Native American Heritage Month Talks

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 11/18/2022

By Kevin M. Hymel (Contract Historian)

On November 16, 2022, ANC’s Command Curator Rod Gainer gave three talks on Chief Plenty Coups, the last traditional chief of the Crow Nation (Apsáalooke), and the artifacts he left at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Chief Plenty Coups represented American Indians at the funeral for the World War I Unknown on November 11, 1921, and he left several culturally significant gifts in the Unknown’s honor. These artifacts remain in ANC’s permanent collection and are currently featured in an exhibit on the history of the Tomb. The talks, held next to the artifacts in the Memorial Amphitheater Display Room, commemorated National Native American Heritage Month.

Command Historian Dr. Stephen Carney introduced Gainer and provided historical context, noting that that American Indians have participated in all U.S. conflicts since the Revolutionary War. As many as 15,000 American Indians served during World War I, even though about a third of them did not have U.S. citizenship rights at the time. Because most served in the infantry, they died at higher rates than other demographic groups. Thus, Carney pointed out, the Unknown Soldier “could have been a Native American.” 

Gainer began his talk by explaining that Plenty Coups earned his name for the act of touching an enemy in combat with a coup stick — “one of the greatest acts of individual bravery that the Plains Native Americans could accomplish,” he said. Plenty Coups became chief of the Crow Nation in 1876, as after serving (as did many American Indians) as a scout in the U.S. Army. He later served as a diplomat for the Crow Nation who negotiated with the U.S. government and successfully opposed legislation that would have opened Crow land to white settlement. “Because of Chief Plenty Coup’s high standing as a leader and diplomat,” Gainer explained, “the U.S. Army invited him to the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, 1921.”

Gainer then read a letter from American photographer Joseph Dixon to Secretary of War John W. Weeks, explaining that French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch had specifically requested that a Native American be part of the funeral. As Dixon stated in his letter to Weeks, “It will give added distinction to the ceremony that this first American warrior should lay his tribute on this latest hero of the war, an Unknown American Soldier.” The Army ultimately chose Plenty Coups for this honor, although other American Indians also attended the ceremony.

After traveling to Arlington by train from Montana, the 73-year-old chief attended the funeral ceremony and placed his war bonnet, coup stick and lance at the Tomb. In addition, Plenty Coups removed the spear point from his lance’s head “to symbolize that he came in peace,” said Gainer. Plenty Coups was one of the first dignitaries to visit the Tomb and to leave gifts in the Unknown’s honor — a practice that continues to this day.

Gainer highlighted the four Plenty Coups items on display in the exhibit: his war bonnet, his Army flag, and his coup stick and lance. He described the war bonnet — prominently displayed in a vertical case — as “the most spectacular” of these artifacts. Gainer explained the significance of the bonnet’s ribbons and eagle feathers, which took Plenty Coups years to assemble. He also noted that he had originally intended to lay the war bonnet flat for display, until a conservator recommended hanging it from a stand. “One of my proudest moments as curator,” Gainer said, “was when Native American museum people came over and said, ‘Wow, you did it right.’”

Gainer then moved over to Plenty Coups’ U.S. Army Signal Corps flag, displayed on a wall. In response to a question from the audience, he explained that Plenty Coups’ name was misspelled as “Coos,” most likely a phonetic misspelling.

Lastly, Gainer walked over to the coup stick and lance, which were bundled together. The two artifacts had become separated, he explained, and ANC worked with a conservator who restored them to their original 1921 appearance. The conservator wrapped the items together with deer skin that had been processed to make it acid-neutral.

Gainer concluded his talk by describing his broader objectives as ANC’s curator: “My goal is not only to create a world-class museum here,” he stated, “but to make sure that, in 100 years from now, my successor will have these items and be guided by the words ‘interpret, protect and exhibit.’”

To learn more about Plenty Coups, read our previous blog post, “Chief Plenty Coups and the American Indian Tribute to the Unknown Soldier.”