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"Crow Indians" (circa 1840-1843) by Karl Bodmer


Way up north of the Oregon Trail and Blackfoot country on that side of the continental divide was a

wonderland of hot springs and cold streams. The green valleys of the Big Horn, Rosebud, Tongue and

Powder rivers and some land on the Yellowstone’s northern bank—this was Absaroka, home of the

Sparrowhawks. Its ten thousand people roamed Absaroka as wanderers as did the two trappers, Jim and

Josh Greenwood, who had thrown their fates together.

Fraternities, marriages, associations were matters of convenience in this wild part of the world. A man

might spend one month working with another man in close enough quarters that he knew his partner’s

smell, and then move on to the next village, associate and opportunity. These fleeting encounters

appealed to Jim because he liked moving and new experiences but even Jim was growing tired of

meeting new cultures and people.

Josh had been living with his Sparrowhawk wife for ten years away from her people in the wilderness.

Her name was Pale Moon; her skin was golden brown and her figure lean. For all his Scottish and Irish

ancestry, he was looking like his wife’s people. His skin, once pearly and fragile, had turned tan and

strong. He dressed his lumberjack body like a Sparrowhawk, loosely in the warm weather that was upon

them, a loin cloth around his bottom. Always, he wore a green feather in his long, thick, dark hair. Josh

spoke with ease in his wife’s native tongue. He said that it reminded him of the Scottish Gaelic his

mother had spoken to him. That was all Jim knew about Josh’s life before the Sparrowhawks. Josh was

content to forget his past. He had found a woman and a way of life that brought him home. He was

happy. Jim began thinking that perhaps he needed the right woman to save himself but the idea of

settling in with a woman seemed stultifying, an early death.

That summer evening, Jim, Josh and Pale Moon had devoured a scrumptious meal that tasted much like

chicken. They ate every bit of the food and licked their fingers when it was all gone. Then the three of

them lay down on their bedrolls, their stomachs content and their minds quiet. The three-quarter moon

would burst into its ebullient fullness in three days, June’s moon, Moon When the Green Grass Is Up.

“What was that we just had for dinner,” Jim asked. “It was delicious!”

“Rattlesnake,” said Pale Moon, who in teaching her husband Sparrowhawk had learned English well.

“Rattlesnake,” Jim repeated, amazed not by the animal but that this uncouth creature was now one of his

favorite meals.

“I love rattlesnake,” Josh said, aware of Jim’s astonishment at his broadened palate. “It befits the table

of a king, wouldn’t you say, Sir Beckwourth?”

Josh’s mock title for him made Jim laugh. Josh had read his mind.

“Lord Greenwood, it most certainly does. I, too, savor its taste.”

“Yes, you do,” Pale Moon said, seriously. “You Americans are so strange. Because you don’t eat snake

in your country, you think it unusual that you eat it here. Most people like snake once they try it. It

tastes delicious.”

“Of course it does,” Josh said, in an attempt to soften her reprimanding. “And you roasted it so well.”

Pale Moon grimaced. She was an astute woman who did not melt or bend with flattery after being

patronized. She preferred straight talk to cajoling. Her husband, however, was rarely direct. Josh told

jokes, paid compliments, unwound stories to avoid coming to the point. He was a lighthearted man who

hated conversations and life to turn serious.

“Josh, please,” she said, with a stern look on her face. Her dark lips, eyes and eyebrows pointed


Pale Moon drew her long body up to its full length, stared down at Josh with hardened obsidian eyes and

dragged her bedroll twenty long steps away from Josh and Jim.

“I’m going to sleep,” she said, as she put distance between herself and Josh. “Good night, Jim”

“Good night, Pale Moon,” Jim said.

“I’m in trouble,” Josh said to Jim. “We always have fights like this over stupid things.”

“Maybe she doesn’t think they’re stupid,” Jim said. “She thought you were making fun of her.”

“I wasn’t,” Josh said. “I wasn’t. And I was only teasing you. You know that, right?”

“Yes, Josh. Don’t worry. I understand your jesting.”

