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Osh-Tisch, a Crow tribe badé

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 6/9/2023

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

“Yes, a Crow woman fought with Three-stars on the Rosebud,” author and medicine woman Pretty Shield told an interpreter in 1932. “[T]wo of them did, for that matter; but one of them was neither a man nor a woman. She looked like a man, and yet she wore woman’s clothing; and she had the heart of a woman. Besides, she did a woman’s work. Her name was Finds-them-and-kills-them. She was not a man, and yet not a woman.”

Born in 1854, the exact date of Osh-Tisch’s birth is unknown. The Treaty of Fort Laramie, forged with the United States government just three years earlier, granted her Crow tribe the land around the Bighorn Mountain range of present-day Wyoming and Montana. But like Buffalo Calf Road Woman, Osh-Tisch (Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them in the Crow language) never knew a tribal life untouched by colonizing forces.

Osh-Tisch was a badé (sometimes spelled baté or boté). Translations of the term reveal the English language’s reliance on a gender binary, even to discuss those beyond or outside of it. Author Jason Porath in Rejected Princesses noted the various revisions that his profile of Osh-Tisch underwent:

“Virtually all Native American tribes subscribe to the idea of more than two genders, encompassing identities such as women born as men and vice versa, as well as homosexual, pansexual, and asexual people and the like. ‘Two Spirit’ is most closely analogous to ‘transgender,’ but it’s not a direct synonym and should not be used in this case, as many Two Spirits take exception to being lumped under, or appropriated by, the term ‘transgender.’ So that word’s out.

“Back in the day, Two Spirits were referred to as berdache. This is a term that absolutely nobody should ever, ever use, as its origins are somewhere between the French word for ‘male prostitute’ and the Persian word for ‘slave.’ You’ll find it a lot in old literature on the subject, but that word’s definitely out.

“Earlier online drafts of this entry used the terms ‘male-bodied’ and ‘female-bodied,’ which some find troublesome, so those are out too. Subsequent drafts used ‘biologically male-sexed,’ which some still didn’t like. The preferred term as of this writing is ‘assigned male/female at birth’—which, unfortunately, may not be accurate in this case. Not all native tribes assign gender at birth (some wait as late as four years old), and there’s no evidence that Osh-Tisch was ever assigned male by her tribe. However, given that most native children were assigned gender at birth, it seems reasonable to use that language.”

That we do not have the proper words to describe Osh-Tisch is a failure of language and translation, not of her identity.

Even as the U.S. government confined and redefined Crow land in the 1850s, it claimed other tribes’ territories, such as the Cheyenne and the Lakota Sioux, and drove them into Crow land. This naturally sparked inter-tribe conflict as they battled over scarce resources that they were now forced to share.

Unlike many tribes, the Crows allied themselves with the new government. They would be guided in the coming years by the visions of Plenty Coups, who saw cooperation as the only means of survival for his people, their culture, their language, and their spirituality.

This meant, on June 25, 1876, Osh-Tisch and the Crows fought alongside the U.S. forces lead by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, against the gathered Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors. It was on this day that Osh-Tisch earned the name by which we now know her: Finds-Them-and-Kills-Them.

On land marked by steep valleys and ravines, the United States troops and their indigenous allies fought an opponent they had drastically underestimated. Custer strategized for an enemy only 800 in number. By some estimates, they instead faced 2,000 gathered Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

Both sides fought desperately. When a fellow Crow warrior, Bull-Snake, fell from his horse, Osh-Tisch leapt from hers to stand over him. Gun drawn, she protected him against approaching Lakota determined to claim his scalp. The Other Magpie, the second of the two women Pretty Shield mentioned, rode with only a coup stick, a ceremonial switch often strung with feathers. The Lakota had killed her brother, so she rode to war for revenge. She held her coup stick high and sang her war song as she rode, a distraction, as Osh-Tisch aimed and fired. 

On left, Osh-Tisch in 1876. Photographer John H. Fouch labeled the other woman as Osh-Tisch's wife. Other printings have identified her as The Other Magpie, another Crow woman. At the time of this writing, we do not have reliable confirmation of this person's name or role.

Jason Porath writes in Rejected Princesses, “The Other Magpie hit one of them [Lakota warriors] with her coup stick. A second later, the same guy was dead from Osh-Tisch’s bullet, as if The Other Magpie was some sort of supernatural harbinger of death.”

The battle was a brutal one that would spell victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne, and death for Custer.

Much of Pretty Shield’s account came from what her husband told her he’d witnessed, but she saw the survivors’ return herself. “When the Lacota fell The-other-magpie took his scalp. She was waving it when I saw her coming into the village with the others. Yes, and I saw her cut this scalp into many pieces, so that the men might have more scalps to dance with.”

