Standing in front of a larger-than-life photograph from the early 1900s, Margo Real Bird proudly pointed out her great grandparents, Frank Bethune and Annie Medicine Crow-Real Bird. The portrait, on display at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman as part of the newly opened exhibit, “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors,” shows the couple with three of their grandchildren resting in the shade of a cottonwood tree.

“Apsáalooke Women and Warriors” is the first exhibit of its kind, pairing artifacts and sacred objects with contemporary art, fashion, music, storytelling and beadwork made by Crow people and curated by Nina Sanders, an Apsáalooke scholar and Annie and Frank’s great-great-granddaughter. The exhibition first opened in 2020 at the Field Museum in Chicago and is now on display in Bozeman through the end of the year.

In the photo, Frank leans against the tree as Annie sits below him. She wears an elk-tooth dress and holds a sleeping child bound in a cradleboard, while two older children sit at her sides. The young girl, also adorned in an elk-tooth dress, holds a cradleboard of her own with a doll nestled inside.

“There’s a layer of history missing from this country, and it’s the story of Native people.”

exhibit curator Nina Sanders

At age 86, Margo Real Bird knows the landscape well. The photo was taken by William Wildschut on her family’s land on the banks of the Little Bighorn River near Garryowen, where she has resided her whole life. The National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian Institute) archived Wildschut’s images, and Sanders tracked down the photo of her relatives. For “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors,” she paired the photo with a similar floral-style beaded cradleboard from the Smithsonian’s collection. 

Sanders described her great-great grandmother as a kind and loving woman who raised many of her grandchildren and crafted for them beaded cradleboards, clothes and toys. “My family no longer owns any of these cradleboards, so I continue to search for them,” Sanders wrote in the text that is part of the exhibit.

A HOMECOMING

Bringing the exhibit to Montana represents a historic moment. The objects — including sacred war shields, tobacco bundles and historic beadwork — have not been in the same place at one time on Crow land since the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

The vast objects curated for “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors” came from museum collections and private holdings. The exhibit includes audio and interactive displays compiled from Indigenous research and oral histories that take visitors on a cultural journey of the Crow people.

Museum of the Rockies Curator Michael D. Fox said he contacted the Field Museum after reading about Sander’s work and asked if the show could be shared with other museums. He was struck by the inclusion of the Crow community in the creation of the exhibit.

“As a museum curator, I recognize that is the direction that museums need to be going with Indigenous exhibits — working with the communities rather than working just with objects as if they’re not part of a community,” said Fox. “Nina really broke new ground with that approach.”

The exhibit, organized by the Field Museum in collaboration with the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, opened on March 13, 2020, just one day before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of public spaces across the city.

Margo Real Bird, along with many members of the Apsáalooke nation, attended the opening. “When we first saw it, it really surprised all of us,” she said. “Some of us were crying.”

“Apsáalooke Women and Warriors” eventually reopened and remained on display at the Field Museum through July 2021. Museum staff then began preparing the extensive exhibit for shipping to Bozeman. It will be on display at the Museum of the Rockies through Dec. 31, and in 2023 will travel to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Birdie Real Bird collaborated with Sanders and the Field Museum to contribute dolls, clothing and replicate beaded artifacts. She also helped translate the Crow language for the various auditory portions of the exhibit, narrated by Sanders. She said when the exhibit was in Chicago, it felt so far away. 

“Now, it’s close to home, and it’s kind of a relief,” she said. “I am sure those things are feeling the same way.”

In the Apsáalooke worldview, objects such as tobacco bundles and war shields have autonomy and are considered living entities, so bringing them home required special care. Before removing the exhibit from crates in Bozeman, Crow tribal member Stanley Pretty Paint welcomed those items back to their home by burning sage and leading a ceremonial prayer. He blessed them and those working on the installation, giving staff permission to work with the objects.

Sanders, speaking at the opening of “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors,” described the audience as allies. “What you see here, you’ll share. And your children will see these things and begin to realize that Indigenous histories — our narratives — need to be taught to our children. There’s a layer of history missing from this country, and it’s the story of Native people.”

“Museum of the Rockies is a guest on the ancestral lands of the Apsáalooke, and we are grateful for our growing partnership with the Apsáalooke tribe and for their trust in sharing their beautiful culture with us.”

Chris Dobbs, MOR executive director

Chris Dobbs, executive director of the Museum of the Rockies, anticipates 150,000 visitors will view “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors” during the next seven months, and an additional 5,000 school children will visit the exhibit this fall. The museum is planning a range of programs with tribal members and Apsáalooke artists, musicians and performers.

“Museum of the Rockies is a guest on the ancestral lands of the Apsáalooke, and we are grateful for our growing partnership with the Apsáalooke tribe and for their trust in sharing their beautiful culture with us,” Dobbs said. 

‘WE ARE HOME’

The Museum of the Rockies offers free admission to schoolchildren and partial reimbursement to schools throughout Montana for bus travel. Chelsea Hogan, director of education and public programming at the museum, said the “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors” exhibit is an opportunity for educators to receive Indian Education for All credit, as well as a chance for Indigenous students to experience an exhibit curated by Native people. 

“We want to make every effort to make sure that Native schools can get here,” said Hogan.

Emily Pease, a student at Montana State University majoring in childhood education and a member of the Apsáalooke tribe, was hired just before the exhibit opened. Pease, who understands the Crow language and speaks some of it, said she is excited to work with museum tours and will be supporting the fall school programs for students and teacher workshops surrounding the exhibit. 

“It just brings a little bit of comfort here,” said Pease of the exhibit. “Now that the shields are home, it’s more peace for the Crow tribe. They are supposed to be here. I feel happy that they are home, and we are home. This is our first land.”

“They are supposed to be here. I feel happy that they are home, and we are home. This is our first land.”

Emily Pease, MSU student and a member of the Apsáalooke tribe

Kristin Hopkins, a librarian at Longfellow Elementary in Bozeman, said teaching about Native people is often rooted in the past, and this exhibit will give educators a chance to share the traditions of the Crow tribe with a modern infusion directly from the source.

“I’m telling about a culture that is not mine, but it’s the best I can do, and I am going to do as much as a I can and do so respectfully,” said Hopkins. “But to bring them in and let the Crow people tell their own story is more powerful than someone like me can offer.”

Sanders described the exhibit as a window into the Crow Tribe but represents just a “teeny, tiny part” of who they are. “It’s just a taste of what’s to come,” said Sanders. “There should be many more exhibitions in this space, and spaces like this, about Indigenous people by Indigenous people.”

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Anna Paige

Anna Paige is a Montana-based arts journalist and co-host of "Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains" on Yellowstone Public Radio. She's worked in the newspaper and publishing industry since 2004, most recently for the Billings Gazette as an arts and entertainment journalist. She is also the co-founder of Young Poets, a nonprofit teaching poetry in regional elementary schools, and winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Award for Literacy.