• Red cliffs descend into the water of Bighorn Canyon

    Bighorn Canyon

    National Recreation Area MT,WY

Robert Yellowtail

Robert Yellowtail

Robert Yellowtail

NPS

The Path To Leadership
Robert Summers Yellowtail Sr., was born in Lodge Grass, Montana on August 4, 1889. It was a tragic and difficult time for the Crow people. The traditional way of life was not allowed by the U.S. government. Even if it had been, there were no more buffalo left to hunt, the reservation was being partitioned by treaty after treaty, practicing traditional religion or the Crow language was not allowed. At the age of four Yellowtail was boarded at a reservation school away from tribal influences. Harsh punishments awaited any child who attempted to practice their native culture.

At age 13, Yellowtail, who was known for both his intelligence and stubborness was sent to Sherman Institute in Riverside, California where he excelled, graduating in 1907. He became interested in Indian law and wanted to help his people, which lead him to spend time at the Extension Law School in Los Angeles. He would gain a law degree via correspondence courses from the prestigious University of Chicago. Yellowtail had decided to make defending the Crow tribe his mission.

Saving The Reservation
Yellowtail was just the right man at exactly the right moment. His arch-rival became Montana senator Thomas Walsh who in 1910 introduced a bill to open up the final 1.8 million acres (down from the original 38 million acres) to homesteaders. Crow chief Plenty Coups called on Yellowtail to fight the legal battle against Congress.

In this battle, Yellowtail’s stubborness came in quite handy. Over seven long years Yellowtail countered Walsh’s ferocious attacks. Finally in 1917, Yellowtail and the Crow were victorious as the reservation lands were kept under tribal control.

In the following years, Yellowtail’s accomplishments were unprecedented in U.S. history.

  • In 1919, Yellowtail returned to Washington D.C. to help write the 1920 “Crow Act”, ensuring that Crow Lands could never be taken without tribal consent.
  • His work on behalf of native rights directly led to American Indians being given the right to vote in 1924.
  • In 1934, Yellowtail became the Superintendent of the Crow Indian Reservation, a position he held until 1945. He was first Indian superintendent of his own tribe. Under his leadership, the culture and economy of the Crow people was revived.
  • In the mid-30’s Yellowtail got ranchers to return 40,000 acres of land to the tribe. Buffalo were brought in from Yellowstone National Park as well as well bred horses and cattle from Canada to stock the range.
  • During World War II he encouraged Crow men to volunteer for the U.S. military. The Crow had one of the highest per capita volunteer rates of any ethnic group in the country.

Fighting For The Bighorn
Just after the end of World War II a new challenge arose, the potential damming of the Bighorn River. Yellowtail became consumed with stopping the dam. The Bighorn Canyon was considered sacred to the Crow. This land, this place was at the very core of their existence. The tribal council rallied around Yellowtail, voting eight to one against contruction of the dam.

The pressure mounted on Yellowtail and cracks in tribal unity began to materialize. Government agents spread rumors that Yellowtail was willing to sell out the tribe for his own interests. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The government had offered $1.5 million dollars for 7,000 acres needed for construction of the dam. The tribe had valued it at $5 million dollars. Yellowtail. When forced to negotiate by the government’s take it or leave it policy, Yellowtail played hardball. He said the dam’s construction would be allowed if the government paid $1 million a year for 50 years to lease the land. When the 50 years expired the Crow would get the dam and the land. Complicated politicking ensued.

In the end, the government got everything - the dam, land, and all future proceeds - for only $5 million dollars. This meant only $600 dollars for each tribal member. A harsh irony took place when the dam was named in Yellowtail‘s honor. Yellowtail was heartbroken, this was a battle he could not win.

Yet Yellowtail never gave up. In the 1970’s he fought for Crow mineral rights on their reservation land. Twenty percent of all the coal in the western United States was under Crow land. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was attempting to sell off the rights to private interests for a vastly undervalued sum. The tribe united once again under Yellowtail’s leadership. This time the Crow’s were victorious.

The Ultimate Battle
By the 1980’s Yellowtail was enjoying the latter years of his life, taking part in Crow events and celebrations, such as the annual Crow fair which he had revived. Today the Crow fair is one of the largest cultural festivals in the nation. He also collaborated on a documentary in 1986 called “Contrary Warriors: A Film of the Crow Tribe.”

In June of 1988, Robert Yellowtail died. He was 98. The Crow people mourned the loss of a man who had led them through some of their most difficult moments. The reservation remained intact, the Crow’s now governed themselves, they had their mineral rights. All of this was due to Yellowtail’s untiring efforts. Yellowtail’s legacy would be that of a warrior, who fought and won the ultimate battle for his people - personal, tribal, and economic freedom.

Did You Know?

Aerial view of Bighorn Canyon

Long before the Bighorn River was tamed by the Yellowtail Dam, the roiling waters through the canyon were feared. During spring snowmelt, the water turned into a raging torrent, a combination of whirlpools, rapids, and eddies. Conversely, the river through the canyon had a reputation for being placid by late summer, when dry heat and lack of rainfall turned it into a sedate stream. More...