Grant Bulltail, an Apsáalooke elder, oral storyteller and culture-bearer has died. Bulltail was a descendant of Crow chiefs and held an abundance of stories of the Crow people, traditions, sacred ceremonies, historic battles and plant knowledge. He dedicated his life to learning and sharing those stories.
Bulltail’s death on Oct. 1 was attributed to complications from COVID-19. He was 80. On Tuesday, he was laid to rest at Custer National Cemetery.
Bulltail was a descendant of many chiefs, including Chief Plenty Coups, Chief Pretty Eagle, and Chief Plays With His Face. He was also a member of the Crow Culture Commission and a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Much of his stories and understanding of sacred ceremonial practices and traditions was handed down from his family and from his involvement as a member of the Sacred Tobacco Society. Bulltail achieved the highest position in the Crow society as a Lodge Erector and Pipe Carrier in the society.
In 2019, Bulltail was honored for his storytelling and awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the highest form of recognition for the folk and traditional arts by the United States government.
“There has been a mandate for 500 years to keep the Native Americans from telling their stories, because they spoke a different language and dressed differently and had a different culture,” said Bulltail in a video created by the National Endowment for the Arts. “Now, they realize we have things to offer, like knowledge of nature and knowledge of the earth … But because they kept us silent for a long time, we have lost a lot of this wisdom and knowledge. Now, whatever we have left, Native Americans can tell our side of the story like I’m telling now.”
Born on May 20, 1940, in Crow Agency to parents George Bulltail and Alice Stewart, Bulltail’s Crow name, Bishéessawaache (The One Who Sits Among the Buffalo), was given to him by his grandfather Comes Up Red. He was a member of Úuwuutasshe (Greasy Mouth) clan, and a child of his father's clan, the Ashiíooshe (Sore Lip) clan.
“Grant’s mind was Apsáalooke,” said Aaron Brien, anthropologist and instructor in the Native American Studies department at Salish Kootenai College. “How he sees the world is Crow. Everything that comes into his ears, his eyes, is converted to fit a Crow mindset.”
This is what Brien and others call "Crow-centrism,” Brien said with a laugh, but was quick to point out that Bulltail was not arrogant about being Crow; rather he was proud of his heritage.
Brien got to know Bulltail through his grandmother, Beverly Big Man, who would host storytelling sessions in her home.
“My grandmother invited him over to tell stories and feed him, and she wanted me to be there,” Brien recalled. Inviting elders into homes and classrooms to pass down shared cultural knowledge among tribal members was once a common practice, Brien said.
“We were enlightened by his knowledge and his presence,” said Nina Sanders, curator of historic and contemporary Native American art. “He was so incredibly kind and patient.”
Sanders connected with Bulltail as an adult, despite Bulltail and Sander’s grandmother Margo Real Bird growing up together. She worked closely with Bulltail for “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors,” an exhibition of contemporary and historical Crow art, ephemera, and sacred items that opened earlier this year at The Field Museum in Chicago.
“He gave us so much information. I filled pages and pages of notebooks. He answered questions that I didn’t even know I needed to ask,” said Sanders. When she inquired with her grandmother about people she could trust to speak with, Bulltail was the first person she named.
“She told me he was always really helpful and friendly, and that he grew up with his grandparents. She said to me, ‘Talk to Grant. He’s kind and he will share information with you.’”
Raised primarily by his grandparents, as well as having both River and Mountain Crow sides of his family, and his direct ties to many Crow Chiefs and their stories gave Bulltail expansive access to Crow culture, traditions, and sacred practices.
“He has memories of a lot of those people, the people we only read about,” Sanders said. “His grandfather gave him instruction on how to be a good Crow man from a very young age. He spent time with incredibly prolific Apsáalooke people.”
Timothy McCleary, department head of general studies and a professor at Little Big Horn College, described Bulltail as having an outgoing personality. “He would reach out beyond his community and his family,” said McCleary, who first met Bulltail in the late 1980s when he was researching religious practices of the Apsáalooke people and the Native American Church in Montana. At the time, he was told, “if you really want to get to the bare bones, you need to talk to Grant Bulltail.”
“The one thing about Grant, he was always accessible,” said McCleary. “Even if I had some kind of dumb question that I knew that no other person would tolerate, he would very patiently answer.”
McCleary described Bulltail’s personality as a mix of deep thinker with a sense of humor. “And, he was very professional in the sense that he didn’t engage in small talk.”
Bulltail was as much a lover of learning as he was of sharing his knowledge. He obtained a bachelor's degree from Eastern Montana College in 1974 and the following year went on to Utah State University, where he studied with Dr. Austin Fife, a nationally known folklorist.
Bulltail was very willing to discuss Apsáalooke culture and traditions outside his community, and McCleary said he greatly enjoyed, even thrived on sharing knowledge with others.
“He felt the knowledge needed to be shared,” said McCleary, who often heard Bulltail express to non-tribal members that “no one can understand someone else if they don’t know what they’re thinking.”
But ultimately, Bulltail’s motivation to share his knowledge came from his deep love of his culture, said McCleary. “He is a guy that grew up living Crow life, and he just reveled in it. For him, it was another way of him sharing how much he enjoyed being a Crow Indian.”
