Mustangs big part of Crow lore

by BRETT FRENCH | Billings Gazette Staff | September 25, 2009
Photo by LARRY MAYER | Billings Gazette Staff

The tough ponies of the Pryor Mountains are celebrated in the lore of the Crow Tribe.

“The reason the Crow used them is they could run all day and go for a week without food,” said Elias Goes Ahead, a Crow historian who teaches at Pryor. “The Crow respect these ponies because they were tough.”

Goes Ahead, 49, has been sought out recently for his knowledge of the Pryor mustangs in the controversy over the Bureau of Land Management’s roundup of the herd of about 190 horses. Fifty-seven of those rounded up will be on the auction block today at the BLM’s Britton Springs corrals, just north of Lovell, Wyo. The auction begins at noon.

“I’m surprised there’s a lot of sympathy behind these mustangs,” Goes Ahead said.

The BLM’s roundup is part of a management plan designed to lessen impacts to the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, 38,000 acres set aside for the horses. Recent studies have shown the range’s ecosystem is being harmed by overgrazing. Most of the horses that took up residence off the range, on Custer National Forest land, will be auctioned, including a 21-year-old mare and a 19-year-old stallion.

The BLM has denied horse advocates’ requests to expand the range to include adjacent forest lands to allow more horses to live in the mountains, in part saying that there’s no evidence the horses ever occupied the lands. But according to Goes Ahead, the horses have been in the Pryor Mountains going back before Chief Plenty Coups’ time. He was born in 1848, and the stories were handed down to him, Goes Ahead said.

“Even before the white man was there, the ponies were there,” Goes Ahead said.

Hidatsa records date the arrival of horses in the Northern Plains to around 1728, Goes Ahead said. And it wasn’t long after that the Crow stole horses from the Hidatsa, he added.

“After that, there was a fusion of horses from all over, they began to multiply,” he said.

Goes Ahead recounts a story about a prized gray mustang kept in a Shoshone lodge while the Indians were camped at Bad Pass, near the base of the Pryor Mountains and Bighorn Canyon. A Crow warrior stole the horse and was chased by the horse’s angry owner. In a vision, the Crow warrior had learned that if he sang four songs, the horse would be able to fly. So he sang the songs and rode the mustang off the southern rim of Dryhead Canyon. To the pursuers’ amazement, the gray mustang and its rider sailed across the canyon and landed on the other side. Rock cairns now mark the spot where the horse jumped and landed.

Goes Ahead calls the story one of the tribe’s four most phenomenal and supernatural stories.

“There’s quite a history behind these mustangs,” Goes Ahead said. “These horses are a special breed.”

Most of the Crow Tribe’s horses were slaughtered by the federal government in the 1940s to make room for cattle, Goes Ahead said. That meant the loss of some Pryor mustang bloodlines.

“But they couldn’t take away the stories,” he said.

Link: Billings Gazette: Mustangs big part of Crow lore

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