THE MOST RECENT NATIVE INHABITANTS
The seasonal tranhumance of the Shoshone & Bannock people allowed them to become familiar with many environments along the spine of Rocky Mountains. These people were superb environmentalists and planned their living space around the seasons and available food supplies.
Frequently, when resources allowed it, they would spend several months, (or even years,) in a fairly small area. At other times they considered “home” a much larger area. These people were the most consistent inhabitants of Yellowstone for several hundreds of years, or perhaps as much as six millennia.
The work of Ake Hultkrantz, Sven Liljeblad, and Josh Kelly have provided us with a vivid picture of these early inhabitants of Yellowstone National Park. They were hunters of bison, mountain sheep, pronghorn, and rabbits. They fished for salmon and trout and grayling and whitefish. They gathered camas along with other vegitation, and lived at the productive interface of mountains and plains. In fact some have considered them mountain people with plains skills. Whatever the the case these people were long time residents of Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone As A Destination
For centuries & millenia, Yellowstone has been a destination for travelers with diverse purposes for visiting the area. Even though large scale tourism did not begin until the 1880s when the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Gardner, Montana, Yellowstone was frequented by groups of Indians as early as the last Ice Age. Before Americans arrived in the West in the 1800s, groups of Shoshone, Bannock and Crow regularly used the area for gathering foods, hunting, ceremonial purposes and trade.
Yellowstone experiences some of the most severe winter conditions in the lower 48 states because of its high elevation. Therefore, most groups returned to more hospitable climates for the winter. However, anthropologists believe that there is good evidence that small groups of Shoshone called Tukudeka, or Sheep Eaters, did stay in Yellowstone year round. Archeologists have found remnants of winter camps in well sheltered areas. Sheep Eaters followed game herds to lower elevations in the winter and as temperatures rose and snow melted in spring, they returned to alpine regions to pursue bighorn sheep
Yellowstone supplied its visitors with an abundance of flora to gather and fauna to hunt. Because of the volcanic qualities in its soil, it can support large and diverse populations of wildlife. Elk, bison, deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep as well as other large mammals thrive in Yellowstone and attracted visitors during the summer months. Indian groups employed a variety of means to procure game. Those with horses could pursue game by chase, or they also had the option of herding and corralling it as well. Those who did not have horses employed other means. Some Indians were known to manipulate the landscape to their advantage by burning the dense timber and undergrowth. This made their pursuit easier and made herds of animals more accessible.
Not only does Yellowstone possess an abundance of wildlife, but it is also well endowed with geological peculiarities such as geysers and hot springs. Despite Euro-American folklore to the contrary, Shoshone, Bannock and Crow incorporated the geological features there into their religious beliefs and practices. The sacred thermal features were believed to possess healing and supernatural powers. Not only did Yellowstone connect visitors to the forces beneath the ground, but it also provided access to those in the sky. Some of the peaks in Yellowstone also became spiritual destinations for individuals on vision quests.
The Yellowstone region provided a variety of physical and spiritual resources for natives to obtain materials necessary for sustenance throughout the year. It also provided enough resources to supply a generous trade before the arrival of Europeans and Americans. The 1800s caused a significant increase of traffic, both native and non native, through region. The need for fur bearing animals brought more hunters and trappers who were looking for furs into the region. Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Salish and several other tribes became very familiar with Yellowstone as they supplied trade and commerce throughout the West
Shoshone & Bannock Peoples
Although they did not have frequent and close contact with Europeans in the West before 1800, Native American cultures were significantly affected by them. The adoption of horses into Indian societies is one way that changed how they lived. When the Spanish moved into New Mexico during the 1600s, they also brought a large number of domesticated horses.
By 1700, horses began to appear on the Plains. This is a direct result of the distribution of the Shoshonean-speaking peoples. The Great Basin Shoshone and the Lemhi Shoshone and the Bannock were along the route of the horse’s introduction. The horse came up the west side of the Rocky Mountains and then spread to the coast via the Nez Perce, and east to the plains via the Wind River Shoshone, Crow, and Commanche. An excllent synopsis of the horse and it’s descendants in aboriginal America can be found in in material written by O. Ned Eddins.
Shoshone Indians quickly adopted horses which helped them expand their geographical range of activities, and forced other groups of Indians to move as well. As a result, the Northern Shoshones’ range extended through most of what is currently western Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho. The speed and efficiency that horses provided the Shoshone helped create a culture that blended their traditional activities as mountain dwelling people with a Plains lifestyle. This meant that they remained dependent on seasonal harvests of fish and plants as a mountain culture. By extending into the Plains, they also became accustomed to a generous supply of bison by using horses. By the beginning of the 1800s, however, the Shoshone had been pushed back into the mountains by other Indians.