Bulltail was instrumental in Sanders' work curating the exhibition at the Chicago Field Museum in collaboration with other indigenous scholars, anthropologists, and artists.
“Grant was incredibly generous with information, because he knew we would continue that way of being,” said Sanders. When she approached Bulltail with questions about sacred items or knowledge that was considered private, he would say to her, “You’re Apsáalooke, and it’s your right to know.”
Bulltail helped Sanders to further understand materials held in the museum’s archives and inform museum staff of cleaning and handling practices. Sanders said Bulltail felt the staff also had a right to know and needed to have such information.
“As Apsáalooke people, we understand that those things belong to the museum and the people who are opening the drawers and cleaning things and making sure they are covered and organized properly, the people touching and breathing on the objects, those are the people that these things belong to,” said Sanders.
Sanders, who has worked with the Field Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of National History, among others, said it’s common for museums to have collections of indigenous artifacts and sacred items that lack much context.
“He was able to tell us about things he saw and how they were used,” Sanders said.
In the Field Museum’s collection of Apsáalooke artifacts, for example, were a set of ceremonial pipes with preserved corn and duck heads tied to them. “We just had no idea, and when he told us what they would do with them, it was just absolutely mind blowing. It would all make sense.”
The pipes, used at the beginning of spring, were touched to the water and a prayer was spoken to bring about a thaw. “There were these incredible things that he was telling us about those items that no one knew,” said Sanders. “It’s just an incredible loss that we won’t have him anymore to tell us what these are.”
Though Bulltail contained a wealth of knowledge, he was always hungry for more and would listen and learn from others. Brien, who assisted with “Apsáalooke Women and Warriors,” described a moment in the Field Museum when he was sharing the history of a specific war shield.
“He just listened,” Brien said, “then later on when someone asked again, he said what I said,” attributing the knowledge to the source. “To me, that said a lot. I’m a young man. I don’t really know anything. By him giving me credit and even just be willing to sit there and listen to me talk said a lot about his attitude.”
According to Brien, the Field Museum possesses some of the most valuable items in Crow history, including a collection of war shields, Sacred Tobacco Society items and holy objects.
“That is why Grant was so valued there. If you had to say he specialized in something, it’s in Crow ceremonial life.”
Bulltail would speak frequently of sacred objects, or “Baatcháache,” meaning something great or magnificent, in relation to ceremonial life.
“When you are doing this work, you often hear the story of where something comes from,” said Brien. “Grant talked more about how you should handle this and the type of attitude you should have around these things and what you say when you’re around this.”
Bulltail would hold the objects, sing to them, and share phrases that have diminished with time and the death of elders who have such knowledge that was not shared or recorded.
Sanders believes that holding and interacting with these sacred objects has power to awaken them. “Some of these things are activated by our words, and when they hear Apsáalooke for the first time in over 100 years, they wake up, and the spirit of the people who made those things — the meaning behind them — is resurrected and they manifest in our life.”
Bulltail was the 16th storyteller since 1982 to receive the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, and he also received a $25,000 award. In September 2019, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony. At the time, Bulltail told The Gazette that he planned to hire an editor to help finish a novel of Crow history pre- and post-colonization, which he’d been compiling since the 1950s.
Bulltail said these stories — and much of Crow’s traditional culture — would be lost as elders with these stories passed on. “It’s still part of our lives, but I think we’re going to lose it pretty quickly here in the future,” he said. “I realized we had to write these down.”
Energized by the NEA fellowship, Bulltail was immersed in many projects up to his passing. Two weeks prior to his death, he gave a talk at Little Big Horn College on the economy of the Crow people prior to and after the reservation was established. He frequently gave talks at the college and holds the record for most presentations by a single speaker, said LBHC Library Director Tim Bernardis.
Library staff are in process of digitizing these presentations that ranged from the history of Crow Chiefs to pre- and post-reservation life to Crow origins. Often, Bulltail would share stories in Crow language first.
“His knowledge wasn’t common knowledge among all tribal members, particularly his information about Chief Plenty Coups,” Bernardis said.
Bulltail was also collaborating with author Peter Nabokov and McCleary on a book about the Sacred Tobacco Society. McCleary had recently completed a series of interviews with Bulltail prior to his death, but said there was not a sense of urgency to the projects. “More recently, his health had improved,” he said. “He was just doing what he usually does.”
Robyn Woodhall, who launched an online fundraiser through GoFundMe to assist Bulltail’s family with expenses associated with his death, was also in talks with Bulltail for their next project prior to his death. She first met Bulltail two years ago when scouting models for a photo shoot in collaboration with London-based photographer David Yarrow.
“He was just this incredible man,” described Woodhall, who said she was nervous to call Bulltail to ask if he’d be interested in participating in the photo shoot for Yarrow’s photo series, "Storytelling," which juxtaposes wild animals and the mythology of the Wild West in curated scenes.
“I didn’t want to offend him, and somehow it just clicked. He was eager and willing to be thrown into this modern art shoot,” said Woodhall of the image created with Bulltail, a handful of supermodels, and a wolf in a bar in Ingomar.
