Unearthing Crow Tribal History
Archaeological excavations along Montana Highway 78 revealed much about the daily lives of the Crow people of more than a century ago.
For nearly a decade between 1875 and 1884, the Crow Indian Reservation was located on East Rosebud Creek south of present-day Absarokee, MT. Although the tribe moved farther east in 1884, the 9 years of living at Absarokee were times of monumental change for the Crow people.
When the Crow first lived at Absarokee, they relied on locally available, natural resources, moving about their homeland as mobile hunters and gatherers as they had for hundreds of years. By the mid-1880s, however, the bison they hunted were nearly extinct, other game populations were in sharp decline, and the Crow were dependent on imported Federal Government resources for their livelihood.
The launch of a road improvement project for Montana Highway 78, which runs through the Crow Indian Reservation's historic Absarokee site, was the impetus for a major archaeological data recovery investigation by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) in consultation and cooperation with the Crow Tribe. In 2006, MDT had initiated the process to improve the two-lane rural Montana Highway 78 and to bring the narrow roadway up to current design standards.
The origins of this highway and archaeological story go back over a century, before Montana was even a State.
A Tribe in Transition
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 recognized the Crow Indian Reservation as established in the area south and east of the Yellowstone River and east to the divide between the Bighorn River and Rosebud Creek in southeastern Montana. The first Crow Indian Agency (where U.S. officials met with the Crow and distributed treaty goods to them) was located near the western edge of the reservation at Mission Creek near the present-day city of Livingston.
In 1875, the U.S. Government moved the Crow Indian Agency from Mission Creek east to Absarokee. According to the official record, the new area was better suited to agriculture. The Absarokee agency site is located approximately 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of the present-day Crow Indian Reservation. In 1884, the Crow Indian Agency was moved again by the U.S. Government to its present location along I-90 on the Little Bighorn River.
The Archaeology Project
Knowing the Absarokee area was steeped in Crow tribal history but unsure of what remained, MDT hired Steve Aaberg, a consulting archaeologist from Billings, MT, to conduct test archaeological investigations in the project corridor. Prior to the excavations, Aaberg conducted a geomagnetic investigation of an alfalfa field east of the highway where a historic map suggested the remains of the main agency compound might exist. The investigative team walked an area approximately 0.21 mile (340 meters) by 0.08 mile (140 meters) using handheld devices to record magnetic signals at approximately 3-foot (1-meter) intervals. The magnetic signals indicated places of unnatural soil disturbance, which allowed the team to map possible locations of buried archeological remains.
After this nondestructive geophysical investigation, the team used a geographical plotting software to translate the results into a map. The findings revealed a series of anomalies, indicating the likely presence of artifacts, in a rough horseshoe pattern consistent with a historic map showing the layout of the Crow Indian Agency.
Guided by the geomagnetic work, Aaberg's crew conducted test excavations in late May and early June 2006, which led to the recovery of many agency-associated artifacts. The archaeologists located dumps associated with the main compound of the Crow Indian Agency and Doby Town, an area of adobe brick housing. The dumps were an important discovery because they often include artifacts that paint a picture of people's daily lives when placed in historical context. The archaeologists also located the remains of a hand-stacked stone well, a blacksmith shop, the agent's house, and a sawmill.
The data collected from the test excavations suggested that the site might contain information valuable to understanding history and therefore was determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. In accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, FHWA, MDT, the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, and the Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office developed a memorandum of agreement to mitigate adverse effects to the historic property.
In June 2011, a year in advance of MDT's planned highway reconstruction, Aaberg began a data recovery excavation within the right-of-way limits and on adjacent private land owned by cooperative landowners. FHWA provided partial funding for the work, which lasted 6 weeks and uncovered significant information including thousands of artifacts that reveal glimpses into everyday life of the Crow people more than a century ago.
Excavating Cultural Artifacts
More than a dozen qualified archaeologists and local teachers, who volunteered their time to help with the excavation, recovered thousands of animal bone fragments from the compound's dumps and Doby Town. The fragments tell a lot about the changing Crow diet: how they went from living on bison, antelope, deer, and elk to subsisting on government-provided beef. In addition, pits of chokecherries and wild plums reveal that the Crow people gathered wild fruits as an important dietary staple, and numerous fish bones show that another staple was cutthroat trout.
