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  • Writer's pictureShawnee Real Bird

Shadow Catcher - Reunion with My Apsáalooke Ancestors

Updated: Apr 10

by Shawnee Real Bird ‘24

My grandfather calls me Aukeneegelah, translated into English it means ‘Horse Across Way'. His name is Baucheewuchaytchish, Timber Leader. We are Apsaalooke—the modern-day Crow people. When I stand on the land my people once roamed, I find myself wondering who we were. Listening to the wind, I whisper my name. ‘Aukeneegelah’. I stare into the sky awaiting a response. This is not the first time this name has been spoken into the wind. My great-great-grandmother also belonged to it. When our name is spoken into the wind, we are unrecognizable to one another, separated by time. I try my hardest to connect with my great-great-grandmother who was born pre-reservation era. Oral traditions, tribal histories, and photographs serve as windows into a fairy tale where she existed without reservation; both physically and emotionally.

Although the wind remembers two separate Crow spirits, I am created from a culmination of my ancestor’s hopes and dreams. My grandfather, Timber Leader, was raised by his grandparents to uphold traditional Aapsalooke values. He prays facing the sun in the east and believes that having a large herd of horses makes him a rich man. Apsaalooke people are descendants of chiefs, warriors, and medicine men. Our people proudly carry their medicine into modern times. The medicine of traditions, land, and our spoken languages. Moved by superstition, we still rely on our traditional ways to guide our journey through life.

Looking into the sky on our original homelands—I see an eagle flying high in the air. They have flown this way since light first touched the earth. They wait for someone brave enough to seek out their guidance. The guidance that was once sought in visions and placed in medicine bundles still calls to us. Our ancestors did not vanish, their medicine floats in the wind with the eagles. The medicine they once adorned every aspect of their lives can be seen through photographs taken by Edward Curtis. Affectionately named ‘Shadow Catcher’ from the people he photographed—we hold these photographs close to our hearts. They document the spirit and vibrance of the original Aapsalooke people.

At the beginning of the reservation era, our people were placed on the banks of the Little Bighorn River and created a home in the heart of the Pryor Mountains. They were no longer allowed to participate in their ceremonies and were asked to conform to a society they did not need. The changes implemented during this time would end the way of life that shaped them for centuries before assimilation. The photographs taken around this time are the shadows of a way of life that was only shared through oral histories. With the introduction of photography, the ability to record sacred bear dances, Sundance paints, and war shirts became available. To some modern tribal members, these photographs are the only connection they have to their ancestors.

Sitting outside the Crow Recovery Center, where my grandfather works as an addiction counselor, I tell him the story of meeting Shadow Catcher’s descendant, John Graybill. John is bridging the gap between sepia-toned early reservation life and the stark contrast of colorful modern-day Native America. A twist of fate brought us together this past winter atop a mountain in Colorado. He shared his passion for continuing his grandfather's mission. I understood the feeling, Timber leader is the patriarch of my life.

I express to my grandfather the feeling of standing face to face with a modern-day Shadow Catcher. The last time our lineage shared space, my relatives were posed in front of his great-grandfather’s camera. My own ancestors, Richard and John Wallace, were photographed by Shadow Catcher. For a moment, I visit the people whom I have never met. I can see them staring into the lens of a foreign object. The hope of experiencing something new, to see themselves for the first time beyond a reflection. Each photo represents the ability to capture the shadow of my ancestors—allowing me a better understanding of where I come from.

Crow Nation man shows a photograph of his ancestor.
Crow Nation's Timber Leader explains his lineage to Richard Wallace, pictured in the book "Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Plains. Timber Leader had never seen these images of his ancestors before now.
A Crow Native American shows a picture in a book of his ancestor.
Timber Leader proudly shows the photograph of his other ancestor, John Wallace.

I explain to my grandfather the joy of seeing the familiar faces of our ancestors. Timber Leader listens intently as he holds the photographs in his hands. I realize this is his very first time seeing them; for the very first time, he holds a physical piece of his ancestors' images. They breathe life into him.

The Crow Recovery Center is one of the oldest buildings on the reservation and my grandfather finds pride in helping his people within its walls. He tells the story of our homelands and the people that called them home. Timber Leader looks at me and begins his thought in Crow, ‘I dreamt about John Wallace before your father was born. I was given the ability to see him about to be born, he was a boy. I named the boy after John Wallace. He was named after a dream from the other side.’ A young man walks by us, and my grandfather greets him in Crow. They quickly make jokes and laugh while departing. The exchange brings me joy to know we are all the same. Our hearts mirror one another.

The faces staring back at me when I look at Richard and John Wallace remind me of Timber Leader—their grandson. I asked my grandfather to pose with Shadow Catcher’s photographs. His only stipulation is that he be photographed in front of his historical workplace.

The oral histories he shares of tipi encampments, war parties, and vision seekers are true. His grandparents existed that way and it sparks another thought. ‘Richard Wallace named me Timber Leader. He dreamt about a song that would be sung for one of his grandsons. Only those with great honor and respect deserve songs. My mother, Otter Stays in the Water, decided I was to take the name.’ The wind carries his words to me as I capture his spirit through my camera. His spirit will live through these photographs. A physical item to be passed from generation to generation in remembrance of who we were on this day.

Native man sitting in front of a building showing a picture from a book.
Sitting in front of the Crow Recovery Center where Timber Leader works as an addiction counselor, he tells stories of how he got his name from grandfather,RichardWallace.

The bloodlines of chiefs, warriors, and medicine men are present in the modern Native American. Medicine resides within us. The wind's response to the name ‘Aukeneegelah’ remains the same for each generation that will belong to it. We did not vanish; we adapted and became a present-day tribe. We use our medicine to become doctors, lawyers, actors, pilots, poets, and professional athletes. Our achievements that were once represented through war bonnets and medicine bundles are earned by degrees and awards. I recognize myself today as a balance of who my people were and who they will become. Each day I find a way to honor where my medicine originated. Today, the medicine lives on as Horse Across Way and Timber Leader reminisce over photographs gifted by Shadow Catcher’s descendant.

I often wonder what it would feel like to exist alongside my ancestors in an Edward Curtis photo…




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