Chief Plenty Coups and the American Indian Tribute to the Unknown

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 10/29/2021

By Roderick Gainer, ANC Curator

Chief Plenty Coups at the WWI Unknown Soldier's funeral. (Library of Congress)

Chief Plenty Coups, the last traditional chief of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe of the Great Plains, was among the distinguished dignitaries at the burial of the World War I Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921. Chosen to represent American Indian peoples at the funeral service, he presented several culturally significant gifts to the Unknown: a coup stick and lance (originally bundled together) and a war bonnet. These items remain in Arlington National Cemetery’s artifact collection and are currently on exhibit in the Memorial Amphitheater Display Room.

Born in 1848, the young Plenty Coups was originally named “Buffalo Bull Facing the Wind.” Upon reaching adulthood, his name was changed to Plenty Coups, symbolizing his many achievements as a warrior. He fought in numerous battles with his people’s ancestral enemies, such as the Cheyenne and the Sioux, and became a chief of the Mountain Crow clan in 1876, at age 28. 

Plenty Coups with his war bonnet and coup stick, ca. 1918-1922. (Montana Historical Society Research Center)

During a vision quest, Plenty Coups had experienced a vision which portended white encroachment on Indigenous lands. He subsequently advocated for American Indian peoples to work with the United States government while preserving the integrity of their cultures. The Crow nation had allied itself with the United States during the Plains Wars of the 1850s through 1870s, and members of the Crow, including Plenty Coups, had served as scouts for the U.S. Army during the latter 19th century.

By the mid-1880s, the Crow moved to a reservation in Montana’s Yellowstone Valley, and Plenty Coups became one of the first members of his formerly nomadic tribe to take up farming. His log home is now a National Historic Landmark, located in Chief Plenty Coups State Park at the base of Montana’s Pryor Mountains. Meanwhile, his public speaking and negotiating skills made him an able ambassador of the Crow nation. Between 1910 and 1917, Plenty Coups successfully fought legislation, proposed by Montana Senator Thomas Welsh, which would have opened Crow land to white settlement.

Because of his high standing as a leader and diplomat, the Army invited Plenty Coups to the funeral of the Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921. Joseph K. Dixon, an influential photographer and chronicler of American Indian culture, initially suggested another Plains warrior, White-Man-Runs-Him, who was then chief of the Custer Scouts. The Army ultimately chose Plenty Coups, although other American Indians also attended the ceremony. The 73-year-old chief accepted the offer, and boarded a train from Montana to Washington D.C. 

Plenty Coups’ headdress on display at Memorial Amphitheater, 2021. (U.S. Army photo/Liz Fraser)

After the ceremony, he left his war bonnet, lance and coup stick on the grave of the Unknown, in tribute to his sacrifice. The coup stick held special significance to the Great Plains tribes: touching an enemy in combat, with sticks such as these, was considered a great honor. According to the New York Times and the Associated Press, Plenty Coups also gave a speech at the ceremony, although some government sources contradict those reports. Due to these conflicting sources, it remains unclear whether he definitely made any remarks, said a prayer or delivered a chant.

President Warren Harding with Sioux and Crow chiefs in front of the White House, Nov. 15, 1921. American Indian leaders had attended the Unknown’s funeral four days earlier. (Library of Congress)

Plenty Coups’ presence at the Unknown Soldier’s burial was especially meaningful in light of American Indians’ military service during World War I. Between 8,000 and 15,000 American Indians served during the war, even though many (one historian estimates more than a third) did not have U.S. citizenship rights at the time. Moreover, American Indian service members died at comparatively high rates during the war, because so many served in the infantry. It is possible, then, that the Unknown shared Plenty Coups’ ancestry or that of another tribe. Indeed, Joseph K. Dixon stated this explicitly in his October 1921 letter to Secretary of War Joseph W. Weeks, in which he proposed that an American Indian chief participate in the Unknown’s funeral ceremony. “What more fitting than that this race of people … should have a place in the ceremony, for doubtless hundreds of unknown Indian graves are scattered from the sea to the Alps?” Dixon wrote. “It will give added distinction to the ceremony—the fact that the First American Warrior should lay his tribute on the grave of the Latest Hero of War—an Unknown American Soldier.”

Plenty Coups was among the last great American Indian chiefs of the 19th century, and his death in 1932 marked the end of an era. Throughout a full life, he served his people well in both war and peace. The artifacts that he presented to the Unknown Soldier honor his legacy and that of other American Indians who served in or with the U.S. military, as well as the service and sacrifice of the Unknown.

► See also: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration


Selected Sources Consulted

•  American Indian Relief Council, “Biographies of Plains Indians: Plenty Coups—1848-1932.”

•  American Indians in WWI Centennial Commission, United States World War One Centennial Commission, “Legacy.”

•  Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection, Boxes 4 and 12.

•  Britten, Thomas A. American Indians in World War I: At Home and Abroad. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

•  Fonicello, Nancy A., Conservator, Ancient Artways Studio LLC. “Chief Plenty Coups Feather Bonnet Condition and Treatment Report” and “Chief Plenty Coups Coup Stick and Lance Treatment Report,” December 2015. Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection.

•  Graetz, Rick and Susie. Crow Country: Montana’s Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000.

•  Hawkins, Evan. “Counting Coup on the Plains (and Overseas),” Buffalo Bill Center of the West, July 21, 2016.

•  Krouse, Susan Appelgate. North American Indians in the Great War. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

•  Linderman, Frank Bird. Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

•  Melton, J. Gordon. Religious Leaders of America: A Biographical Guide to Founders and Leaders of Religious Bodies, Churches, and Spiritual Groups in North America. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.

•  Mossman, B.C. and M.W. Stark. The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921-1969. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1991.

•  National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 407 (Records of the Adjutant General’s Office), Entry 37, Box 564.

•  National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, Minority Veterans Report: Military Service History and VA Benefit Utilization Statistics. Washington, DC: Department of Veterans Affairs, March 2017.

•  Sentinel Staff, “Honoring Native American, Alaska Native Heritage,” November 22, 2010.

•  Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian. “Homelands: Crow Nation.”