Crow Warrior: Robert Yellowtail was a life-long advocate of Native American higher education

Volume 1, No. 4 - Spring 1990
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Robert Yellowtail. Photo was taken while he was superintendent of the Crow Indian Agency.

I was surprised to learn that fifteen of the nation’s tribally-run Indian colleges are located in the northern Great Plains states of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. I wondered why this regional higher education development came about. My answer is that these northern tribal colleges are in part a twentieth century expression of the “warrior tradition” of the northern Great Plains people. If the tribes fought to protect their landbase from the land-hungry Anglo-Americans in the nine­teenth century, they have used this assertive energy to push for higher educa­tion in the twentieth. Thus one can identify more than one northern Great plains tribal leader who was an advocate of a college or university education for tribal people after 1900.

One of these twentieth century leaders was Robert Yellowtail of the Crow Tribe in Montana. He was born in 1889 and was one of the many young Indians who attended a large off-reservation Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, the Sher­man Institute in Riverside, California. After graduating from Sherman, Yellow­tail continued his studies and eventually earned a law degree from the University of Chicago. His political life is empha­sized in a new article entitled “Robert Yellowtail, the New Warrior,” by writer and filmmaker Constance J. Poten.1  However, her article provides little infor­mation about Yellowtail’s role in native higher education. Therefore this article highlights his push for advanced education for Native Americans.

There were at least three reasons why Yellowtail wanted native people educated at the college or university level. First, he was fully aware that tribes across the coun­try were being taken advantage of by unscrupulous land swindlers in the early twentieth century. These persons used illegal means to take Indian land allot­ments out of Indian ownership. Thus Yel­lowtail convinced himself that native people needed Indian attorneys who could defend their own kind against the existing graft and corruption.2

Second, Yellowtail foresaw a day when the federal government might no longer provide financial support for Native Ameri­cans. If this did happen in the future, he argued, then the tribes needed to make it on their own. One way for them to be­come self-sufficient and economically independent was to educate tribal members as managers and business people.3

Third, and directly related to the second reason, Yellowtail firmly believed that Indian people needed effective tribal leaders who could help their respective tribal groups run their own affairs. One major key to successful leadership was ad­vanced education. Yellowtail wrote that “it is therefore all-important for the Indian men and women to secure a white man’s education in business and industry as it is offered in the … universities of other country.”4

There was no doubt in Yellowtail’s mind that Native Americans could pursue a college or university education. On more than one occasion he pointed out that several successful native persons had already earned college degrees or were college educated. His examples included Dr. Carlos Montezuma, the noted Yavapai-Apache physician who had earned a medical doctor’s degree from the Chicago Medical College, and Robert L. Owen, the noted con­gressman from Oklahoma.5

Yellowtail’s deep interest in higher education surfaced during World War I. In 1918 the well-known Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania closed, and the campus was returned to the War Department for domestic wartime purposes. After Carlisle’s closure, Yellowtail asserted the following at a congressional hearing: “I have always maintained the death blow to the Indians was when they abolished Carlisle, because it practically main­tained a university for the whole United States for the Indians.”6 He made this comment because several Carlisle graduates pursued advanced study at Conway Hall, the college pre­paratory school of Dickinson College, also located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Some of the Indian prep, students attended the regular college and earned degrees.7 Of course, Yellowtail was fully aware of these success stories.

Perhaps he also made the above comment because of his desire that Carlisle might one day become an Indian college or university. Yellow­tail and his contemporaries, including Carlos Montezuma and Arthur C. Parker, the Seneca scholar, referred to Carlisle as a “college” or “university,” even though the school went only to the tenth grade. At the time of the school’s closure, Carlisle was being called “The Red Man’s University,” and “the Harvard for the Indian people.”8 The school, however, was never re-opened after the first world war.