“I’d better go talk with her. It’s late. I’m tired. The sooner I go to her, the sooner I can get some sleep.

See you in the morning.”

“Good night,” Jim said.

Jim lay down to sleep. He thought that it might be wise for him to trap with someone else without a

wife. He felt as though his presence interfered with their marital commitment and communication. Jim

fell asleep to the shrill whimpers of Josh and Pale Moon making love. In his sleep, he looked into

Woman Whose Words Smile’s doe eyes. “Why did you kill me,” she asked him. “Why?”

Her husband woke to avoid answering the question. His roll was soaked wet with his sweat; his body

was cold. He forced himself back to sleep quickly so that he would not have to think. Again, he stared

into her eyes and she asked the same question, “Why?” Jim woke again and fell asleep again and peered

into her eyes again. It had been many months since his first wife’s death, as Jim put it. He tried to

forget it and could not even remember how long ago it had been. Perhaps one year had passed; he was

not certain. But every few weeks, he had a night like this when Woman Whose Words Smile came to

visit. She asked that he rest her spirit by answering her. He refused.

The night finally ended and many others like that. Jim had stayed on with Josh but they had joined a

group of a dozen trappers. Pale Moon did not travel with Josh. She waited for him to come home to

her. She lived alone in the vicinity of his work where he visited her regularly. The trappers all slept in a

lodge that they broke down when they moved and put up again at their new place.

They lived together like brothers in their Indian house. Whether they all liked each other or not, they

became intimate. They knew the sounds they made in their sleep, their smells in the morning before

washing and their manner of eating meals. Jim was grateful for the camaraderie because they still

inhabited country where Blackfeet roamed. The protection of numbers comforted him. The number of

successful battles against the Blackfeet bolstered his confidence as a warrior. Then one day as Jim

cleaned Fancy Free at camp, four Sparrowhawk men appeared in a flash, four beautiful faces and fit

bodies astride handsome mounts.


"Crow Indian Swallow Bird" (1908) by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)

Note the Crow pompadour hairstyle and the beaded hair pipes


“Ho,” Jim said, surprised by the men whom he had not heard.

Josh walked out of the trappers’ tepee and broke into a rapid conversation with the Sparrowhawkmen in

their language. He walked excitedly with them; they spoke tersely. Once in awhile, they would all look

over at Jim standing under a tree with his dismantled gun in both hands at his sides. Then they would

return to their conversation. The longer they talked, the deeper their voices fell, the more intense

everyone became. Why did the men remain on their horses if they were friendly, Jim thought. Why did

Josh not say something to him in English, he thought.No one followed Josh out of the tepee. Jim was

fairly certain that everyone else had gone out trapping or hunting. Were he and Josh in danger? Smiles

all around indicated that they were not. The Sparrowhawks galloped off.“What happened,” Jim asked, as

he walked toward Josh.“They were Sparrowhawks,” Josh said.“I know that,” Jim said, annoyed. “What

did they want?”“They saw the scalps of Blackfeet flapping in the breeze up there,” Josh said, looking up

and pointing at the human trophies attached to the center lodge pole. “The Sparrowhawks fight the

Blackfeet. The Blackfeet fight the Sparrowhawks. Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been. They

are bona fide enemies forever until the end of time. Those men stopped to find out who the kind

gentlemen were who spared them the trouble and pleasure of collecting those Blackfoot scalps. We are

in Absaroka. They wanted to know who was in their country killing their enemy.”“Is that all,” Jim

asked. “You were talking longer than it takes to explain that.”“I know,” Josh said, a smile creeping onto

his large face.“Josh, what were you talking about,” Jim demanded, his face clouding red with

impatience.“Jim. Jim. Jim. Don’t get so upset. It’s nothing. I just told them the story about your

parentage.”“The story of my parentage,” he repeated, perplexed. “Josh, for the last time, what was going

on?”The trapper drew in a deep breath as though his answer was going to be a long one.“I told them that

you believe that you were kidnapped by the Cheyennes from the Sparrowhawks when you were a baby. I

said, ‘You remember that winter long ago when hundreds of your warriors were killed, and women and

children were carried off. Jim Beckwourth, here, thinks that he was one of those unfortunate

