Photograph by Jonathan Kingston, Nat Geo Image Collection
Photograph by Jonathan Kingston, Nat Geo Image Collection

How Native American Youth Are Reviving Tribal Bonds

Young Crow Indians team up with Nat Geo photographers to explore the roots of their community.

What is your clan? What is your Indian name? Who named you?

When anthropologist Aaron Brien puts these questions to a group of Crow Indian students gathered in the community of Crow Agency, Montana, most of the hands tentatively go up.

“My name is Emily Not Afraid. I am a Whistling Water and a child of the Newly Made Lodge. My Crow name is Baasshuushe isitccheesh, which means 'Likes to tobacco dance.' I was named as a baby by one of my clan mothers, Clara Big Lake.”

This, says Brien, is what makes the Crow—or Apsáalooke in their native Siouan language—different from any other tribe on the planet: their clan system.

But it's one that's in danger of disappearing.

That's why National Geographic Photo Camp invited kids from across the 2.3-million-acre Crow Indian Reservation to participate in a five-day photography program. The goal? To answer a simple question: Can photography be used to help revive the idea of the Crow clan system among its youth?

“This is a chance for you to tell your own story," Brien explains to the students. "It opens a window into your lives to the rest of the world and gives you control of how people see your world.”

In Their Own Words

Photo Camp students talk about what it means to be Crow.

A Pop Culture Casualty

To put the Crow Reservation's size in perspective, it's physically larger than Delaware and about a million acres shy of equaling the size of Connecticut. One of seven reservations in Montana, its largest town is Crow Agency, home to around 1,500 of the 13,000 or so enrolled tribal members.

When I lived here two decades ago, it was rare to hear conversations in English, and the clan system was practiced as part of everyday life. Now, in a single generation, the opposite is true. Both the Crow language and the idea of the clan system is quickly becoming a casualty on the battlefield of pop culture.

I first met Brien when he was a kid who regularly came by the youth center where I volunteered. Since then, he's become a rising star in the world of anthropology, with a TEDx talk under his belt, and I had fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a photographer with National Geographic Creative. After reconnecting at Crow Fair—a huge annual powwow held on the reservation every August—we dreamed up the idea of combining our passions for anthropology and photography to bring National Geographic's Photo Camp to the reservation.

What Does It Mean to Be Crow?

Ashammaliaxxiia, the word for the Apsáalooke clan system, translates to “Driftwood Lodges.” As the name implies, just as pieces of driftwood band together in turbulent waters, so do the Apsáalooke people to provide spiritual and material support to clan members. The Crow clan system is unique not just among Plains Indians but also among all tribes and nations. At its simplest level, the mother's clan is responsible for the physical and emotional health of the clan member, while the father's clan is responsible for spiritual support.

“The clan system creates a respect between people," Brien says. "It’s a kinship system. It needs to be an everyday thing."

Each day of the camp, students were asked to write for ten minutes about one question: What does it mean to be Crow? Daily photo assignments and field trips challenged them to answer the same question with pictures. Every night, the team of editors from National Geographic would sort through the photos the students produced to find the images that answered this question visually.

In one assignment, students were asked to explore Crow Agency in teams of two and interview residents with the same questions we used for class introductions: What is your clan? What is your Indian name? Who named you?

As I walked from group to group, I was astounded at the discussions these questions sparked. Invariably the students and interviewees found themselves in a verbal exchange of clans and family trees that bound together like the branches in a driftwood lodge and generated more than one exchange of heartfelt hugs.

When I ran into student Toby Little Light on Main Street with a supersize cola in his hand, I asked with a raised eyebrow, “Playing hooky, Toby? How many interviews have you finished?”

“Nine so far!” Toby replied with pride. “And the last couple I interviewed bought me this soda because they liked the idea of what we were doing in the camp.”

By the end of Photo Camp, the answer to the question of whether photography could be used as a tool to help revive the idea of the clan system among Apsáalooke youth was a solid yes. The camp made the front page of the largest newspaper in Montana, and nearly 10 percent of the town of Crow Agency turned out to watch the final student presentation on the campus of the Little Big Horn College.

It is my personal hope that this incredible week can be replicated and amplified for years to come.

National Geographic Photo Camp Crow Nation was conducted in partnership with Vision Workshops, the Crow tribe and Little Big Horn College. Mentors included Stacy Gold, Jennifer Stratton, Jim Webb, Aaron Brien, Jonathan Kingston, David Guttenfelder, Jeanne Modderman, Mallory Benedict, Luella Brien, and Teri Thomas.