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Thomas Yellowtail’s life and work
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Thomas Yellowtail
Thomas  Yellowtail
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Biography of Thomas Yellowtail

Born in 1903, Medicine man and Sun Dance chief Thomas Yellowtail was a pivotal figure in Crow tribal life in the 20th century. As a youth he lived in the presence of old warriors, hunters, and medicine men who knew the freedom and sacred ways of pre-reservation life. As the principal figure in the Crow-Shoshone Sun Dance religion during the last half of the 20th century, Yellowtail has perpetuated the spiritual traditions of his Crow tribe as one of the last living links to the pre-reservation days. But his legacy is not limited to Native Americans because his principles and his message benefit anyone searching to find a balance in this fast-paced technological society. Through his writings we can reexamine the premises and orientations of both cultures.

Yellowtail died at age 90 in 1993. He was one of the most admired American Indian spiritual leaders of the last century, although he was not the most prominent member of his immediate family. Historically, the Yellowtail family is the most famous Crow family of the twentieth century. His older brother, Robert Yellowtail, was the first Native American superintendent of a reservation and was selected as Commissioner of Indian Affairs by President Eisenhower, although he declined the appointment. Yellowtail Dam and Yellowtail Reservoir in Montana are named after him. Susie Yellowtail, Thomas Yellowtail's wife, was the first Native American registered nurse, a tireless advocate of Native American issues and is already enshrined in the Montana Hall of Fame in Helena, Montana. Among many other awards, in 1969 Thomas and Susie Yellowtail were jointly awarded the honor of "Indian of the Year" by the All-American Indian Day Committee. While Yellowtail was most well known in Native American circles, he has become well know partly because of his outspoken wish for more respect for our fellow man, earth and God. Yellowtail's prayer concerning this wish opened the 100th Anniversary Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago in October, 1993, which was attended by over 5,000 spokespeople from different religions from around the world. Yellowtail's opening prayer there did not receive the media attention attached to the closing prayer of the Dalai Lama, but Yellowtail's last public act aimed at a broad audience.

In February 1993, when Yellowtail received the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts in recognition of his work in preserving the traditional culture of the Crow tribe, the program for the award ceremony contained the following quotation:

"This man is outside of time as we know it, centered in the spiritual world. Thomas Yellowtail has perpetuated the spiritual traditions of his Crow tribe as one of the last living links to pre-reservation days. But his legacy is not limited to Native Americans because his principles and his message benefit anyone searching to find a balance in this fast-paced technological society."

The story of his life and his descriptions of the Sun Dance religion are revealed in the book Yellowtail: Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief, edited by Michael Fitzgerald . It was published by the University of Oklahoma Press (1991) and is now in its 5th printing. Extracts from this book appear in World Wisdom's anthology Every Branch in Me . He also contributed a foreword to the bestseller, Indian Spirit .

The Sun Dance Way is a documentary produced by World Wisdom. Gordon Tootoosis (Legends of the Fall) brings to life the voice of Thomas Yellowtail as he describes the mysterious and ancient Sun Dance ceremony as part of this 2 DVD set. Native Spirit: The Sun Dance Way is the companion book to this documentary, featuring over 100 color and sepia photos and a biography of Yellowtail.

Books/DVDs containing the work of Thomas Yellowtail

Thomas Yellowtail's contributions to World Wisdom projects include:

Thomas Yellowtail’s Writings Online
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
Crow Sun Dance Chief and Medicine Man Thomas Yellowtail (1903-1993) wrote this introduction to Frithjof Schuon's book "The Feathered Sun: Plains Indians in Art and Philosophy" to attest to the authenticity and truthfulness of Schuon's writings and paintings found in this book. Yellowtail details his long relationship with Schuon and goes on to point out that Schuon captured the spirit of the olden-days Indians in both his paintings and his prose.
The Introduction by Thomas Yellowtail to "The Feathered Sun" by Frithjof SchuonThe Feathered Sun: Plains Indians in Art and Philosophy (World Wisdom 1990)Yellowtail, Thomas Art, Spiritual Life
Introduction to Indian SpiritIndian Spirit: Revised and EnlargedYellowtail, Thomas American Indian
 2 entries (Displaying results 1 - 2) View : Jump to: Page: of 1 pages

Thomas Yellowtail Film Clips film clip holdings: 13

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Clip Title: The Vision Quest
Summary: This Special Feature explains the Vision Quest, one of the most important sacred rites in most Native tribes.
Total Running Time -4 minutes, 6 seconds
Low Res File Size - 12.3M
High Res File Size - 20.8M

