Chief Plenty Coups: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Legacy of Honor

This last Veterans Day, a group of Crow military veterans from the small, reservation town of Pryor, Montana (population 529) attended ceremonies at the invitation of Arlington National Cemetery. But this was no ordinary invitation. It was for the centennial celebration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (TUS) and the veterans were specially invited to open the ceremonies.

First, some historical context…

November 11, 1921

It was an homage for the ages. Chief Plenty Coups removed his feathered war bonnet and placed it tenderly on the marble edge of the sarcophagus, then raised his arms in supplication to heaven. The occasion was the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. According to headlines of the day, this ‘Chief of all Chiefs,’ selected to represent all Native American peoples at the historic burial, and surrounded by American and European dignitaries with a throng of more than a hundred thousand, delivered to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier an act of honor that newspaper reports deemed “one of the outstanding features of the whole ceremony.”

Chief Plenty Coups (whose name means “many achievements”) was a member of the Absarokees (Crow), a tribe living in present-day Montana. Born in 1848 and orphaned as a child, he was taken in by a local family of the tribe. His early success in the warrior culture helped him become a Crow Chief at a young age.

At a time of great upheaval for Native Americans, he believed the Crow’s interests were better served by taking a stance of cooperation with the government rather than resistance. His visionary leadership is reflected in his famous words: “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education you are the white man’s equal. Without it, you are his victim.”

As a respected Chief among the U.S. Government and Native Americans alike, he traveled to Washington, D.C. numerous times to advocate for his people, meeting with dignitaries, presidents and other native chiefs. When the U.S. Government established the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier following World War I, to honor the founding belief that the Unknown could be any “section, creed, or race,” a Native American was invited to represent all Native Americans at the dedication ceremony. It was fitting: America’s first warriors to honor fallen warriors. At a gathering of 400 Native American Warrior Chiefs, at the age of 73, Chief Plenty Coups was selected to honor all Native peoples at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where he would deliver that transcendent display of respect and honor.

November 11, 2021

One hundred years after that historic event, Chief Plenty Coups’ closing tribute resounds. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the burial of World War I’s unknown American soldier, the United States government and Arlington National Cemetery invited the descendants of Chief Plenty Coups in the Crow nation to the centennial celebration as distinguished guests. They, too, would represent all Native American peoples at the ceremony, just like their ancestor Chief Plenty Coups; and they too, would constitute one of the outstanding features of the historic anniversary.

As the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS) prepared for the milestone anniversary, they knew Chief Plenty Coups’ descendants had to be there. So they reached out to Chief Plenty Coups State park, who reached out to the Chief Plenty Coups Honor Guard – made up of Crow U.S. military veterans – in order to give an official invitation. That official invitation for the group would go to the Chief Plenty Coups flag bearer of the Honor Guard, Elsworth GoesAhead, a descendant of Chief Plenty Coups. His great, great grandmother took in Chief Plenty Coups when he was orphaned as a young boy. She carried his flag when he passed, and has passed it on to their family for generations, all the way to Elsworth.

With the help and support of Global Travel Alliance and the non-profit wing Global Doing Good – organizations started under the leadership of a great friend of the Crow people, Jeff Peterson – the Crow Honor Guard, school administration, teachers and a group of 12 students from Chief Plenty Coups High School would be heading to Washington, D.C., for the centennial at the TUS. In yet more fitting symbolism, it was the Crow Honor Guard who invited administration and students from the school as they are not only the namesake of Chief Plenty Coups, but the representation of his vision for education. In all, 38 members of the Crow Nation from that small reservation town in eastern Montana represented all Native Americans and Chief Plenty Coups at the 100th anniversary.

There were, in fact, several special invitations extended to the Crow Honor Guard. Not only did Arlington National Cemetery invite them to officially open the centennial celebration, but the U.S. Navy and the Smithsonian Institution extended their own special invitations for separate ceremonies. And at every event they were the lodestars.

At the Navy Yard, high level officials and military brass welcomed them as they honored the original arrival of the Unknown. At the Museum of the American Indian, student groups stopped to watch the Crow drum, sing and dance. GoesAhead commented “What I loved was the educational portion. There were student groups at the museum waiting to go in, and it was the first time a performance took place at the museum. The students being able to experience that and ask questions- that’s what it’s all about. To combine cultures and learn.” Everywhere they went people flocked to them. GoesAhead said they felt “bigger than the Beatles.”

At Arlington, their visit was no less than sensational. They began the ceremony to honor Chief Plenty Coups in the early morning hours in an empty Memorial Amphitheater with no planned spectators. They performed a blessing, then began to dance and drum to Chief Plenty Coups’ song and other traditional Crow songs. Spectators soon arrived, including off-duty Tomb Guards (sentinels) from the Honor Guard of the TUS. There was a feeling in the air of harmony and peace, and people wanted to be a part of it, especially sentinels.

The president of the SHGTUS told the Honor Guard of the Crow they “made such a huge statement” in honoring Chief Plenty Coups and the Unknown. His excitement to meet the Crow people was palpable. So were the sentinels.

Tomb Guards know their history. They know the importance of Chief Plenty Coups and the importance of his descendants. So when the drum beats in the amphitheater were heard and felt, they immediately gravitated towards the Crow. After the blessing and performance, both the sentinels and the Crow people were hesitant to approach each other out of sheer respect and admiration. But once they connected, it was an instant bond. The Tomb Guards afterward admitted to their new Crow friends they wanted to run up to embrace them. Another fitting scene – some of the most specially trained, elite soldiers in the world, the people that know the history of the Unknown better than any, could hardly contain their excitement at the sight of the Crow people. They didn’t need anyone to tell them who these people were or what they were doing. Their significance needed no introduction. The Crow, too, hesitated to engage the Tomb Guards out of utter reverence.

As for the actual ceremony, The Crow would be invited to officially open it with a blessing, words by one of the Crow Honor Guard, Harry Rock Above, then lead a procession of flowers and wreath laying on the Memorial Plaza. Afterward, in a rare invitation, the Crow Honor Guard were invited to the briefing room of the sentinels and to an after-hours gathering.

The connection between The Crow and The Tomb Guards makes sense. Both are looking to give honor to the honorable, regardless of who is watching. Both show sacrifice in their dress and performance to show that honor – it’s well known that Tomb Guards have exacting standards for dress code and performance. But the Crow people took no less pride in theirs. The students of Chief Plenty Coups High School practiced and prepared for weeks to perfect their dances and songs so they would know it as well as their elders, the Honor Guard. And just like Tomb Guards, sacrificial labor went into their regalia. From new material purchased for their dress to the hours long tedium of beadwork on the traditional elk-hide war shirts, great pride was taken in their appearance. Just like Tomb Guards, their appearance would reflect their purpose, and it would be impeccable, and it would come from calluses and numb fingers.

In all, the ceremonies were outstanding, with the Crow people doing great justice to their ancestor Chief Plenty Coups and to all that the Tomb of the Unknown soldier represents. Their opening of the ceremonies was a fitting continuation of Chief Plenty Coups’ closing, bound together by a legacy of honor.

And what of Chief Plenty Coups headdress and coup stick? Those lay solemnly in the display room of the Memorial Amphitheater for all to see, ensuring the legacy endures.