In 1934, Yellowtail, or the Crow warrior, was elected by his tribe as the first BIA Indian superinten­dent of the Crow Indian Agency in Montana.9 In office he tried to persuade the Crows to accept the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 because it in­cluded a higher education provision to provide educational loans for Indian college students. But for various other reasons, the tribe voted against the measure, despite Yellowtail’s favorable disposition toward the law.10

This political setback did not defeat Yellowtail, a leader known not to yield. In 1935 Yellowtail con­ducted a massive campaign on behalf of Crow higher education. In the first half of that year, he traveled to the West Coast. His mission was to convince adminis­trators of postsecondary institutions to admit and financially support Crow students. Yellowtail was successful in having the University of Southern Califor­nia provide “one-half tuition scholarships” for those accepted into the institution. A receptive university vice president, Frank Touton, wrote to Yellowtail in June 1935 that “the University of Southern California will welcome to its campus recommended graduates from the Crow Indian Agency.”11

In June of 1935 Yellowtail spon­sored an education conference on the Crow Reservation. His primary purpose was “to push to the limit any boy or girl among the Crows who aspires to a higher education.”12 Thus he brought in various educators to motivate young Crows. One of these guests was Dr. McMullen, president of the Eastern Montana Normal School (today’s Eastern Montana College). McMullen defi­nitely endorsed and supported Yellowtail’s higher education drive. Other educators also gave talks about their respective disciplines in law, medicine and business.13

Even further, in October of 1935 Yellowtail persuaded the Crow Tribal Council to appropriate three thou­sand dollars annually from tribal funds to create a tribal educational loan fund “to serve the money needs of Crow students striving for a college education.”14 The Crow tribal council was deeply influenced by Yellowtail’s initiative, and it declared: “Education or intellectual development is the most powerful vehicle for the advancement of the Indians towards a richer social existence and one of the soundest means to economic and political independ­ence.”15

Also in 1935, Yellowtail suggested that the BIA allow Crows to reside at Sherman Institute while attending local Southern California colleges and universities. He favored Sherman because it was his alma mater. The Riverside school, he held, would be an excellent resi­dence for fifty young Crows aspiring to higher educa­tion. Here they would finance their education with BIA support and also university-based funds.16 But Bureau Commissioner John Collier did not support Yellowtail’s proposed plan. Collier felt that the Crows should secure their education close to home and not be sent to the distant location in Southern California. Also, he did not want Sherman to be overwhelmed by one particular tribe, in this case, the Crow Tribe. And Collier wanted Sherman to be left primarily a high school, emphasizing vocational training rather than converting it into a boarding place for college-bound natives.17

Some years later, in 1944, Yellowtail once again testified before Congress. Realizing that the govern­ment was considering “getting out of the Indian busi­ness,” he opposed this proposed policy. Instead, he argued that native students coming from financially-poor families needed more federal support for higher education. The Crow warrior there­fore campaigned on behalf of contin­ued federal-Indian relations. He spoke:

“The Congress of the United States should make it possible for all Indians to obtain an education. . . . Education opens the doors of opportunity so that the Indians can become lawyers, doctors, and take an active part in business life. To say that the Indians do not need education is all bunk. . . . We have several college graduates, 16 I think, since I came, and two among them are receiving master’s degrees from the University of Southern California.”18

Because of the battle cry of Yellow­tail and other effective native leaders who testified at the 1944 hearings, the Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs of the House of Repre­sentatives made two higher education recommendations. First, it recom­mended that Indian students should receive higher education grants and scholarships in addition to the already existing educational loans. Second, it recommended that one of the large off-reservation boarding schools be converted into an Indian college.19 This Indian college idea went nowhere, but the edu­cational grants became a reality in 1948 when Con­gress appropriated funds to create the BIA’s Higher Education Grant Program, an entity which still exists today.

In 1945 Yellowtail got word that John Collier, the BIA commissioner since 1933, had resigned his position. Immediately, the Crow warrior sought to have himself elevated to his office. While campaign­ing, he stressed the importance of higher education. As before, he emphasized that Indian tribes needed attorneys and other professionals. He also proposed the establishment of an “Institution of higher learn­ing” for Indian students.20 His Indian college idea was not taken seriously during America’s involve­ment in the closing year of World War II, but it was still another expression of his drive for native postsecondary education.

