I have been to the (now-renamed) Tomb of the Unknowns several times. It has usually been in the summer when it can be incredibly hot…as a teacher or guide for American History grants including students and/or teachers seeking renewal courses. Carol Poole and I co-taught many of these historical excursions.
It doesn’t really matter about the weather or temperature, however….as we watch silently the changing of the guard… because it never fails to happen… chills always run down my back. The never-ending vigilance of the unknown soldiers from several wars dating back to World War I is impressive and humbling.
The last few times I have gone to Arlington cemetery different organizations had brought WWII soldiers to greet the buses of visitors coming in….the idea is for us to have an opportunity to shake these aging veterans’ hands, hear their stories, and give many a long over due “thank you.”
Of all the stories I associate with this sacred place…the story of Chief Plenty Coos (Coups) always take precedence in my memory. It made such an impression upon me the first time I heard it that the story pops up every Veterans Day.
When Chief Plenty Coos was born on the great plains of Montana his grandfather had a vision which helped him name, initially, his grandson…Alaxchiiahush...someone who would experience “Many or Plenty Achievements.” This was later shortened to “Plenty Coos or Plenty Coups”…a man who exemplified courage… through “coups” or acts of bravery.
At the age of eleven, Plenty Coos, as was tribal custom, left the village to “find himself” and look for clues about who he was destined to become. It was written in one biography that…
“After fasting and spending several days in the Crazy Mountains he had a vision in which he saw many buffalo coming out of a hole. They spread over the plains, then disappeared. Surreal buffalo with weird tails, different colors (even spots), and odd bellows then came out of the hole and covered the plains.
He saw himself as an old man, living near a cold spring in the foothills of the Arrowhead Mountains. He also saw a forest; strong winds blew down the trees in the forest until only one tree was left standing. In it was the home of the chickadee.”
He realized at this tender age that his nation of Crow would be overtaken by the white man and if he had any hope of keeping his people intact and together as a tribe he must work with the white man…the Crow tribe (consisted of three groups) must blend as one ….to be together…the “home of the chickadee.”
His vision came true as he became the last great chief on the Plains to be elected by other chiefs as their sole leader….the Chief of the Crow Nation. Unlike his tribal enemies, the Sioux and Cheyenne, he sided with the white man during the war for the west. He intuitively understood that his hope to keep his Crow people intact with their customs and spiritual beliefs depended on his relationship with the white man.
It worked…as he lead his people peacefully into the 20th century. There would be many later pictures of him in Washington…always providing a voice for his people and their reservations.
On November 11, 1921 the first unknown soldier from World War I was ready to lie in rest at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Warren G. Harding was President and at the ceremony representatives from all the Allied countries were there with symbolic medals of honor to place on the grave site. Famous military leaders from each country stood tall as Taps was played. Four inches of French soil were to be placed in the ground so that the unknown American soldier would forever lie on American soil and French soil where he died.
President Harding said a few words but everyone wondered who would be the main speaker…the last person to speak before the burial service. It had been kept a secret. Then to everyone’s surprise they saw an old Indian Chief slowly walk forward. Chief Plenty Coos was 73 years old that year.
He was dressed in full war regalia and carried a coup-stick in his hand…he represented the five Indian nations…many of whom had young men who had fought in the war themselves. With gestures and chants…speaking in his native language…his tribal tongue…he spoke.
“For the Indians of America, I call upon the Great Spirit of the Red Man that the dead have not died in vain, that war might end, that peace be purchased by the blood of the Red Man and White.”
There was not a dry eye in the crowd that day. There was no one who didn’t see the obvious…one fallen warrior paying tribute to another fallen warrior by giving away his most valuable possessions that identified him and only him…now they would represent all American fallen warriors.
With hands shaking…he slowly removed his war bonnet and coup stick…laying them on the tomb. It was the perfect ending.
Before the body was sealed inside the tomb…all the medals and tributes were moved to the Memorial Display Room in the Memorial Amphitheater. This was true of Chief Plenty Coos’ war bonnet and coup stick.
So until tomorrow… the next time you visit Arlington Cemetery, take time to go to the museum and then remember the story….the lesson behind our national motto which we should never forget…”E pluribus unum”- “Out of many…one.” Our strength is in diversity and unity.
And this “one”…Miss Eloise… loves blueberries…can you tell? I told Mollie she should be the poster child for the blueberry state of Maine.
“Today is my favorite day” Winnie the Pooh