When Woodhall showed up on Bulltail’s doorstep, she said he welcomed her into his home with a hug and introductions to his family. “He just taught me so much about openness and who he was as person and his willingness to delve into anything and everything so bravely.”
For as open as Bulltail was about Crow culture, he did have a very private side, described McCleary. “I knew there were topics he didn’t usually talk about. One of them was his military service.”
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Bulltail joined the U.S. Marines in 1962. During combat in Vietnam he was exposed to Agent Orange. Bulltail was honorably discharged in 1966. According to Bulltail’s obituary, he appreciated his time in the military and often said, “The Marines were good to me.”
Later in life, Bulltail opened up a bit to McCleary about his time in the military. “The narrative that we have of Native people in the military is that they enter because of the warrior tradition, and for Grant, that was part of it. He comes from a long line of chiefs and he recognized going into the military would give him a taste of that. But the real reason he joined the military was to travel,” McCleary said. “It was the '60s, and all his friends were going to California and the Pacific Coast, but he didn’t have any money.” A friend told Bulltail at the time, “If you really want to travel, join the Marines.”
“He was really proud of his military service,” said Brien, who spent hours with Bulltail in his hotel room while they were working on "Apsáalooke Women and Warriors" in Chicago talking about “all the Crow stuff,” including his military service and many sources for his stories.
“When Grant would talk, a lot of what he would learn was from various people,” Brien said.
Born in the 1940s, Bulltail is related to several Apsáalooke chiefs, including Chief Plenty Coups, a Crow Chief from 1867 to 1932. Bulltail’s grandfather, Comes Up Red, lived during the time of Plenty Coups and spent time with the chief, and his father, George, helped care for Plenty Coups’ cattle and horses. His aunt Iva Bulltail was the caretaker of the chief and his wife.
“At the time that Plenty Coups was born, we were subjected to many people coming into our land,” said Bulltail in a video produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This land is our way of life, our religion, our culture, so when they came, we fought hard to try to keep it.”
Bulltail recalled the story of Plenty Coups fasting in the Crazy Mountains after his brother was killed at age 11. “There, he was given many gifts, energy, power, from the eagle and from the holders of the earth, which people called the Little People. And he was also given the gift of being a leader. They took him to the moon and these powerful forces up there gave him these gifts. When they gave him the gift, he used it to keep our land, he was the one the people looked up to because they knew that he was a powerful mystical person.”
Though Bulltail spent a lot of time with his grandparents north of Crow Agency, he moved to Billings when his father took a job with Holly Sugar. The family then moved to Pryor, where Bulltail helped his father with a horse ranch and became a working cowboy and bronc rider.
In 1967, following his military service, he would return to Pryor and marry Linda Door. The couple had three daughters and a son.
Bulltail’s memories were often tied to place, and he would seek out the landscapes he was taught about as a child.
“The place acts as a prompt to memory,” said Sharon Kahin, who worked with Bulltail for about 20 years with the Native Memory Project. The project focuses on recording Native perspectives from Montana and Wyoming, including videos with Bulltail in places like Yellowstone and Rainy Buttes. “Grant’s memory was so acute that he could literally point out the places where various aspects of the story took place from looking at the landscape.”
Many of Bulltail’s stories would go on for nearly an hour, uninterrupted, said Kahin. “It was something very special and we were very fortunate that we had some donors and funders who realized what a remarkable person Grant was, and this was really someone who had the kind of gift of memory that was very unusual.”
Kahin describes the work of the Native Memory Project as historical search-and-rescue operations. “We were lucky to have Grant on board, sharing this passion to record these stories for posterity, for kids to learn from, and to share the concern that these stories might be lost.”
There are plenty of motel recordings of Bulltail telling stories, but there was a concerted effort to get him to the actual sites.
“Grant was an incredible resource,” said filmmaker Gary Wortman, who met Bulltail a decade ago when he began videotaping some of the storytelling outings. “He knew where these places were and would take us.”
The filmmaking team hit touristy places, like Dragon’s Breath in Yellowstone and many of the historic battlefields, and plenty of off-the-beaten-path sites like Emigrant Cave along the Bozeman Trail, Wortman described. “Even the Big Horn Battlefield, when you went there with Grant, you got totally different stories than you ever heard about that place.”
For those hard-to-find locations, Bulltail did not falter, taking the crew for hours down dirt roads. “After I’ve long given up, thinking there’s no way we’re going to find this place, and all of a sudden, here we are,” said Wortman. “I can’t tell you how many times it happened. He just had this amazing sense of the territory.”
These recordings — well over a hundred, Kahin estimates — will be archived at the Fife Folklore Archives at Utah State University, where Bulltail studied after he was discharged from the Marines, as well as with Little Big Horn College.
“I just wish we had had more time,” said Kahin.
Bulltail's knowledge has been well-documented and his path has inspired many people to take up the role of "culture keeper," as Sanders described.
“Grant will live with me for the rest of my life, and my stories and my children will carry on that legacy and what he gave to us,” said Sanders. “We will talk about him for generations to come. Hopefully all of us do our due diligence in sharing that and giving it back to the people in the way he hoped we would.”