Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today 

John Grant Bulltail led a life of great achievements and purpose to tell the stories of his tribe, the Crow, to countless historians, scholars and researchers.

It was a passion that he would continue until his last years.

“That what he said his life was about was sharing his knowledge, sharing his stories that he heard growing up. That’s how he wanted to be remembered,” his granddaughter Tai said.

Bulltail taught at high schools, Little Big Horn College located on the Crow Indian Reservation, and Utah State University, teaching Native American history. The U.S. Marine veteran also served in Vietnam and worked with horses for many years.

He raised his two granddaughters, Tai and her sister, Siobhan, since they were born. Tai said his positive outlook on life and guidance were especially important.

“I honestly can't remember ever hearing the word ‘no’ or ‘we can't’. It was always we will do it, or we will figure it out,” Tai said. “And somehow he always did no matter how big or small the situation.”

He was the descendant of many Crow chiefs and was named Bishéeawaachish, which translated to Sits Among the Buffalo, by his grandfather Comes Up Red. He belonged to the Greasy Mouth clan and was a child of the Sore Lip clan.

Bulltail died Oct. 1 from COVID-19 complications. He is survived by his wife, four children, 15 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. He was 80 years old.

‘There was more he wanted to do’

Tai said that anytime anyone had a question about something, her grandfather gladly talked about it. And that he worked with anybody who wanted to hear his stories. He was particularly motivated to tell stories that brought awareness to climate change and the need to protect nature.

He was a member of the Sacred Tobacco Society and the Crow Culture Committee. He was one of the founders and board members of the Native Memory Project that led to partaking in an annual Return to Heart Mountain conference with long-time collaborator Mary L. Keller.

Keller reached out to him in 2008 after seeing a video that he made about Heart Mountain, which is just north of Cody, Wyoming. It led to them working on various projects together and developing a close friendship. Keller said they were like “teasing cousins” as Bulltail jokingly called her “lazy” because of her active personality.

“Everything felt better around him,” she said. “He kind of carried this heart into the experience that always had some quick witted humor.”

She was also part of creating the short documentary, “Return to Foretop’s Father,” that was

about Heart Mountain and Grant’s life.

Keller said Bulltail started each day of filming with a prayer and that he told the stories in the moment rather than being scripted.

“His memory was just remarkable,” she said. “He could recount who was where, like in the Battle of the Rosebud, and it concurs with what historians write.”

Since Bulltail was a natural listener and storyteller in his childhood, his grandfather, Comes Up Red, and his grandmother’s cousin, Yellow Brow, told him many stories about the Crow people. In particular, Bulltail’s stories passed down from his grandfather were of importance to others because his grandfather experienced life before the Crow people were relocated to reservations.

“He had a story for everything,” Tai said. “When we would be sitting at the table, eating, he’d tell a story or we would be sitting in the living room and be real quiet, he’d tell a story.”

Some of her favorite stories were about his childhood.

“Just him reminiscing about when he was a little boy and he’d listen to his grandmother telling him stories,” Tai said. “He was really proud of where he came from, who he was and his family background.” 

Grant Bulltail with his family. (Photo courtesy of Tai Bulltail)

Bulltail was awarded the National Endowment of the Arts Division of Folk and Traditional Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship for storytelling in Washington, D.C. Keller accompanied him and said it was a proud experience to witness Bulltail being recognized for his contributions.

She vividly remembers Bulltail singing the opening prayer at dinner at the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building. His voice filled the room.

“Singing out through those two floors of the building, the place just went quiet,” she said.

Keller added that her favorite song was the heart mountain song that he was given after his service in Vietnam.

“When Grant sings it, it just centers the world,” she said. “I think the feeling that it brings to hear him sing it, it feels like a restoration of the spirit of the place.”

She said that while Grant enjoyed making the documentary, he had his eyes set on making an epic film similar to “War and Peace” because of his love for Russian literature.

“There was more he wanted to do,” Keller said. “He had novels yet to write. I think he sometimes thought we were not exciting enough in the way we did things."

Keller (left) and Bulltail (right) on the set of filming for “Return to Foretop’s Father.” (Photo courtesy of Mary L. Keller)

COVID-19 fight

On Sept. 24, Bulltail traveled 60 miles northwest from Crow Agency to Billings Clinic in Billings, Montana, because he was feeling unwell. He was tested and released the same day.

Three days later, Bulltail was admitted to the clinic because of his vital signs. Tai stayed with him the entire day, but Bulltail urged her to go back to school so she wouldn’t fall behind on her school work.

It would be the last conversation they would have together.

“I told him that I loved him and gave him a hug and a kiss. Told him that I still needed him and that he was going to be OK,” Tai said.

She kept in touch with the Intensive Care Unit nurses while at school. Then on the night of Sept. 30, nurses told Tai that she should come see her grandfather soon because his health was significantly declining.

The next morning, doctors told the family that he was not responding to their efforts and if they wanted to take him off the machines.

The family talked with him through a window. After almost an hour, Bulltail died Oct. 1 on his own.

Tai said that the family is unaware as to how he got sick.

She said she will cherish the memory of waking up in the morning and finding him at the table drinking hot tea and singing.

“He would sing Crow hymns, country music, praise songs, tobacco society songs or turn whatever popped into his head [to] a song,” she said.

Keller said Grant’s work is what present and future generations should remember.

“Anyone who is interested and concerned about the changes they’ve seen in our environment, he is the voice of our time,” she said.

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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