Plenty Coups

Plenty Coups was the principal chief of the Mountain Crows of the Crow Nation and a visionary leader. He allied the Crow with the whites when the war for the West was being fought, because the Sioux and Cheyenne were the traditional enemies of the Crow. Plenty Coups had also experienced a vision when he was very young that non-Native American people would ultimately take control of his homeland, so he always felt that cooperation would benefit his people much more than opposition. He very much wanted the Crow to survive as a people and their customs and spiritual beliefs to carry on. His efforts on their behalf ensured that this happened, and he led his people peacefully into the 20th century.

For most of my life I’ve felt immersed in a society that was in many ways foreign to me. Recent studies made me realize I was actually part of a different culture than most of my countrymen. Culture is about the arts, customs, achievements and social institutions of a society. The culture I was raised in was of rural Quakers. The rural part helped me appreciate nature and my relationships with Mother Earth. The Quaker part taught and encouraged my spiritual life, showed me the culture of my faith community. Taught me how to communicate with the Spirit and my responsibility to act on what the Spirit was telling me to do. Framed my values of peace and community. Not values of materialism, militarism, the “other”.

Attending the Quaker boarding high school, Scattergood Friends School and Farm, taught me more about living the faith based life of Quakerism. We knew we were learning things not taught in public schools. I struggled with my first test of faith there as I worked through what it means to stand for peace in a war-like society during the Vietnam War years.

All was not perfect within my faith community. My entire life I agitated against owning personal automobiles to little effect.

I am grateful, though, that I learned to honor the authority of God, or the Spirit, especially in these times of collapse of institutions and services that we have relied on. The fabric of our society will continue to unravel in the face of growing environmental chaos and the rise of militaristic and authoritarian governmental policies and leaders.

Many are feeling hopeless and discouraged with the increasing power and frequency of climate chaos and lack of response from all levels of government.

The mainstream culture built on continuous economic growth and fossil fuel energy is rapidly collapsing as the consequences of the burning of fossil fuels can no longer be ignored. The result is increasing alarm as people realize burning fossil fuels must cease now, but they don’t have a vision for alternatives.

I’ve been writing about “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” by Jonathan Lear. He looked for a culture that had experienced cultural collapse to see if that would give us some ideas for how to deal with our own collapse. Knowing native nations in this country had been forced to collapse, he discovered how the last great chief of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coups, guided his people through their collapse.

SHORTLY BEFORE HE DIED, Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow nation, reached out across the “clash of civilizations” and told his story to a white man. Frank B. Linderman had come to Montana in 1885 as a teenager, and he became a trapper, hunter, and cowboy. He lived in a cabin in the woods near Flathead head Lake and was intimately associated with the Crows.

Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. “I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 29-33). Kindle Edition.

I find the image of the hearts of a people fell to the ground so visionary. It looks like the hearts of the people in this country, this culture, have fallen to the ground and they can not lift them up again. It feels like after this nothing happened. Does it feel that way to you?

Humans are by nature cultural animals: we necessarily inhabit a way of life that is expressed in a culture. But our way of life-whatever it is-is vulnerable in various ways. And we, as participants in that way of life, thereby inherit a vulnerability. Should that way of life break down, that is our problem. The suggestion I want to explore in this chapter is that if our way of life collapsed, things would cease to happen. What could this mean? And there is another aspect to our question that I want to explore: What would it be to be a witness to this breakdown? Plenty Coups seems to have become entangled in his culture’s history in an extraordinary way. Obviously, he lived through a period in which the Crow abandoned their traditional nomadic-hunting hunting way of life. But he seems to have become a spokesman from inside that way of life for the death of that way of life. What gave him such authority to speak for the way of life? Did he assume responsibility for it? And if so, how? In virtue of what did he become the designated mourner?

We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilizations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world-terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes-have have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. I suspect that this feeling has provoked the widespread intolerance that we see around us today-from all points on the political spectrum. It as though, without our insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself might collapse. Perhaps if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could find better ways to live with it.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 75-85). Kindle Edition.

Next I plan to write what Jonathan Lear learned about how Plenty Coups found a way for his people and culture to adapt to the devastation of their culture that occurred when the buffalo were destroyed.

This entry was posted in climate change, Indigenous, peace, Quaker, revolution, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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