By Kitty Corcoran (2007)
In Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear, John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, looks at how the leader of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coups (born 1848, died 1932), guided his people through the cataclysmic loss of their traditional way of life to a new future.
Lear uses this specific example to demonstrate how people may be able to find ways to survive this type of loss. A statement of Plenty Coups' to his biographer, Frank B. Linderman, was the catalyst for Lear in thinking about this: "But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened." Lear wondered if such a statement as, "after this, nothing happened", could possibly be true and what it could mean if it were. He expresses the idea that Plenty Coups could have meant that after the disappearance of the buffalo the collective life of the Crow as it had been was finished. (Note: Lear is careful throughout to qualify what he says in this way – he does not claim to know what Plenty Coups actually meant but rather what he might have meant.) This way of looking at the past and breaking with it helped Plenty Coups to move toward the future.
Plenty Coups (a more exact translation of his Crow language name "Alaxchiiaahush" is Many Achievements) was born at the beginning of the end of the Crow Nation’s traditional tribal life. The Crow tradition of using dreams to help understand the world played a large part in how Plenty Coups was able to help the Crow people. When he was very young (nine years old), he had two dreams. The first helped him to understand how to go on after the death of his beloved older brother at the hands Sioux warriors. The second dream showed him an apocalyptic vision of the future and also suggested the tools that would help his people to navigate to an as yet unknown future harbor.
Lear's investigation of these dreams, and how they were interpreted by the tribe and by Plenty Coups, provides the focus for his theory about how people can build the hope of a future in the midst of a devastating present. He acknowledges that in the Crow tradition dreams have a religious origin. He intends that this book will allow anyone who reads it, whether from a religious perspective or not, to be able to see how the dreams helped to give Plenty Coups the kind of hope that allowed him to encourage the Crow to believe in a future where it would again be possible to live a good life.
According to Lear, Plenty Coups' response to this cultural devastation was one that positioned the Crow to succeed in any new circumstances that might arise. Plenty Coups worked out an ideal of personal courage that revolved around the Chickadee-person, a Crow icon that appeared in one of his dreams. The key attribute of the Chickadee-person is that s/he listens to others and learns from them. Incorporating this attribute allowed Plenty Coups and the Crow to be flexible in creating new definitions of courage and the good life that would suit any eventuality. While Lear concentrates mostly on Plenty Coups and the Crow, he does contrast their actions with the response of the Sioux Nation under Sitting Bull. The Sioux developed an idea of a messianic savior who would set things right by punishing the white people and allowing the Sioux to return to life as it had always been for them. By adopting this new religion, it is Lear's contention that the Sioux turned away from the future that would come in favor of a dream of the past that could never again be realized.
Lear gives, in Radical Hope, a description of the Crow's specific situation and how they handled it. I think he also wants with this book to give humans as a group the same kind of hope in the face of our inevitable future catastrophes. There are a number of societies that have lost their cultural underpinnings in the past century and the current one. While this particular group was unique in its time, place and response to the tragedy it endured, some of the ideas the Crow and Plenty Coups developed may be useful or apply to other groups, or individuals.