 Film Clips with Thomas Yellowtail (10)
Page: of 2 pages

Traditional Prayer
Thomas Yellowtail speaks about how his Crow ancestors used to pray and highlights that American Indians had their own effective manner of praying before the whites came.
Total Running Time - 4 minutes 6 seconds
Low Res File Size - 12M
High Res File Size - 20.9M
Sweat Lodge
The late Sun Dance Chief Thomas Yellowtail speaks about traditional practices that still help young Indians "receive" something, meaning individual guidance from the Great Spirit. He mentions the solitary vision quest and fast on a mountain, the Sun Dance and the possibility of a "fall" during which the dancer will have a vision, and frequent "sweats" in the sweat lodge.
Total Running Time - 5 minutes 39 seconds
Low Res File Size -16.3M
High Res File Size - 28.5M
Vision Quest
Thomas Yellowtail's turns to focus on the vision quest, its purposes, how to prepare for it, how it is conducted, and how successful seekers gain their "medicine" for themselves and for the good of the people.
Total Running Time - 9 minutes 15 seconds
Low Res File Size - 26.6M
High Res File Size - 46.9M
Wagon Wheel
Thomas Yellowtail expresses his view of the validity of different religions. He uses the symbol of a wagon wheel to illustrate how at the center (the hub) is the Great Spirit with various spokes connecting to it, which represent different spiritual ways to the same Supreme Spirit.
Total Running Time - 1 minutes 39 seconds
Low Res File Size - 4.9M
High Res File Size - 8.5M
Sun Dance Overview
This film clip provides a brief overview of the Sun Dance, the most important sacred rite of the Plains Indians.
Total Running Time -1 minute, 6 seconds
Low Res File Size - 4.4M
High Res File Size - 5.4M

 Film Clips about Thomas Yellowtail (3)  
Page: of 1 pages

Thomas Yellowtail
Jean-Claude Petitpierre talks about his encounters with the Crow Sun Dance chief, Thomas Yellowtail, and the personal qualities of American Indian spiritual leaders that he has met.
Total Running Time - 1 minutes 18 seconds
Low Res File Size - 3.5M
High Res File Size - 7M
Trailer for Native Spirit & The Sun Dance Way
This trailer provides a collage of rare photographs and film clips from the 2 DVD set "Native Spirit and the Sun Dance Way", including images from the many Special Features that are included in this DVD set.
Total Running Time -1 minutes, 52 seconds
Low Res File Size - 5.5M
High Res File Size - 9.4M
Trailer for Native Spirit & The Sun Dance Way
This short trailer presents a series of photographs and film excerpts from "Native Spirit" and "The Sun Dance Way".
Total Running Time -1 minutes, 48 seconds
Low Res File Size - 3.6M
High Res File Size - 5.3M

Articles on Thomas Yellowtail
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
Introduction to Native Spirit: The Sun Dance WayNative Spirit: The Sun Dance WayMedicine Crow, Joe American Indian
 1 entries (Displaying results 1 - 1) View : Jump to: Page: of 1 pages

Photographs of Thomas Yellowtail

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Grand entry of the Whistling Waters clan of the Crow tribe at a pow-wow in Lodge Grass, MT, July 4, 1991. From left are Thomas Yellowtail, Joe Medicine Crow and Michael Fitzgerald.


This is a photograph of Thomas Yellowtail holding a sacred pipe bag that originally belonged to Black Elk, the famous Sioux holy man. Black Elk gave the pipe bag to Joseph Brown in 1947, Brown gave it to Frithjof Schuon in 1949 and Schuon then gave it to Yellowtail in 1953. It remained one of Yellowtail’s most prized possessions until his death in 1993. Read footnote 15 on pages 16 and 17 in an interview in the online journal Vincit Omnia Veritas with Michael Fitzgerald, Yellowtail's adopted son, for more details on this story..


Michael Fitzgerald, Thomas Yellowtail and Susie Yellowtail, at the Yellowtail home in Wyola, Montana, Summer 1971

Slideshows on Thomas Yellowtail

Online Resources about Thomas Yellowtail

Professor Rodney Frey' homepage on the University of Idaho's website has an interesting page on Thomas and Susie Yellowtail. The page includes some biographical facts, Frey's personal remembrances of these two important American Indian figures, and links to some online audio files of Yellowtail in an interview and telling the story of Burnt Face.
See the Thomas Yellowtail page at Yellowtail's contributions to this unique video project are highlighted on this page, but there are several other places on the site that have more images of the late great Crow Sun Dance Chief, so look through the other pages as well.
There are a number of video clips of Thomas Yellowtail speaking on our website, on our American Indian Resources and Wisdom page. Other prominent Indian elders' comments are also available through that page.

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