Throwback Thursday The Life of Chief Max Big Man: From Lecturer to Laurel Museum Curator

By 
Rosalyn Visser Of The Laurel Outlook Staff
Thursday, June 23, 2022
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Chief Max Big Man was a notable member of the Crow tribe, who had ties across Montana, including an interesting connection to Laurel. In addition, Big Man traveled across the country with a lecture series and went to Washington, D.C. to discuss tribal matters. Through newspapers and other research, Big Man’s story can be pieced together.

Max Big Man was born in Crow Agency on April 15, 1889, and lived on the reservation most of his life. As a child, however, Big Man spent some time in Fort Custer, as his father was one of the Crow Scouts that worked with the U.S. Army. Big Man senior was under Custer’s command during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. After the terrible defeat, Big Man senior was stationed at Fort Custer, where he and his family spent some time.

Max Big Man as a young man eventually went to Haskell Institute, an infamous Indian Boarding School in Kansas. As such, Haskell attempted to force Native Americans to assimilate to white culture by providing formal education and not allowing students to have any connection to their own culture. During this time, the Native students at these boarding schools and their families were not even American citizens. In fact, it was not until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that Native Americans became U.S. citizens.

Haskell’s efforts to destroy Max Big Man’s connection to his Crow culture failed as he started to speak about his tribe’s traditions to travelers. Through his descriptions of his culture and the story of Little Bighorn with his father’s scout insight, he became well-known. Big Man spoke on the small railroad platform on the Crow Reservation. The train would only stop for 10 minutes before continuing its route to the Billings Depot, but in that time Big Man wove stories that mesmerized passengers.

In 1928, Big Man’s success was recognized by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Companies. When the Superintendent of Crow Agency Charles Asbury requested a small shop be built to capitalize on Big Man’s popularity, the railroad companies suggested some tipis would better conform to the Eastern traveler’s “expectations.” Eventually, the railroad came around to the idea of a building, and a log cabin was constructed on Crow Agency’s platform for Max Big Man to sell his crafts and trinkets. In 1929, the railroad officially employed Big Man for the summer and then sent him and his family to Nebraska for their Diamond Jubilee festival, where they sold more crafts, paintings, and cards.

Shortly after, Big Man attracted the attention of the Custer Battlefield Highway Association. In 1930, they hired him to go on a lecture tour in the Midwest to promote the highway. Then in 1931, the Burlington Railroad sponsored a threeweek Eastern lecture tour. His lectures were very popular in the East, and he advocated for more education for Native Americans as well as encouraged people to visit the West. His children would sometimes accompany him and would help display some of their traditions such as Crow ceremonial dances and songs.

Before Chief Plenty Coups died in 1931, he named Max Big Man an honorary chieftain. As Chief, Max Big Man started his visits to Washington, D.C., amidst his various lectures. When he was not on a lecture tour for different railroad companies, he continued to speak at the railroad platform in Crow Agency where he started.

Then the Great Depression hit. During the depression, interestingly some people took to the roads. Robert Fletcher, the head of Montana’s Highway Department, created a few different programs to entice tourists to travel to Montana to help boost its economy. Fletcher implemented revolutionary travel projects in the 1930s including publishing an official highway map, creating historical markers alongside the road, as well as building roadside picnic spaces. A program that did not come to fruition was roadside museums across the state; however, Laurel’s Commercial Club worked in conjunction with the Highway Department to create the sole roadside museum.

A log cabin was constructed in 1938 by the Highway Department for the museum in Main Street Park off of Highway number ten. The Laurel Commercial Club hired Max Big Man and his family to operate the Laurel Roadside Museum. The museum had dioramas and fossils of Montana animal and plant life, along with replicas of early paleozoic life forms. Part of the museum building also served as the headquarters for the city police and highway patrol officials.

Chief Big Man, as the museum curator, answered tourist questions on the region as well as hosted daily presentations on Crow traditions and stories. While he and his family ran the museum, his daughter Myrtle gave birth to her daughter. The Big Man family considered naming her Laurel, but a ceremony completed by Mr. E. J. Sam determined her name would be Phyllis Big Man. Chief Big Man and his family remained in Laurel operating the museum, until the events of WWII led to its closure, four years after opening its doors.

After Big Man’s time in Laurel at the roadside museum, he returned to Crow Agency. Starting in 1945, Big Man served as a police officer on the reservation. Eventually, he became the Chief of Police on the Reservation and a Deputy Sheriff of Big Horn County. Sadly, in December 1950, Max Big Man died of a brain hemorrhage at 61.

Chief Max Big Man has many legacies. He has his family legacy, as he and his wife had eight children. His Laurel legacy of being a museum curator. And finally his successful careers of policing and of lecturing about the west, his tribe, and education for Native Americans. Max Big Man’s words from a Billings Gazette article from 1931, embody what he advocated for: “Everything you have conquered, and now it is your turn to help those whom you have conquered.”

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