Yellowtail never became the commissioner of the Indian bureau, but he did remain an advocate of higher education. In fact, whenever the opportunity arose, he spoke on the subject. Certainly this was the case in 1947 when congressional hearings were held over the “Leasing of Restricted Land” on the Crow Reservation. Yellowtail reminisced about his campaign for Crow higher education and stated during the hearings, “As a consequence, we sent a lot of the young people through the colleges and univer­sities of the country.”21

In the end, Robert Yellowtail, the twentieth century warrior, had a profound impact and influence on his tribe. This force was confirmed by a recent tribal secretary who said in 1983, “Robert Yellowtail has everything to do with everything on the Crow Reservation.”22 In the domain of higher education, his legacy is extremely visible. For ex­ample, in 1950, the BIA reported that twenty Crows had graduated from college up to the mid-century point.23 In 1958 alone, 12 Crows were en­rolled in college with federal sup­port.24 In 1977 the Crow Tribe estab­lished Little Big Horn College, an­other higher education idea advanced by Yellowtail years earlier. It was the leadership of Robert Yellowtail and many other Great Plains leaders which partially explains why the northern plains now have fifteen tribally-run colleges.


  1. Constance J. Poten, “Robert Yellow­tail, the New Warrior,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 39 (Summer 1989): 36-41.
  2. Annual Crow Report, 1935, in Superintendent’s Annual Narrative and Statistical Reports from Field Jurisdictions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1907-1939 (M 1011, Roll 31, Frames 507-510), Record Group (RG) 75, National Archives (NA).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, F. 507.
  5. Ibid, F. 508.
  6. Indians of the United States, Investigation of the Field Service, hearings by a Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs, House, Vol, III, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (Gov­ernment Printing Office, 1920), p. 1373.
  7. “Ex-students and Graduates,” The Indian Craftsman 2 (October 1909): 32; “Ex-students and Graduates,” The Red Man 3 (October 1910): 92-93.
  8. Pearl Le Walker-McNeil, “The Carlisle Indian School: A Study of Acculturation,” p. 245, Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, American University, 1979; Robert W. Wheeler, Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), p. 32; Gertrude Bonnin to F.P. Keppel, September 6, 1989, Carlos Montezuma Papers (microfilm edition, 1975, Reel 3, F. 671), State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  9. “Indian Superintendents,” Indian Truth 11 (October 1934): 3-4.
  10. Kenneth R. Philp, John Collier’s Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920-1954 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977), p. 157; Kenneth R. Philp, ed. Indian Self-Rule: First-Hand Accounts of Indian-White Relations from Roosevelt to Reagan (Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers Press, 1986), p. 51.
  11. Prank C. Touton to Robert Yellowtail, June 18, 1935, Central Classified Files (CCF), 18189-35-Crow-820, RG 75, NA.
  12. Annual Crow Report, 1935, F. 508
  13. “Educational Council held at Crow Agency Audito­rium,” June 21, 1935, CCF, 18189-35-Crow-820, RG 75 75, NA
  14. “The Crow Educational Programme,” 1935, p. 1, CCF, 30601 -3 7-Crow-850, RG 75, NA.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Yellowtail to Collier, August 1, 1935 and August 10, 1935, CCF, 18189-35-Crow-820, RG 75, NA.
  17. Collier to Yellowtail, August 16, 1935, CCF, 18189-35-Crow-820, RG 75, NA.
  18. Investigate Indian Affairs, hearings before a Subcom­mittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs, House, 78th Cong., 2nd Sess., Pt. 3 9 Government Printing Office, 1945), p. 266.
  19. Ibid., Pt. 4, p. 341.
  20. Nomination of William A. Brophy to be Commis­sioner of Indian Affairs, Hearings before the Committee on Indian Affairs, Senate, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (Government Printing Office, 1945), pp. 33, 39.
  21. Leasing of Restricted Lands, Crow Indian Reserva­tion, hearings before the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs of the Committee on Public Lands, House, 80th Cong., 1st sess. (Government Printing Office, 1947), p.8.
  22. Poten, “Robert Yellowtail, the New Warrior,” p. 36.
  23. Report with Respect to the House Resolution Authorizing the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs Conduct and Investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Union Calendar No. 790 (Government Printing Office, 1953), p. 1190.
  24. Higher education file, CCF, 18474-55-Billings-850, RG 75, NA.

Historian Steven Crum is the 1989-90 University of Califor­nia president’s fellow. He taught history in the California State University system from 1985 to 1988. He received his doctorate in 1983 from the University of Utah.

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