Bannock Indians were intermingled with the Shoshone west of the Continental Divide in what is now Idaho. They had also become accustomed to benefits that horses provided while maintaining many aspects of the mountain life. Like many Shoshone, they wintered on the upper parts of the Snake River until spring and early summer when salmon came up the river in large numbers to spawn. From there, they moved toward the bison ranges for late summer hunts.
The traditional range of bison extended well beyond the Continental Divide as far west as the Blue Mountains in Oregon. A combination of hunting pressure from Indians, Europeans and Americans diminished the bison populations west of the Divide by 1840 and the Shoshone and Bannock were forced to find game east of the Divide.
The route that Shoshone and Bannock began to follow on this annual sojourn became known as the Bannock Trail. The Bannock Trail or Great Trail of the Indians was a rough route beginning in Camas Meadows in central Idaho through the northern end of Yellowstone and onto the Clark’s Fork and Shoshone Rivers in northern Wyoming. This trail has been used for 1000’s of years by many different native people. The route was about 200 miles in length. There are many myths and lore associated with this trail that can be explored at TRAIL TRIBES.
Beginning in Idaho north of Shoshone Falls, they followed the Snake River to Henry’s Fork and over Targhee Pass. They then crossed the Madison River into the Gallatin Range through what is now the northwest portion of Yellowstone National Park and then down to Blacktail Deer Plateau southeast of Mammoth Hot Springs. The trail then crossed the Yellowstone River and followed the Lamar Valley into the Absaroka Mountains where it descended to the Wyoming Plains, still abundant with bison at that time. Many of the valleys that the route crossed were prime bison habitat. However, stopping in the Madison or Yellowstone Valleys to hunt meant possible contact with Blackfeet.
The Sheep Eater Shoshone – The Tukudeka
Because groups of Shoshone traditionally spent the majority of the year spread apart throughout the Central and Northern Rockies, different groups became identified by what resources they used most frequently and on which they were most dependent. The Sheep Eater, or Tukudeka, were accustomed to life in high alpine and plateau regions from the Wind River Range in Wyoming and the Salmon River in Idaho where they frequently hunted Bighorn Sheep in the mountains
Although Yellowstone is situated in the center of this region, some anthropologists do not believe that these small groups of Shoshone entered Yellowstone until after 1800. Most, however believe that this way of life existed for several thaousand years prior to the arrival of the Euro-Americans. Sheep Eaters lived and traveled in small groups of four or five families. This is because Bighorns only live in small herds and they forage in alpine areas during the summer months. This made them difficult to hunt in large numbers. By limiting the size of the groups of people from four to six families, Sheep Eaters could more easily keep a regular supply of food.
Despite their isolation and seemingly difficult way of sustenance, Sheep Eaters seem to have had relatively few wants. Therefore, they had little need for contact with others. There are also relatively few accounts by Americans who came into contact with them which makes reconstructing their way of life difficult. One account was recorded by Osborne Russell, a fur trapper who in 1835 met a group of Sheep Eaters in Lamar Valley which is now the northwest corner of Yellowstone. He described them as shy, but hospitable. They were comfortably dressed in sheep and deer skins. The twenty or more people he encountered were armed with strong bows made of sheep, buffalo and elk horns. These were complemented by obsidian pointed arrows. Although they did not have horses, Russell counted thirty dogs that carried their possessions. They seemed content and were also eager to trade their skins and did not demand much in return for the high quality goods that they provided.
Sheep Eaters had several ways of taking game. In addition to their well crafted bows, they set an extensive system of traps whose remnants can still be seen. They were equipped with drive-ways which were boundaries where a deer, elk, sheep or buffalo might be driven and then pushed into the trap. The dogs that Russell described were also used for hunting. Although most Sheep Eaters did not use horses, they did have efficient means of taking game. The shaman was an important part of the Tukudaka life-way. There is an interesting exploration of the role of the shaman and the cult of the bighorn at the NPS site COSO Rock Art.
Yellowstone did not just provide the Sheep Eaters with an abundant, regular supply of game. It also produced a variety of plants that could be baked or dried to last throughout the year. Camas, for example, is a lily that was gathered in spring and fall. The roots and bulbs were baked into cakes or dried for use in the winter. Sheep Eaters also collected and dried a variety of berries. Nuts and seeds were also abundant.
By the time Yellowstone became a national park in 1872, there were an estimated 300 or more Sheep Eaters who lived in the park. Ten years later they were forced out of the park with all other Indians because they were viewed as a threat to tourism. They were removed to either the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming or to Fort Hall in Idaho.