Sparrowhawks. He says that the whites probably bought him from the Cheyennes.”Josh backed away

from Jim so that he could spread out his arms in dramatic gesticulation and protect himself from Jim’s

temper.“I continued, ‘It is fortuitous that we meet now. He was on his way to present himself to you and

meet his family. He would tell you, if he could, that he has always felt dislocated, like an outsider, with

the whites. He was drawn to the mountains to work as a trapper and trader. When he first saw a

Sparrowhawk, he was stunned by the man’s resemblance to him. That was several years ago. Finally, he

feels strong enough to find out the truth. With your help, he can.’ That, Jim, is what took so long to tell.

Your story.”“Josh, are you crazy? That’s crazy! What is wrong with you?”Jim threw his head back and

stretched his arms open as he ranted at the sky.“Kidnapped by the Cheyennes! Kidnapped from the

Sparrowhawks by the Cheyennes! Bought by whites! What next?”“Jim, why are you getting

overexcited? It’s a little lie that can’t do us any harm. It should help us, I would think. The

Sparrowhawks will let us be. And if we need help, we might get that too.”“You are a devilish scamp,

Josh,” Jim said, in a changed and softened voice. “You’ve pulled many pranks before but this one is

unbelievable.”“Isn’t it though?”They both laughed at the preposterous kidnapping story. Jim thought

that it was absolutely bizarre. He doubted they could get away with it but said that he would do his best

to play along. They had nothing to lose. Who knows, the tale might save their lives someday and it could

only improve trading. Sparrowhawks were friendly toward the whites but trappers could never take

anything for granted.Three weeks passed by and Jim and Josh forgot the story. Beaver abounded and

because autumn was approaching, the trappers spent most of their time working to collect the animal’s

lustrous coats. The steady work in the cold water made them cranky. One day, Jim came back to camp

without one of his traps which he said must have been stolen. Alain Mondrian did not believe the trap

had been taken and said as much.“Are you certain, Jim, that someone took the trap,” the erudite and

suave Mondrian asked. “It would have had to have been a person, probably one of us. And that doesn’t

make sense. We all have our own traps. Are you saying that a Blackfoot or Indian took it? If so, why

only one trap? It makes no sense, Jim.”“Are you calling me a liar? Is that what you mean? Does that

make sense?”“No, Jim. I am not calling you a liar. I’m just questioning—““My words,” Jim cut in.“No,

I am questioning your deduction. Maybe your trap wasn’t stolen. Maybe you dropped it. Maybe you

never laid it out.”“Again, you accuse me of lying.”“All right, Jim. Call it what you like. I don’t care.”“I

do. You call me a liar. I challenge you to a shooting duel.”Jim Bridger, an experienced, respected and

peaceful mountaineer, stepped in. He was about the same age as Jim but acted like the oldest young man

most had ever met. And he rarely talked so when he did, he was guaranteed an audience.“A man’s honor

is to be defended but I’m not convinced that what we have here is a matter of honor,” Old Man Bridger

said. “We’ll all tired and grumpy. I suggest that you both call a truce for a few days. If you still feel the

same way at the end of it then, by all means, shoot it out.”Both men agreed to take Bridger’s advice. The

next morning, Jim and his levelheaded mediator headed out of camp together for a few days away from

the threat of dueling to the death. The Bridger and Beckwourth families had emigrated from Virginia to

