Once, in Buffalo, my little girl was dressed up and she danced for a classroom. After she answered questions, she said, ‘Mom, can I go change clothes?’ She was in her dancing clothes, her buckskin dress and her braids and moccasins. I said sure. She went and put on her jeans and sneakers, and she wore a Mickey Mouse shirt. She had her hair in a ponytail. She came out and the classroom of kids, instead of listening to me, they all turned and gasped.
I asked, ‘What is it?’
And they said, ‘She’s just like us.’
That really made an impact on me. About 15 to 20 years later, a woman told me she was in that classroom that day. She said, ‘Mrs. Plainfeather, you don’t know how much that changed our lives.’
That is my goal. That connection, my payment, educating people outside the reservation about who we are and what we are … We are modern people. We have a lot of struggles, but we have a lot of things to celebrate, too.
Things like that are my reward.
— Mardell Plainfeather
One hundred years ago, storytelling was an art. No digital recorders existed, neither did television and radio was a novelty.
It was into this world that Mardell Plainfeather’s mother, Lillian Bullshows Hogan, was born, in 1905. Hogan grew up on the Crow Reservation, went to boarding school and later did preservation work on Crow as a first language.
“My mother was a great storyteller,” said Plainfeather, who herself has been a resource for cultural preservation over the decades.
“I used to sit and be mesmerized by some of her stories. She had a fantastic memory. I always wondered how she maintained such a good memory even into her 70s and early 80s. We asked her about that one time, and she said that they didn’t have any recorders in her youth, and people like her, with no writing skills, would rely on their memories.”
Plainfeather is a retired National Park Service ranger who also worked at the Little Big Horn National Monument in her hometown of Crow Agency. She penned “The Woman Who Loved Mankind: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Crow Elder” about her mother, published in 2012.
“We thought about what my mother said and realized that if you rely on your memory and use those memory cells in your brain, they become stronger,” Plainfeather said. “I appreciate a computer and I appreciate writing skills, but my mother’s mind just ticked all the time.”
Plainfeather tried to write down as many of her mother’s stories as she could, but she has forgotten some. She remembers, though, that her mother didn’t have a shy bone in her body.
Plainfeather was different. She didn’t want to be a public speaker because English was her second language to Crow. Sentences are transposed between Crow and English, she explained.
She was never concerned about losing the Crow language — imperative to preserving Crow culture — until recent years. Others across the Crow Reservation are actively involved in language preservation, and several Crow women were involved in writing a Crow dictionary.
Plainfeather is worried, though, about conversational Crow. She hopes to use technology to preserve it.
“Just recently, I told my grandson who doesn’t speak Crow that I would record … how to speak in Crow from morning until night. I will begin with, ‘It is morning, you must wake up. What would you like for breakfast?’ and ‘You better hurry, you might be late for school,’ all the way until … ‘You should get ready for bed,’” Plainfeather said.
She hopes to partner with Little Big Horn College to turn such a recording into an app, she said, but the work won’t end with language preservation.
“Whether they are in English or Crow, we use our stories in the classroom. We’re preserving history that is happening now, and history from the past,” she said.
Sheridan College has been working to better serve Native American students. According to Walter Tribley, president of the Northern Wyoming Community College District, this means both serving an increased number of students and helping students succeed.
“We are taking concrete steps to make sure we have a welcoming, supportive environment for students,” Tribley said. “We are listening to the experts and to our students. We will continue to work toward becoming the institution of choice for the people of all the communities we serve.”
This fall, the college opened a multicultural center which serves as a home for the Native American Student Club. In addition, the college welcomed historian and author Donovin Sprague as a visiting professor. Sprague is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and will spend a year on campus teaching a variety of classes including the History of North America Indians. In addition to teaching, he will also work with students in the multicultural center.
During the 20th Century American Indian Urban Relocation Program through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, people were relocated to cities for training and jobs, and were expected to remain in place permanently.
“Quite a few of them came home — I did. I was on the shirttail of the program,” Plainfeather said.
She trained in medical stenography in Butte, Montana, but used her skills at the Crow hospital. Others stayed away for many years, and that situation is not known to contemporary students.
Many of the people who left tell about discrimination of American Indian people similar to what the Little Rock Nine faced in 1957 — discrimination present until students were moved to a reservation high school.
Stories give the younger generations a sense of pride.
“A lot of our students really appreciate learning these things. They say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that,’” Plainfeather said. “They are used in the classroom, and our students are learning about the political arena, too.”
According to Tim Bernardis, the librarian at Little Big Horn College, these stories end up in the Crow Indian Historical Collection in the college’s Crow Indian Archives, where the stories are updated and posted online for student use.
The Crow Oral Literature collection includes stories from “Old Man Coyote at the Beginning,” “Old Man Coyote Makes the World” and “Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians.” Also found in the library archives is the Apsáalooke writing tribal histories project, where students can learn the Apsáalooke alphabet, composed of 27 characters: a aa b ch d e ee h i ii ia k l m n o q p s sh t u uu ua w x and ?.
Plainfeather’s father was one of many to attend an East Coast boarding school with the philosophy to “kill the Indian but save the man” during the 19th and 20th centuries.
“My father was educated under that idea, and they wouldn’t allow the students to speak their language,” Plainfeather said.
Her father became a strict Baptist, but he would not let go of his language.
Plainfeather’s father came home, similar to Plainfeather today who, like others in the community, will continue to share and preserve Native American culture and her people’s rich heritage.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.
Pick up a complimentary copy of the glossy magazine at The Press office at 144 Grinnell Plaza or explore more features online.