Amateur Historian Produces History of Old West All-Indian Battle

8-17-08

Elias Goes Ahead at Crow Fair

A amateur Crow historian has completed a history of a pivotal—and mystical—all-Indian battle in which his tribe defended its homeland.

The historian is Elias Goes Ahead, a storyteller and lifelong historian.

“I was brought up among natural historians,” Goes Ahead told me at a table amidst teepees and cottonwoods at an encampment at Crow Fair, his tribe’s annual powwow near Crow Agency on the sprawling reservation of the same name south of Billings. “Ever since I was a little boy, they told me stories, passed on their knowledge to me because I was the one who listened.”

Goes Ahead has had an assortment of jobs, none until recently related to his passion. About 10 years ago, he started leading private tours around the reservation and at the Little Big Horn Battlefield, the famous site of Custer’s Last Stand. He never incorporated as a business, or advertised. Visitors learned of him by word of mouth, tracked him down and paid him to drive around and talk about what he knows.

All that makes his 358-page historical manuscript on “Ashkoota Binnaxchikua (Where the Camp was Fortified)” all the more impressive. Author credit was shared with David Eckroth, Howard Boggess and Mike Penfold of the Frontier Heritage Alliance (a regional nonprofit organization without a Web site) which began to offer financial support to the project in 2004.

All through his life, Goes Ahead heard stories of a decisive battle near the present-day town of Pryor between the Crows and a combined army of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe.

The stories were specific. The battle was in 1863 or 1864 along Arrow Creek about 10 miles north of Pryor. The attacking force was there to push the Crows further westward, off the tribe’s rich ancestral homeland. The Crow families and fighters set their teepees tightly together in a defensive line, and dug trenches underneath the lodges. Old buffalo hides were used to fortify the bulwarks. Sometimes, Goes Ahead’s father or uncles would show him specific spots where Crow warriors fell or were rescued or where supernatural forces had intervened, such as where a herd of elk had stampeded, raising dust and distracting the attacking fighters, who feared that Crow reinforcements raced toward the fight.

Goes Ahead read all the accounts of Crow history and about Indian battles and also got help from a historian at Little Big Horn College, the two-year tribal community college in Crow Agency. Goes Ahead found plenty of oblique references to the battle, as well as to what he knew must have been the factors that led to it.

Yet nothing tapped the rich oral history Goes Ahead knew. Nothing told the whole story or conveyed what Goes Ahead thought was the importance of the battle or its intricacies and mysteries.

“The Crows made a stand, a statement, that we couldn’t be pushed further west, and because of that battle, that grand battle, there wouldn’t be any other intertribal warfare of that size between these tribes,” Goes Ahead said.

So Goes Ahead bought a tape recorder and started interviewing family members who had had bits and pieces of the overall story passed onto them. He combed the papers of Crow anthropologist Joseph Medicine Crow as well as lots of other archived papers and manuscripts.

“I was fortunate that the recordings I made, some of my sources, passed away not long after. It was just in time,” Goes Ahead said. “I kept just a piece of history on tape and on paper.”

Typically, he would make an appointment and then visit his source—Pius Crooked Arm in Crow Agency, for instance—with his tape recorder and notebook in hand. They would sit at the kitchen table and drink sweet black coffee and talk, in Crow.

“I’d ask them to tell me personal recollections. Once they started rolling, I wouldn’t interrupt,” he said.

Oral histories, often rich in detail and colorful flourishes, also tend to be difficult to accumulate into a narrative.

“Each participant, each version, is what they see as an individual and doesn’t cover the whole field,” Goes Ahead said.

It was a trick to piece together the narrative of the battle. He listened to his old tapes, redid interviews when he could, and slowly knitted together the stories. The manuscript was completed this summer, dated June 25.

A history like Goes Ahead’s can be controversial in Indian Country, where culture is a commodity, Indian and non-Indian fakers abound, and where printed histories are sometimes used to justify federal policy and draconian legal decisions.

For this piece of work, Goes Ahead interviewed dozens of tribal elders. He let his references guide him. One source would recommend another. Yet he didn’t get the blessing of a committee of the Crow Tribe’s official historians. In the end, he got help from a non-Indian group, the Frontier Heritage Alliance.

Like most academic works, this is ponderous and cumbersome at times with its abstract and extensive notations. Yet the story of the battle is gripping. And the context is fascinating, describing a landscape where Manifest Destiny and the advance of the American frontier provide the backdrop to these life-and-death intertribal dramas.

So how do you get a copy of this cool manuscript? I’ll post one when it comes available. Otherwise, visit the Plenty Coups State Park at Pryor, the Yellowstone Western Heritage Center in Billings or the Little Big Horn Tribal College in Crow Agency.

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