American Indian History in Yellowstone

The earliest humans to inhabit the Yellowstone region where Yellowstone National Park is located lived in the area approximately 12,000 years ago. The period from 12,000 to 8,000 years ago was known as the Paleoindian era. Hundreds of spear tips, made from obsidian, were found in the area and were traded to other tribes in present-day Idaho, Illinois and Ohio. These people used sandstone tools to make other tools from bone and wood. Tools associated with tanning hides and making clothing have also been found. Pictographs, or paintings on rocks, and petro glyphs, carved rock pictures, can be found in the greater Yellowstone area that date back as far as 12,000 years.

Evidence of habitation dating to around 9,500 years ago was unearthed along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. At that time the climate was drier the lake was shallower. It is believed to have been a gathering ground for Indians of various tribes, who possibly made stew from the onions and other flora in the area. Studies of blood from one campsite reveal evidence of rabbits, bears, wolves, and deer that were probably used as food. The shores of the lake were inhabited for many years, as the finding of a 5,800-year-old hearth indicates.

In the 1700s French-Canadian trappers first heard of the “Mi tse a da zi”, or “Rock Yellow River”, from the Minnetaree tribe in what is now eastern Montana. The name is thought to refer to the sandstone bluffs overlooking the Yellowstone River. The trappers translated the name into the French “Roche Jaune”, and explorer-geographer David Thomson translated the name into the English “Yellow Stone” in 1797.

At the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806, Shoshone Indians lived in the Yellowstone region. Merriweather Lewis met with Lemhi Shoshones, whom he described as cheerful people despite their poverty. They had been driven into hiding by their enemies and were lived by eating mostly roots and berries. Lewis won over the Shoshones he met with gifts such as trinkets and an American flag. Chief Camheawait described to Lewis impassable rivers and recommended traveling through the mountains on horseback to reach the Pacific Ocean. Sacagaweah, Lewis and Clark’s guide, a Shoshone who had been kidnapped and raised as a Hidatsa, recognized Chief Camheawait as her brother whom she had not seen for many years and they had a happy reunion. Chief Camheawait sold the expedition the horses they needed to reach the west coast. Lewis agreed to send the Shoshones guns and ammunition so they could leave the mountains and hunt for bison on the plains as their enemies did.

Lewis and Clark also recorded about 350 lodges and 3500 Crow Indians living mainly along the Bighorn River. Explorer Brown in 1817 wrote that the Crow lived along the Yellowstone. In 1834 explorer Drake located the Crown along the south branch of the Yellowstone and in 1862 explorer Hayden wrote that they dwelled along the south side and mouth of the Yellowstone River.

During the 1800’s a band of Shoshones known as Sheepeaters, or Snake Indians, also inhabited what is now Yellowstone Park. They, the Bannocks, the Flatheads and the Nez Perce traveled through the Yellowstone Valley in route to the bison country of Wyoming and Montana. The mountains and valleys of Yellowstone offered at least some protection from the Blackfeet Indian tribe along the Bannock Trail.

In 1872, Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant decided to set aside land in the Yellowstone region for the world’s first national park. In 1873 the Department of the Interior decided they needed to civilize American Indians by taking away their nomadic livelihood, which was based upon the bison. U.S. Representative Conger wrote in 1874 that bison were a nuisance to ranchers and farmers raising cattle and sheep. The bison competed with the animals for grass and space. During the 1870’s bison were slaughtered. A conflict over the lives of bison continues to this day between Native Americans and the government.

In 1877, a group of Nez Perce Indians attacked a group of tourists, causing a public relations calamity. Park officials probably started rumors that Indians seldom entered the park because of superstitions about the geysers and hot springs. The evidence of archeology and historical accounts contradict this belief. In 1935, two Indian warriors, Many Wounds and White Hawk, stated that they were highly familiar with the land and the geysers and smoking springs were nothing new to them.

In 1878, the Bannock Indian war was fought. A group of Bannock warriors followed the Bannock trail through the park on the way to Canada. Encountering a surveying team, they captured the party’s animals and supplies. Colonel Nelson Miles then killed 11 Bannocks and captured 31. The army met some escapees from the Heart Mountain Battle and attacked them, killing several.

In 1887 and 1888, park officials, including the military superintendent, complained of Indians hunting in Yellowstone and burning grass as a land management technique. Burning the grass helps it grow back healthier and more able to feed deer, elk and other mammals, but the park officials did not understand the technique the Indians used. The presence of Indians was continuing to frighten tourists.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Indians had little or no presence in Yellowstone Park, apart from being employed for occasional ceremonies such as opening the west entrance. In 1961, the National Park Service reversed its earlier policy, stating that it did not believe the Indians were superstitious or afraid of the natural wonders of Yellowstone. In 1996, Obsidian Cliff was recognized as a historical place and a location of early industry in America, because it was the place where obsidian was obtained for Indian tools. In 2001, the National Park Service stopped charging members of Indian tribes the recreational fee for entrance into the park for ceremonial purposes.

The present-day National Park Service considers it part of its mission to help restore and perpetuate American Indian culture. Powwows, social events with dances, songs, and drums, take place in the Yellowstone region during the summer. They traditionally begin with a grand entrance honoring Indian veterans of the armed forces. Dance competitions are held in shawl dances, grass dances, and hoop dances, and singing and drumming competitions are also popular. Tourists are encouraged to view the powwows to learn about the Indian culture.

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