Jim Real Bird was driving downtown in his blue pickup truck, the one with braided sweetgrass on the dashboard, when he saw something that made him immediately do a U-turn: two girls, maybe 14 at most, riding horses bareback to the gas station.
“They had their bridles and their jeans all faded from riding,” he tells me, remembering the moment. “If you ride enough, your jeans will be worn right from where you contact the horse.”
He saw their jeans and thought: Maybe these could be my warriors.
Every day—everywhere he goes on the Crow reservation in Montana and beyond—Real Bird, a 67-year-old rodeo horse trainer, looks for warriors.
He and his three brothers, all members of the Crow tribe, host an annual reenactment of a clash between Indians and federal forces that happened on their land almost 150 years ago: the Battle of the Little Bighorn, better known as Custer’s Last Stand. On June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made the fatal mistake of attacking an Indian encampment a day early while other troops were still on their way. He was killed, of course, along with all 210 soldiers under his command.
The reenactment, which the Real Bird family has staged every June for the past 31 years, calls for warriors. Lots of them. Boys—and girls, if they can keep up—who can ride at breakneck speeds, pivoting their stallions on a dime, often barefoot and without a saddle.
Problem is, the warriors have dried up.
In 2010, Real Bird says he had about 60 warriors racing down the battlefield—in fact, he had to turn riders away that year since he didn’t have the cash to pay them. (On the Crow Nation, where unemployment is as high as 24 percent, according to the most recent data, Real Bird pays his warriors $60 a show.)
“From there, every year it’s been going down,” Real Bird says, pursing his lips.
We’re in Real Bird’s pickup, racing down I-90, the highway that cuts through the Crow Nation in southeastern Montana, where about 75 percent of the tribe’s 10,000 members live. There are rolling hills in every direction dotted with one-story homes, simple tan structures with vinyl siding—almost all built with federal assistance, then assigned to families by a tribal housing authority.
Now, he tells me, the most he can cobble together is 30 warriors, maybe 40 if he’s lucky.
“Times are changing,” he says, his eyes off into the distance. “I don’t know why we’re losing the people but I guess it’s mostly technology. Convenience. Why would you want to use real horses when you can drive an electric car?”
I ask him: Do you think young men still want to be warriors?
“Yeah, yeah. But it’s like the language,” he says, noting the decline in Apsáalooke, the native Crow language. “They’re not gonna put effort into it.”
It’s lunchtime at the Custer Battlefield Trading Post, one of the two restaurants on the Crow Nation, where the waitstaff offer the same special every day—a $14.95 bowl of soup with frybread, a native cross between a donut and a biscuit.
Kennard Real Bird, Jim’s older brother, is seated outside on a plastic picnic table, surrounded by a panoramic view of the Bighorn Canyon. Shaded by a straw cowboy hat, he tells me what it used to take to become a Crow warrior.
There were four things a young man had to do to become a chief, he says—a collection of deeds called “counting coups.”
The first was to strike an enemy without being harmed.
The second was to wrestle a weapon away from an enemy.
The third was to steal a prized war horse from an enemy camp.
And the last was to command a successful war party. Only then did the young warrior earn the right to become a chief. (Though most Crows don’t use the term chief—instead they say “good man,” or bacheitche in Apsáalooke.)
“Those parameters that used to be in place pretty much are gone,” Kennard says, his cloudy eyes scanning my face.
The last known tribal member to become a good man, Joe Medicine Crow, achieved that rank during World War II while fighting the Nazis. His four war deeds included leading a group of soldiers across enemy lines, through landmines and gunfire, to procure more supplies until they returned to safety.
But Kennard disagrees that fighting for the U.S. military should be the new path to valor.
“I mean, Jesus,” he says, slamming his fist on the table, “if I want to prove my manhood I would do something that’s revenge against the non-Indian, who stole all of this.”
In 1851, the U.S. government promised the tribe 38 million acres, but has wrested all of that back except for 2.3 million acres, the current size of the Crow territory. The buffalo no longer roam free. About a third of the 8,000 enrolled members who live on the Crow territory live below the poverty line. The public schools that serve them provide free lunch to over 90 percent of the students.
Kennard misses the days when what made a man was his ability to be “physically tough.” Now tribal members seem to be more impressed by how many academic degrees someone has, he says, instead of how well they can ride a horse.
“There is no need to be able to walk 150 miles,” he says. “There’s no need for anybody to be sitting out there at 20-below moving cattle anymore. There is no need to be anything else other than the ability to push a button here and there. We just got a bunch of soft people.”
That’s not just the case for Crow men. In every corner of America, men are struggling to adjust to the demands of the moment. Many of the blue-collar jobs, which once required brute strength, have been outsourced to China, or robots. Cooperation and team building is what’s prized in today’s workplace. The closest most young men—and even soldiers—get to a battlefield these days is through Call of Duty.
In his new book Of Boys and Men, author Richard Reeves argues that these conditions amount to a male crisis. On the phone he tells me this is partly because rites of passage, such as the Real Birds’ reenactment, are disappearing.
“Boys don’t become men automatically,” says Reeves. “You have to learn to be a man, and we need traditions that get them there. Absent those, we’re in trouble.”