CROW AGENCY, Mont. - When Dr. Barney Old Coyote looks across his homeland in Crow country he can point to places like Anmaalapamm?ua - 'Where the Whole Camp Mourned', Ba?hpalohkahpe, the place where the Crows first celebrated the 4th of July, and Bissh?ilannuusaau - 'Where They Laid Down Yellow Blankets'.
These places all have English names on maps created by the state of Montana but Old Coyote remembers what his people have called these places for hundreds of years, and he hopes the Crow Place Name Project will help generations to come remember them as well.
Two years ago Old Coyote and some 20 other Crow elders began working with Little Big Horn College General Studies instructor Tim McCleary to document place names and chronicle the stories behind them.
Most people don't know the rest stop on I-90 leaving the reservation is known as Anmaalapamm?ua because the whole camp mourned there after a war party that fought at Rainy Buttes returned with many dead. Old Coyote says so many warriors were killed, not one family went unaffected, and everyone was in mourning. The Rainy Buttes fight is known to the Lakota as "Where Sitting Bull's father was killed."
Ba?hpalohkahpe was once a favorite tribal camping site. It is also where the Crows first celebrated the 4th of July in a Burlington Northern Railroad-sponsored celebration in 1882. Crows, camped at Absarokee, were transported on flat-bed railroad cars for the celebration. Railroad workers named a child born during the celebration George Washington. That child became a tribal leader - George Washington Hogan.
Mission Creek was the site of the first distribution of annuities after the 1868 treaty. It included yellow Army blankets. To this day many Crows call the area Bissh?ilannuusaau.
Old Coyote is a Crow tribe member, decorated World War II veteran and respected tribal elder. The humble man who possesses vast knowledge about Crow culture and language, has spent his entire adulthood passing that knowledge on to his children, grandchildren and the next generation of Crow people. He worked as an educator at the college level and continues to give occasional seminars in his retirement.
The Crow place names list now boasts more than 500 locations, from the 2.2-million-acre reservation and beyond, across the North America.
Although a non-Indian, McCleary has worked at the college for 10 years. He's become a competent Crow speaker, much of which he credits to Old Coyote's classes. Because of his long tenure, McCleary, a trained anthropologist, is considered by many as part of the community with unique opportunity to see parts of the Crow world sometimes taken for granted.
He weaves the information into his college curriculum and in 1997 published a book on Crow star knowledge which is used in classrooms around the reservation and at the college. Old Coyote and his brother, the late Mickey Old Coyote, contributed to the book.
"I like to see the project progress," Old Coyote said. "To me personally, it's a chance to renew my ties with the land and my past, and some things I believed to be true, but was not sure about. It has clarified things, and refined my perspective of Crow history, simply because of the names and locations. It gives one hope for the future that we will not lose our Crow identity.
"When something is already in print (Euro-American maps) it is hard to change. This can correct those distortions of the past.
"Crow place names are tied not only by events, but also for what they offered the Crow and for their physical characteristics ... Such as a coulee or creek with a fork or a place to gather wild carrots or gooseberries, and locations where tipi poles would be gathered."
"So it (a Crow place name) can be a local reference as well as a general reference," Old Coyote said. "I grew up in Big Horn (district) so the Grape Vine is where we gathered our service berries, goose berries, etc. They all had favorite places like that."
Old Coyote said he feels the impression is worse when English translations of Crow names are corrupted.
"One thing I noticed is white people like colorful names of how they think of Indians, and they often don't match what they are." Old Coyote said. "In Billings Aashu?choosalaho - Where there are Many Skulls, white people call it Valley of Skulls, which gives the impression of human skulls. But to the Crows it's a place of abundance of game, because you didn't take skulls with you when you butchered an animal." So, what non-Indians think of as a graveyard, many Crow consider a place of prosperity, because the skulls of so many buffaloes remain there.
A college Historic and Battle Sites tour in the summer of 1991 gave birth to the place name project. McCleary said he watched videos of the bus tour and was immediately struck by the story telling by four elders.
"They had descriptions of almost every little point and drainage as they traveled. As they described the stories, they didn't always know the dates of events, like a Euro- history professor would, but they knew incredible details about what took place there, so it became apparent to me where it took place and what occurred is more important to the Crow people.
"Nearly two-thirds of the Crow place names are references to the way in which the land looks or the directions a stream flows. Unlike Euro-Americans names which are named after people or events." McCleary said.
"They do have places named after events, but by and large they are named after topographic features in the land, which tells me in Crow culture the land is equal to humans, because they can recall events that happened at a location, but it still may be called 'Short Butte.' It suggests the Crow see themselves as equal to the land and do not try to dominate it. When historical terms are used, it illustrates an incredible event."
McCleary's interviews with elders are available on a database linked to the college Web site. It contains GIS maps of each location and can be accessed by the English or Crow name and by reservation district. Recently McCleary trained bilingual teachers from across the reservation to access the site.
The college's chief information officer Randy Falls Down created the Web site and supervised creation of computer-based maps. He said the project's potential for classroom use is important.
"For a bilingual teacher to just look out the window and point at something and say its name in Crow makes it more interesting for students. Kids love their computers," he said. "And with this they can connect their culture into it. It's just a good deal all the way around."