A post-battle dance with the scalps of the slain was open only to those who had personally taken the scalp. By dividing the scalp she’d claimed, The Other Magpie welcomed more Crow warriors to share in the ceremony. But theirs was still a defeat, and they mourned the Crows who died with Custer and the U.S. troops.

“[T]his country smelled of dead men for a whole summer after the fight, and...we moved away from here, because we could not stand it. Ahh, war is bad,” Pretty Shield told the interpreter. “There was always somebody missing, because of war.”

Osh-Tisch would have been in her early 20s at this time, and she—along with The Other Magpie—were likely the only women fighting for the Crows. “Both these women expected death that day,” Pretty Shield said. “Finds-them-and-kills-them, afraid to have the Lacota find her dead with woman-clothing on her, changed them to a man’s before the fighting commenced, so that if killed the Lacota would not laugh at her, lying there with a woman’s clothes on her. She did not want the Lacota to believe that she was a Crow man hiding in a woman’s dress, you see.” (The nuance of this fear is unclear as Lakota embraced their own winkte, or gender non-conforming individuals, much as the Crows valued their badé.)

The Battle of Little Bighorn was a short-lived victory for the indigenous tribes still trying to fight off colonizers. While the Crows’ alliance may have protected them from most hostile actions, every tribe suffered as white settlers spread across the continent with the force of the United States government and a string of broken treaties behind them. Throughout Osh-Tisch’s 20s and into her 30s, the Crows were confined to a reservation controlled by the U.S. “This was an especially difficult transition for the Crows, who had never fought the Americans and had not been defeated by them,” Will Roscoe wrote in 1990’s “That is My Road: The Life and Times of a Crow Berdache.” “But the ideology of the period did not allow for cultural pluralism. All Indians had to be assimilated into white society.”

In the 1890s, the tribe was visited by a federal agent named Bristow or Briskow, possibly from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who seems to be remembered exclusively for his cruelty toward Osh-Tisch. After decades of shrinking homelands and the depletion their life-sustaining buffalo, the Crows could not tolerate this new attack on their culture. Crow historian (and friend of Osh-Tisch in her later years) Joe Medicine Crow told the story in 1982:

One agent in the late 1890s was named Briskow (Briscoe), or maybe it was Williamson. He did more crazy things here. He tried to interfere with Osh-Tisch, who was the most respected of the badé. The agent incarcerated the badé, cut off their hair, made them wear men’s clothing. He forced them to do manual labor, planting these trees that you see here on the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] grounds. The people were so upset...that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow Agency and told Briskow to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them [the badé]. Briskow was crazy.”

By this time, the tribe did not hold much power with the government, so it is highly notable that Chief Pretty Eagle himself championed Osh-Tisch’s cause. Picking their battles—and facing them from every side—many other tribes submitted to the forced conformity of their two-spirit members. Osh-Tisch, however, was vocally and continually defended. “The Crows continued to view these individuals as integral, even necessary members of their society,” Will wrote. “It was a chief’s duty to protect them.”

The offensive from the colonizers seems to have switched, then, from Osh-Tisch as an individual to the role of the badé itself. From reservation church pulpits, Baptist, Protestant, and Catholic preachers condemned the badé and urged the community to avoid any contact with Osh-Tisch and others like her. Gender non-conforming children were forced into the binary at residential schools. No one pursued the path of the badé, the practice died out, and the European perspective of its “wrongness” became internalized by the newer generations.

In 1917, Lieutenant Hugh L. Scott visited the Crow reservation and met a person he knew as “Woman Jim.” She was a “jolly” woman with a wide circle of friends, an adopted son, and a great pride in her sewing and leather works. “Woman Jim” was later identified as Osh-Tisch. As they became acquainted, Hugh asked her when she’d begun to live as a woman. “Since birth,” Osh-Tisch said. Hugh asked if the role of badé had been suggested to her by a medicine man or if she’d dreamed of it. Neither, Osh-Tisch replied. It had simply been something she’d known.

Her parents hadn’t supported her at first. They’d tried to give her boy clothes and boy toys, but “I threw them away—and got girl’s clothes and dolls to play with,” she said.

When she died on Jan. 2, 1929, around age 75, Osh-Tisch was the last badé of the Crow tribe.

Why, Hugh asked her in 1917, had she continued to live as a woman, even as the world around her grew more and more hostile to her because of it.

Osh-Tisch replied, “That is my road.” 

*Please note that some sites use he/him pronouns or outdated/offensive terms for Osh-Tisch. From ‘100 Voices’ – Pretty Shield’s Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

That is My Road: The Life and Times of a Crow Berdache” by Will Roscoe

Rejected Princesses: Osh-Tisch

Wikipedia: Osh-TischCrow peoplewinkte

Montana Pioneer: The Scalp Dance