WyoHistory.org

The Online Encyclopedia of Wyoming History

Indigenous People in Wyoming and the West

Indigenous People in Wyoming and the West

In March 2017 the Wyoming Legislature passed and Gov. Matt Mead signed a new law directing our public schools to offer more about the history and culture of the Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho and other tribes of the region. With the help of scholars, tribal elders and educators on the Wind River Reservation, we began adding to our content about American Indians, and educators on the reservation have begun helping us develop classroom materials to accompany these articles. For a selection of the articles, click on the links below. For more information on the classroom materials—digital toolkits of Wyoming history, we call them—visit our Education page. These efforts are possible with generous support from the Wyoming Humanities Council, the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, the Ellbogen Family Foundation, a steadily growing list of Wyoming school districts—and the tribal members who consulted on the content. Special thanks to all.

Beginnings

Wyoming’s trails, roads and highways follow centuries-old Native American hunting and trade routes. For generations, Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute, Lakota and Crow people gathered plants, visited family and tracked game along watercourses and over mountain passes in the seasonal subsistence patterns of their lives.

The Mountain Shoshone, sometimes called Sheepeaters, lived at high elevations in what’s now northwestern Wyoming from prehistoric times down through the mid-1800s. Recent archaeological discoveries shed increasing light on the lives of these peoples, ancestors of some of today’s Eastern Shoshone.

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel and its surrounding landscapes on Medicine Mountain in the northern Bighorns make up one of the most important Native American sacred sites in the United States. Twenty years of compromise and conflict on how best to preserve the site involved several governmental agencies and elders representing 16 tribes.

Before any contact with Europeans, Shoshone, Crow, Arapaho, Comanche, Cheyenne, Ute and Lakota people in what’s now Wyoming bartered with each other and more distant tribes for food, horses, guns and more in trade networks stretching from the upper Missouri to the Pacific and from Mexico to Canada.  

Treaties and Trade-offs

In 1850, the U.S. Congress authorized a conference to persuade Plains Indian tribes to live and hunt within newly designated, separate territories, and to accept payment for the damage caused by emigrants crossing their lands. The conference in September 1851 drew 10,000 Indians to the confluence of Horse Creek and the North Platte River, 30 miles east of Fort Laramie. The treaty that was signed there, the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851, permanently changed the terms of Indian-white relations on the northern Great Plains.

In the 1860s, the Eastern Shoshone people signed two treaties with the U.S. government. The first set aside vast holdings for them. Just five years later, as the transcontinental railroad was approaching, a second treaty established a Shoshone reservation in the Wind River valley—with less than a tenth the earlier amount of land.

In March 1866, when whites and Indians together at Fort Laramie mourned the death of Mni Akuwin, daughter of Spotted Tail, chief of the Brulé Lakota, a colonel at the post hoped it was a sign of peace between the peoples. Peace hopes were shattered later that spring however, by the arrival of hundreds of troops to build forts on the Bozeman Trail, and two more years of bitter warfare followed. Finally in 1868, the tribes of the northern plains gathered at the fort and signed a treaty, ending the war—for a while.

In the spring of 1878, about 950 Northern Arapaho people arrived with a military escort on the Eastern Shoshone Reservation in the Wind River Valley in central Wyoming Territory. The two tribes had been in open warfare as recently as four years before, and bad feelings lingered between them.

Congress in 1887 passed the Dawes Act, setting up a framework for dividing up tribal lands on reservations into plots to be held by individual Indian owners, after which they could be leased or sold to anyone. Critics saw it as a method clearly intended to transfer lands out of Indian hands. 

A century ago there were hundreds of boarding schools for American Indian children. Many were on reservations, and many were run by religious orders; there were three on what’s now the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Others were intentionally built far from tribal homelands, to separate children from their languages, lands and families.

With the buffalo gone and poverty, hunger and disease increasing, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes came under intense pressure in the 1890s to sell their land. In 1896, they sold the U.S. government a piece of their reservation ten miles square—including the splendid hot springs at present Thermopolis, Wyo.

Just before sunset, on Oct. 31, 1903, a sheriff’s posse and a band of Oglala Sioux families from the Pine Ridge Reservation engaged in a brief, sharp gunfight near Lightning Creek, northeast of Douglas, Wyo. Seven people died, and a U.S. Senate investigation followed.

In 1905, Congress ratified an agreement with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho by which the tribes ceded 1.5 million acres of reservation land north of the Big Wind River. Tribal leaders questioned the final terms, however, and payments were slow in coming and fell far short of promised levels.

Holding on to Sovreignty

In 1913, department-store tycoon Rodman Wanamaker and photographer Joseph Dixon hatched the idea of a statue of an American Indian in New York harbor higher than the Statue of Liberty—as a memorial to what they saw as a “vanishing race.” Dixon subsequently toured and photographed 89 Indian reservations—including Wyoming’s Shoshone Reservation—leaving a valuable record.

By treaty, Native Americans in 1868 were reserved land along—and water from—Wyoming’s Wind River. But it would take a century and a half for courts to work out what water was whose—and to begin to define what tribal owners of the water could and couldn’t use their water for. 

In the early decades of the 20th century, Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho people in Wyoming found new ways to keep old traditions alive. At the same time they settled an old dispute by means of a long lawsuit, while always negotiating and re-negotiating their evolving relationship with the U.S. government.

Tribal sovereignty, retained by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho since before Wyoming statehood,governs wildlife conservation on the more than two million acres of tribal lands on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Game populations have increased steadily since a tribal game code was adopted in 1984.