The artifacts, which were the actual objects used by the Crow people in their everyday lives, form a bridge between the people of the past and those of the present. Crow tribal history from this period is recorded in historic documents and photographs and can now be enhanced with deeper meaning by studying the uncovered Crow material objects.
Additional artifacts recovered illustrate the variety of commercial items imported to the plains including thousands of glass beads, rifle and revolver cartridges and parts, metal arrow points, and various Civil War-era army items that were likely sent as surplus to the Indian agency on the frontier. The excavations also yielded artifacts indicative of commercial goods modified by Crow people to suit their own purposes. Several hide-scraping tools, for example, were found that had been fashioned from bottle glass instead of chert (chipped stone), indicating another impact of trading with an industrial society. In addition to imported goods, an "Iniskim" or "buffalo stone" -- a fragment of fossil baculite that looks like a small stone buffalo -- was recovered from one of the Crow cabins, evidence of continuity of Crow religious practice. Buffalo stones often are found in Plains Indian medicine bundles and personal medicine pouches. An unexpected find was the preserved foundations of the main Crow Indian Agency compound, still intact beneath the plow zone in the field on the east side of Montana Highway 78.
"We were extremely excited when we hit the agency compound wall foundation," says Aaberg. "This field has been plowed for 80 years, yet the foundations remain in place and in remarkably good condition."
Educating Youth on Crow History
Based on the test excavations, MDT partnered in 2009 with Montana's Project Archaeology, a joint effort of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management and Montana State University. The purpose of MDT's partnership with Project Archaeology is to develop an archaeological education curriculum for fourth- and fifth-grade Montana students.
Project Archaeology and MDT held several focus groups on the Crow Indian Reservation and, from feedback received at those meetings, decided to create lessons around the themes of food, economy, beadwork, and oral tradition. The curriculum is titled, "Changing Land, Changing Life: Archaeology in the Apsáalooke Homeland." Coauthors are Shane Doyle, a Crow tribal member with a Ph.D. in education from Montana State University, and Crystal Alegria, project coordinator with Project Archaeology. The lessons have been successfully piloted in classrooms in Bozeman, Crow Agency, and Livingston, MT. Once finalized, the curriculum will be available from Project Archaeology at www.projectarchaeology.org.
"This has been an exciting opportunity to involve Native American children with their own past through archaeology," says Alegria. "The project fits nicely with Montana's Indian Education for All mandate established by the Montana legislature. Although the history at Absarokee is not a happy one, federally funded archaeological work at the site has provided an opportunity to examine the material cultural record of this tumultuous time on the high plains of Montana."
Preserving the Site
The Section 106 memorandum of agreement, executed prior to excavation, outlined an archaeological data recovery plan and stipulated the presence of a Crow tribal monitor during excavations. Shawn Danforth, the Crow tribal monitor, assisted with the fieldwork, and a group of tribal elders from Pryor, MT, visited the excavation while it was in progress.
"This agency was a transitional point in the history and culture of the Apsáalooke people, thus making it a critical site for my people," says former Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Dale Old Horn.
Due to the size and significance of the site, MDT has postponed the highway reconstruction project and is working on an alternative design to avoid impacts to as much of the archaeological site as possible.
"The fantastically rich artifact record and archaeologically intact nature of the Crow Indian Agency at Absarokee make this site unique on the Northern Plains," Aaberg says. "The site is of intense interest to the Crow Tribe, archaeologists, and historians alike, for it is a window into a very transformative time in Crow
Steve Platt is a staff archaeologist for MDT. Platt was responsible for archaeological work at the Absarokee agency site. He has a B.A. in anthropology and environmental studies from the University of Vermont and an M.A. in anthropology from the University of Montana.
Alan Woodmansey, P.E., is an operations engineer in the FHWA Montana Division Office. Woodmansey is the Federal oversight engineer for the Billings district where the Montana Highway 78 project is located. He has a B.S. in engineering from the United States Military Academy and an M.S. in engineering management from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.