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"Look! Real Indians!"

Indians have figured prominently in the history of the Yellowstone. Indirectly, they were the cause of its discovery, and more directly they were responsible for its isolation for almost half a century after the discovery of the geysers, the hot springs, and the canyon and lake. Travelers and explorers hesitated to make the trip to Yellowstone for fear of annihilation by hostile Indians. For two generations the territory that is now the park was visited only by intrepid trappers.


There were four great tribes of Indians living about the Yellowstone territory. They did not live in what is now the Yellowstone, for fear of incurring the wrath of the "Evil Spirit" who was supposed to reside among the geysers and the hot springs, and also because the country was inaccessible and there was better hunting in the valleys below the park region. The Indian name for the Yellowstone was "Burning Mountains," and it is easy to understand their superstitions. Only when they were pursued and sought refuge to save their lives would parties of Indians come into the Burning Mountains. There are still relics of their tepees along the road from Roosevelt Camp to Mammoth and in the Gallatin section of the park. These tepees were but temporary affairs hidden in the forests and erected no doubt for the purpose of hiding their smoke from their enemies. Yellowstone was somewhat of a battle ground for the four tribes who lived around it, the Crows, the Blackfeet, the Bannocks, and the Shoshones.

The Crows, or Absaroka as they called themselves, lived in the region between the Yellowstone and the Big Horn rivers and in the Big Horn Valley and mountains of that name, east of what is now Yellowstone National Park. They were great nomads and marauders. When the white settlers first came into the Montana area, the Crows stole many horses and such other property as they could carry off under the cover of night. They were expert horsemen and it was almost impossible to catch them, especially if they took refuge behind the Absaroka Range in what is now Yellowstone. Nevertheless, they were regarded as the friends of the whites, and never went to war against the settlers. They helped John Colter, the early explorer, and Crow scouts were guides for Custer's army and were with him in 1876 when he and his troops were massacred on the Little Big Horn by Sitting Bull and the Sioux.

The traditional enemies of the Crows were the Blackfeet, the Indians of Glacier Park. Whenever roving bands of Crows and Blackfeet met, a battle invariably ensued, in which the Blackfeet were usually victorious. The Blackfeet were regarded as the enemies of the whites, though they never went on the warpath as did the Sioux. The Blackfeet, by "Pot-shooting" every white man they could find, probably killed more settlers than any of the tribes that took to the warpath. The relations of the Crows and the Blackfeet to the white men have been traced back to a comparatively small incident in the life of John Colter.

When the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned from the Pacific Coast in 1806, passing within one hundred miles of Yellowstone Park, Colter, one of the scouts, asked permission to stay in the Rockies and accompany two other fur traders working up the Missouri River. He had been away from civilization four years, yet he was ready for more of the wilderness and hardship in order to explore virgin country. In 1807, Colter, in the employ of a Spanish fur trader named Manuel Lisa, pushed up the Yellowstone River, seeking to make friends with the neighboring Indians for the fur trader. He fell in with a band of Crows and accompanied them south on a hunting expedition. The Crows met a band of Blackfeet and a battle followed. Colter quite naturally fought on the side of his friends, the Crows, and this time, contrary to the usual outcome of Crow-Blackfoot battles, the Crows were victorious. This increased the enmity of the Blackfeet for the white men, but helped establish friendly relations with the Crows. Years later the Crows became the good friends of the white traders pushing into the Yellowstone.


The third tribe of Indians was known as Shoshones. This great nation lived south and southeast of the park. The Shoshone tribes living on the border of Yellowstone were peaceful Indians. They were known derisively by the Crows and Blackfeet as "fish-eaters" and "root-diggers," because of the manner in which they garnered their food. They dug their roots, dried them, and ground them into flour, from which they made a pastry known as "sour dough." The Shoshones liked fish, a food which the Crows and the Blackfeet despised and would eat only when facing starvation. A branch of the Shoshones called Tukuarika, but dubbed "sheep-eaters" by the whites, actually dwelt in Yellowstone Park in the northern, eastern, and southern parts. They were a timid people, small in stature and lacking in brains and initiative. They were often seen in the park in the early days.

A fourth nation of Indians, who probably saw more of the park than any others in the early days, were the Bannocks. These lived to the west of the park in what is now Idaho. These Bannocks were a peaceful tribe who crossed the Yellowstone every summer to get to the buffalo country. They feared this crossing and preferred to keep out of the domain of the Evil Spirit, but their fear of the Blackfeet and the Crows was even greater. Consequently the Bannocks braved the Yellowstone each summer to avoid fights and to get their supply of dried buffalo meat.

Another Indian episode that figures prominently in Yellowstone annals is the memorable flight of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce Indians across the park in 1877. The Nez Perces, so named by the early French traders because this tribe pierced their noses and wore nose rings, lived in western Idaho and eastern Oregon, well outside the Yellowstone territory. They were discovered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition and made friends with the white man at once. Missionaries and traders and trappers lived among them, converting the Nez Perces to Christianity. One of these converts was Chief Joseph, an Indian of remarkable ability, integrity, and intelligence. He eventually became chief of the tribe.