Missouri when the trappers were but boys. But there, the similarity in backgrounds ended. Bridger’s life

was full of death and abandonment and doing without. He was a shy boy forced to care for himself at a

tender age.The two men came to a fork in the stream they were following soon after leaving camp.“Let’s

separate so we can lay traps on both sides of the stream,” Bridger said. “We’ll meet up again after we’re

done in a few hours. Just cross that hill in the distance. Oh, and Jim, keep an eye open for your trap. It’s

bound to show up.”“All right,” Jim said. “I’ll see you soon.”The two gave each other mock salutes as

they rode off. While Bridger was still within sight of Jim, he looked over at him on the stream’s other

fork riding toward a large camp of Indians. Bridger thought they were Cheyennes which meant certain

death for his friend. Sadly, there was nothing he could do to warn Jim, who seconds later was

surrounded by Cheyennes on horseback. Old Man Bridger rode back to camp disconsolate to break the

bad news to the others.The men mourned Jim by recalling his successes in battle. His untimely death

gathered one huge, gray cloud around the camp. Jim’s fellow trappers were saddened immeasurably. He

knew how to find pleasure and make excitement. Jim loved life because it was an adventure. Alain

Mondrian was particularly grieved and remorseful on hearing the news. Another trapper had found Jim’s

missing trap on the back of a buffalo who had apparently forded the stream. In retrospect, Alain thought

their quarrel and challenges were silly, too silly to have cost Jim his life.While the trappers’ camp

mourned, the Indians whom Jim had met had directed him to come with them, which he had gladly

done. Better than losing his hair, he had thought. This had been the point at which Old Man Bridger last

saw Jim. But Bridger had been wrong about the Indians’ tribe. They were not Cheyennes or Blackfeet.

They were Sparrowhawks. And one of them had been one of the four who had visited the camp and

heard Josh’s story.As Jim trotted to the Sparrowhawk village surrounded by his escorts, his heart

pounded inside his chest. Would they believe Josh’s story? He tried to convince himself that they would

but he thought that the chances were slim. Jim was glad that Josh had qualified the tale by saying that

Jim thought he was a Sparrowhawk. But then, Jim could not see them releasing him if they decided he

was not one of them.The visitor and his entourage’s arrival at the village stirred up excitement. Who was

this stranger, everyone wanted to know. Whispers traveled from one lodge to another. When they heard

about Jim’s possible kidnapping, they ran to tell women they knew who had lost children in that surprise

winter raid twenty-five years ago. Soon after Jim dismounted, scores of women smelling of salves for

muscular pain congregated around the abducted one. They scrutinized Jim’s quick, black eyes, his flared

nose, his high cheekbones, his full lips and his stature. He stood as tall as a young tree. To them, Jim

looked like a fine Sparrowhawk man although his hands and feet were considered too large to be good

looking, and his manner connoted that he was a white man.Still, they wanted him to be theirs. They all

wanted to stop mourning. They had never believed that their sons were dead. They had been waiting for

this day. They had been praying for their return. Each told her story of how her child had come to be

taken—he was playing ball with other children, he was talking with his grandmother, he was sleeping

alone outside.The mothers screamed out cries of loss, their hearts wrenching, their souls torn. Many

realized that Jim could not be their son because of his age, but there were many others whose son would

have been the same age as this handsome man. In one moment swift as the first ripple in a pond after a

pebble is thrown in, six women demanded that Jim come home with them. They insisted that he looked

just like their other children or their husbands or their parents and sometimes, like themselves.One

woman wearing a long, deerskin wrap outlining her well-endowed hips had remained silent during the

emotional testimony until the six anxious ones began to pull on Jim’s arms and push on his back. Then

this woman, whose smooth, nut-colored skin and full mouth matched Jim’s, commanded in the sweet

voice of Jim’s mother, Winifred:“Stop. My son had a tiny, black mole over his left eyelid. If this man has

such a mole, he must be my son.”The women who had claimed Jim slowly removed their hands from

him. None of them could disclose any specific identifying marks on their lost sons. They agreed that if

the stranger carried the mole, he must belong to the woman who spoke.The crowd hushed as Noisy Owl

approached a confused Jim with five, short, hesitant steps so that she stood surrounded by spectators.

