Several years ago I wrote an article on Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow’s 100th birthday. I told of his returning from active combat in World War II, stopping in Sheridan at “Hot Tamale” Louie’s for a hamburger, and thus missing the train and the welcome planned for him on arriving home on the Crow Reservation.
But, there is more to that story, I find. In Gregory Nickerson’s history of Sheridan’s All American Indian Days and Miss Indian America Pageant, published as the feature story in “MONTANA: The Magazine of Western History,” I find that “one of the few restaurants where Indians could receive service with no hassle was Louie’s, owned by Louis Khan, a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan.” Louie’s own remarkable story was told by Kathryn Schultz in a 2016 edition of the New Yorker magazine.
So, the man who earned a Bronze Star, was the first member of the Crow Tribe to earn a master’s degree, became the last war chief of the Crow Nation, and went on to earn an honorary doctorate and the Presidential Medal of Freedom would find it hard to get a meal in Sheridan. In those days, signs were all over town: “No Indians allowed” or “No Indians or dogs allowed.” Medicine Crow told Nickerson years later that “Sheridan was considered the worst Indian-hating town in the country.”
The story would begin to change almost by accident. In 1951, a lovely and talented young Crow Indian barrel racer, Lucy Yellowmule, chosen by applause meters, became the Sheridan WYO Rodeo’s first Indian rodeo queen.
As Nickerson writes, the crowning of Lucy Yellowmule set in motion a series of events that transformed Sheridan, by ending public discrimination and inspiring the first All American Indian Days and Miss Indian America pageant. At its peak in the 1950s, the celebration annually drew an estimated 4,000 Indians from 60 tribes nationwide.
The AAID and MIA pageants were established in 1953 and continued in Sheridan for the next three decades, until 1984. Initiated by syndicated columnist Howard “Neckyoke Jones” Sinclair, many joined in the efforts. They would include individuals, families, businesses, politicians, organizations and also strong Indian supporters such as Donald Deernose and Medicine Crow, who was emcee of the events for many of its 30 years.
In 2013, a committee led by Judy Slack and Michael Dykhorst at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, with the support of past MIAs, organized a reunion of the Miss Indian America participants during which they were honored as grand marshals of the Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Such families as the Enzis, Pattons and Mullinaxs, who had hosted MIAs in their homes, had the opportunity to visit with these ladies once again. Medicine Crow, then 99 years old, spoke as did the MIAs. Another reunion is planned for 2018.
On reading the article it suddenly occurred to me how unique and important this story really is. Perhaps Sheridan’s history of combating prejudice could and should serve as a useful example to the nation and the world that it is not easy, but that, with the healing power of shared purpose and goals, it can be done!
(NOTES: Greg Nickerson holds a master’s in western history from the University of Wyoming. The article can be read at the Sheridan County library, or on gregorynickerson.com. The magazine, a prize winning quarterly publication, can be purchased at the Sheridan County Museum, Sheridan Stationery, Brinton Museum, or from the Montana Historical Society Publications office.)
Mary Ellen McWilliams serves as an adviser and volunteer for the Sheridan County Historical Society and Museum, and the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association.