The Nez Perces, by a series of treaties, ceded the white settlers important tracts of farming land within their hunting grounds. Much of this was done on the advice of Chief Joseph, contrary to the wishes of other and older counselors of the tribe, who viewed with great alarm the encroachment on the Nez Perce lands. Finally in 1877, when a gold rush caused miners to settle in the heart of the Nez Perce lands regardless of treaty rights, the young braves of the tribe revolted and several white men were slain. The fighting was against the counsel of Chief Joseph who urged patience and peace; but once the white men were killed he realized that the government would demand vengeance upon his tribe. This was the beginning of one of the most memorable Indian wars in American history.

Chief Joseph decided that the only chance for his tribe was flight to Canada. Accordingly, encumbered by women, children, and the tribe's belongings, he led the Nez Perces out of the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon, across Idaho, into the fastnesses of Yellowstone, across the park, and almost across Montana, fighting all the way, until within thirty miles of his goal most of the Indians were trapped and captured. At the start, Chief Joseph was harassed by soldiers from the west. He fought them off, outwitted parties sent to block his path, outgeneraled troops sent to meet him in Yellowstone and Montana, and in spite of his great handicaps and lack of supplies, held his band together. While in the Yellowstone, the Nez Perces encountered two separate parties of tourists, exchanged their tired horses for the fresh ones of the visitors, confiscated part of the supplies, and pushed on, with women and children, always eluding the troops. In this remarkable hegira, Chief Joseph led the Nez Perces over half a dozen mountain ranges, through passes that were considered impassable, all the time in strange country, until he reached northern Montana, the old buffalo hunting grounds of the Nez Perces.


Chief Joseph and his exhausted tribesmen were surrounded by two troops of militia on Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains, within sight almost of freedom. General Miles, whose admiration had been stirred by Chief Joseph's gallant flight, persuaded the Nez Perces to surrender on condition that they would be returned to their old home. General Miles' agreement, made in good faith, was ignored by the government, which treated the Nez Perces as criminals and sent most of them to Leavenworth Prison and later to Indian Territory, where many died; but in 1885 Chief Joseph and the remnant of his tribe were removed to a reservation in Washington. Here the old warrior lived for twenty years, aiding and counseling his people. Once he made the long trip to Washington, D. C., to visit President Roosevelt and General Miles. Chief Joseph's story is a part of that of the Yellowstone, though his people never lived in the park other than during the brief period when they sought refuge there. When the old Indian died in 1904, there passed away perhaps the most remarkable man his race produced, in modern years at least.

Just as the Blackfeet are a part of Glacier National Park, the Crows are coming to be associated with Yellowstone Park. In 1925 a group of Crows were allowed to come to Yellowstone Park and help round up the big buffalo herd. They wore their ancient hunting costumes and rode bareback as they chased the buffaloes over the hills of the Lamar River country. Crowds of Sagebrushers went out each day to see the Indians bring down the buffaloes from the mountains. One day a buffalo was killed accidentally and was given to the Indians. One old Indian remembered how to prepare it for drying, and all through the night the Indians worked on that buffalo, cutting the meat into small pieces and pounding it into thin sheets which they hung on a line to dry. The next day it looked from a distance as if the Indians had put out a big washing, as the buffalo meat occupied many long lines strung between the trees. The Indians would not eat the meat in the park. They said they were going to take it back to the reservation with the hide and head and there have a big dance.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

The national park pageants, most of which were developed by the late Garnet Holme, former pageant master of the National Park Service, preserve much of our Indian lore. Tenaya, a pageant of Yosemite named after he Indian chief who ruled Yosmite Valley when the white men came, pictures the wresting of the famous valley from the Indians. Ursa of the Redwoods enacts the legends of the giant redwoords in Sequoia National Park. Casa Grande pictures the ceremonies by which the desert Indians of Arizona and New Mexico sent their prayers to the rain gods. In all of these out-of-door drams, Mr. Holme has delved into history and attempted to preserve the legends and the true stories of the Indians as nearly as can be done. Another fine pageant is The Masque of the Absaroka, presented by the people of Bozeman, Montana, preserving legends of the Crows. The National Park Service has encouraged these pageants as a means of reviving the picturesque and interesting Indian ceremonies, one of the first features of Indian life to disappear when the native adopts the white man's mode of living.

The region that is now Rocky Mountain Park was a favorite hunting ground of Arapahoe and Cheyenne Indians. They visited this country at all times of the year, but the higher elevations only in the summer and fall. Indian names were bestowed on many features of the park territory, and translations of them were used a long time ago by the whites, but unfortunately nearly all have vanished now. Battles were fought in what is now park territory, according to evidence revealed by rock piles and other apparently human interference with natural conditions that cannot be traced to white settlers. The Rocky Mountain Park region, especially the Estes Park open country, must have been a paradise for Indian hunting at certain times of the year, and one can imagine today great villages of tepees amid the red and yellow aspen leaves of autumn when the deer and elk come down from the higher areas with the first storms.