Jim did not understand anything that had been said. He sensed that he had won over the coterie of

women who tried to take him away. However, Noisy Owl’s inspection felt ominous. Had she accused

him of being a fraud?Noisy Owl stood within a nose of him. They could hear each other’s heart beat just

a little quicker than normal. Because she was a head shorter than Jim, Noisy Owl slowly reached up with

both trembling hands and closed his eyes. The crowd leaned forward to study Jim’s left eyelid. Saliva

stuck in everyone’s throat before they remembered to swallow and then they cried out in shock.The

black mole was there!“Welcome home, son,” Noisy Owl said, hugging Jim, and laughing and crying and

shaking and dancing. She was out of her mind with joy.In her embrace, Jim felt engulfed by the

protective love of a mother. It was clear to him that Noisy Owl had reclaimed him as her son. He hugged

her back, a tear at one eye, because so much time had passed since he had been overwhelmed with

maternal love.Noisy Owl whisked Jim away in a frenzy. She led him to his paternal lodge where he met

other members of his family on the first day of feasting that were held in his honor. Jim’s father, Big

Bowl, his three brothers, his four unmarried sisters, his many aunts and uncles, and nieces, nephews and

cousins smothered him with affectionate kisses and hugs. They believed that Jim’s return was a special

gift and they thought it a good omen for which they could not ascertain the significance. One of the

chiefs was invited to the naming ceremony and asked to give Jim a name as if Jim were a newborn. On

Jim Beckwourth’s second day among the Sparrowhawks, he received his first Sparrowhawk

name.“Because he arrived here in our village in the brightness of daylight delivered from the darkness of

having no home and no people, I deem the son of Noisy Owl and Big Bowl to be called Morning Star,”

the old chief said.Morning Star.After the naming ceremony, the words ‘James Pierson Beckwourth’ were

not spoken by any Sparrowhawk. The name did not exist for them. In Absaroka, it disappeared

everywhere except deep in Morning Star’s heart.During the days of feasting, he snatched mental glances

of the trappers’ camp from time to time. As the days progressed, however, he spotted it fewer and fewer

times. He imagined the possibility that he had been wrested from the Sparrowhawks. He remembered

his attraction to the Sparrowhawks he had seen at his first rendezvous. Somehow the story seemed not so

crazy anymore.


"The Oath Apsaroke" by Edward S. Curtis

depicting Crow men giving a symbolic oath

with buffalo meat offering on an arrow


Morning Star grew accustomed to being treated like royalty. Big Bowl, a prominent man, asked his son

whether a wife would quiet his restlessness and keep him among the Sparrowhawks. Morning Star said

yes. Big Bowl then took his son to the lodge of another well-respected man, Black Lodge, and explained

Morning Star’s marital situation. The next day, Black Lodge visited Morning Star and offered him one

of his accompanying three daughters as his wife. Morning Star chose Lots of Trees. Again, he was

married without ceremony into a prominent family. The murder of his first wife still shadowed him. It

had happened months ago but he felt he had not slept since then. He yearned to make amends and end

that horrible day. In his marriage with Lots of Trees, he vowed to make her happy.During those days of

welcoming that bridged the past with the future, Morning Star began treating Lots of Trees with the

utmost care and affection. A lithe woman of fifteen, she thought Morning Star a good man and wanted to

be good for him. She was ready for marriage as was Morning Star. When Lots of Trees was unusually

quiet, Morning Star watched for a chance to draw her out. When she cooked well, he complimented her.

When her small back ached from bending over as she sewed elk’s teeth on to dresses, Morning Star

massaged it. He cared for her and she for him.Morning Star and Lots of Trees took up residence among

her people. He acquired a new name, a new people, a new family and a new wife. It was a rare

opportunity to start over and Morning Star, ponderous with the weight of learning to accept himself,

grabbed it. He was happy to take a break from straddling. He could go back to being his complicated

self whenever he wanted to do so. Eliza would be there in St. Louis waiting when that time

came.Morning Star was pushing away from the known, from land defined and hard, and floating

placidly on water in which drowning is ever a threat. In the past, he had adjusted, however crudely, to

different places and people but this was a whole new life. He was floating away from his identity as a

Beckwourth. Away from his mother and father.

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