man more than I,” he said of his ambitions. “How I wished to count coup, to wear an eagle’s feather in my hair, to sit in council.”
Fueled by the dreamed revelation that he would have no children of his own, but be father to all the Crow peoples, Plenty Coups rose quickly, proving himself in battle. He became chief of one of the largest of his tribe’s bands when he was still in his thirties. In 1876 he was one of the leaders of the combined Crow-Shoshone force credited with saving General George Crook from defeat by the Sioux in the Battle of the Rosebud. “The soldier-chiefs will not forget that the Crows came to their aid,” the chief promised his warriors.
Indeed, thanks in large part to their early decision to ally themselves with the whites, the Crow peoples largely avoided the military punishment that was meted out to their deadly enemies. The Crow were among the few Native American nations to remain intact on one reservation, having retained a portion of their ancestral homeland.
In this painting Plenty Coups stands in front of a magnificently painted and beaded buffalo skin robe. Characteristic of men’s robes on the northern Plains, this red stained robe is painted with the stunning “black war bonnet” pattern, consisting of concentric circles of small, radiating, black and white “feathers.” These “feathers” are symbolic of the vaunted coup feathers worn in a warrior’s war bonnet signifying specific acts of bravery.
Plenty Coups’ ceremonial dress includes a skin shirt, painted with green pigment, and embellished with beads, quills, and fringes of hair locks. On each side of his head he wears the distinctive “Crow Bows” festooned with dentalium shells, beads, cut and dyed feathers, and hair-pipe bone danglers. Around his neck is a traditional loop necklace made of shell beads with two large conch-shell “moons” attached to each side. Plenty Coups also wears his hair in the traditional method of cutting the front short and holding it straight up in a pompadour fashion by packing it with bear grease and coating it with white clay.
In his arms, Plenty Coups holds a hatchet decorated with brass tacks, trade beads, and a braided scalp lock taken in battle. A fitting symbol for the great chief, this tomahawk, with its pierced heart decoration, also doubled as a pipe, combining two of the favorite activities of adult male Indians – the smoking of tobacco, with all its political and religious connotations, and war.
Acrylic mixed media 48″ x 48″
(Click images to enlarge)
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