Warriors in Transition

by A. Jay Adler on November 4, 2011
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The Cheyenne's sacred Animal Dance was banned by the U.S. government. American Indians who continued to practice such ceremonies were prosecuted by the federal Indian Offices' Courts of Indian Offenses.

A little while back I stopped in at the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian. It is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, a monumental Beaux Arts building at the Battery and a National Historic Landmark  listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been adapted on the interior for contemporary, mixed use and includes, along with the NMAI, New York offices of the Department of Homeland Security. You can chew on that irony yourselves.

One exhibit, now closed, was of 32 images of the Crow people by Richard Throssel (1882-1933). Throssell was of mixed ancestry, including Cree Indian. He joined his brother to live with the Crow in 1902, according to the museum

 a pivotal time in the history of the Crow people. After years of practicing their tribal customs and defending their traditional homeland against intruders, the Crow were faced with depleted buffalo herds, restrictive government policies and a homeland reduced from 39 million acres to a reservation of 4 million acres. Throssel outfitted himself with a camera and, over the course of his stay took about 1,000 photographs that document the Crow people, their traditions, and their challenges. The Crow tribe adopted him in 1906. In 1916, he began to speak out as an individual for Native rights and for the need to protect Crow land from white settlement. In 1924 and 1927, he was elected to the Montana State Legislature. He died in 1933.

What Throssel documented was a time in Crow history when, only fifteen years after the Wounded Knee massacre, the Crow and other tribes were compelled, literally and by circumstance, to leave the old ways behind and assume new ones. Though the Crow, like some of the tribes of the Southeast, had maintained generally good relations with the U.S. government (and had served as scouts for Custer at the Little Big Horn, against their more traditional enemies), this led to no more favorable treatment than was afforded the other tribes.

U.S. citizenship was withheld from most American Indians until 1924. Some were awarded it earlier, as a reward for adopting “the ways of civilized life.” Throssel was one of those included in the ceremonial picture above.

The signs of transition could be very bold, in housing

and in dress.

The three stunning portraits below are of Medicine Crow, Long Otter, and Bull Goes Hunting, two great warriors and a medicine man, born in 1840, 1848, and 1828 respectively. These are men who would have been Crow leaders during the peak of the Indian Wars, by the time of these photos now turned to peaceful pursuits and attempting to adapt to a world long from the one into which they were born.

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