West of the Rockies, doubtless, Shoshones, Utes, and other tribes of Wyoming and Utah perhaps came to hunt in what is now the Grand Lake region of Rocky Mountain Park and perhaps in these remote regions there were conflicts between the parties whose year-around territories were on opposite sides of the continental divide.

The Indians of the Zion Park country were Piutes, a tribe that ranged over much of Utah, nearly all of Nevada, and into eastern California, beyond the Sierra. There were Piutes in Owens Valley in the Sierra Nevada, and in the 'sixties they were so fierce and warlike that the United States had to send in troops to quell them. Fort Independence was built as a base for these troops. Today these Indians can be seen in short side trips from Yosemite Park.


The Piutes were troublesome to the early emigrants, first to the Mormons, then to the California gold seekers. A string of early Mormon forts was built in Utah as a protection from these redskins. One of these forts is at Pipe Spring in northern Arizona, and is now in a national monument, protected by the National Park Service. This fort, however, was used mostly for the protection of early settlers from marauding bands of Navajoes from the Southeast.

One of the worst massacres recorded in American history was the Mountain Meadows Massacre in southern Utah, perpetrated by Piutes and the renegade whites who led them. This occurred not far from Zion Park on the road to California. An entire emigrant train was overtaken by these Indians and their white leaders, and most of the members of the pioneer party were slain.

Salt Lake City was the haven of safety and peace, the Zion of the early Mormon settlers. In southern Utah, the canyon of the Mukuntuweap Creek, a branch of the Virgin River, was a place where the Mormon pioneers of the southern part of the territory could hide from the Indians in time of danger. They called this canyon Little Zion, and today this canyon is the main feature of Zion National Park. In it and in the Parunuweap Canyon near by are many indications of prehistoric peoples. There were cliff dwellings in these canyons as well as other structures on the cliffs and on the valley floors.

In the California national parks, one finds traces of an entirely different type of Indian. The natives who live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada are known as Digger Indians. They are rated low in the classifications of Indians. Life was simple for them. In a balmy climate, they needed little shelter and they eked out a living on nuts, roots, plants, and such small animals as they could shoot, adding to this diet the delicacy of grasshoppers. They were of the same general type of Indian as those whom the Franciscan padres gathered in the California missions. Under the direction of the missionaries, the California Indians were fair workers, but in their natural state they developed no art other than basket making.

In Sequoia National Park, the Potwisha tribe of Diggers lived and thrived. The dividing line between their territory and that of the next tribe, the Watchumna, was at Lime Kiln Hill near Lemon Cove. The earliest visitor to the region that is now Sequoia Park was Hale D. Tharp, who came into that country in 1856. He told Judge Fry, who was for years ranger and superintendent of the park, that when he first entered the valley of the Kaweah River there were two thousand Indians along the main river and its branches above Lemon Cove.

In Yosemite Valley, there lived an outstanding and remarkable band of Indians, a branch of the Miwok tribe. They called themselves the Yosemites, after the grizzly, a name chosen after a battle in which one of their braves overcame a great bear. The Yosemites found in the valley of Ahwahnee, "peaceful, grassy vale," as they called Yosemite Valley, all that an Indian tribe could ask of its gods. It was a good hunting ground. It was plentiful in acorns, from which the Yosemites made a meal. It enjoyed a fine climate, and best of all it was so secluded that the Indians were sure it would never be reached by the white man.

Under the direction of an able chief, Tenaya, the Yosemites developed into a warlike nation. They accepted into their tribe the refugees from other California tribes, many of them wanted for depredations on the white settlers below. In this manner Tenaya built up the strength of his fighting force, and he also became responsible for the acts of Indians whom he could not control. When the gold miners began pushing up the Merced River until they were dangerously near the stronghold of the Yosemites, some of Tenaya's braves went on the warpath, killed miners, raided and burned stores and raised havoc until the whites, in retaliation, sent various expeditions to punish the Indians. On one such occasion Tenaya and his braves, with wives and children, fled up over the mountains to the land of the Monos, a tribe of Nevada Indians with whom the Yosemites traded acorn meal for pine nuts and the obsidian with which they made arrowheads. The Monos were related to the Piutes. From the desert tribes farther east they had acquired horses and had learned to ride them skilfully. The Monos were proud of their horses.

In the hour of need, the Monos gave the Yosemites shelter and food. Tenaya accepted it gratefully. He stayed with the Monos until the white men departed from his stronghold, then he led his people back to Yosemite Valley. The Yosemites repaid the hospitality of the Monos by stealing some of their horses. Not being riding Indians, the Yosemites valued the horses only as food. When the angry Monos overtook the Yosemites, the latter were gorging themselves on horseflesh. In the battle which followed, they were no match for the Monos, who practically wiped out the Yosemite tribe, including Tenaya himself.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, in northern California, is historic ground. One of the old emigrant trails runs through the northern part of the park and is today one of the most interesting features of the region. Northeastward are the lava beds where the famous Modoc War took place in 1872 and 1873. This war was a bitter one, and many settlers and soldiers as well as Indians were killed. The Modocs still inhabit the Lassen country and are to be found all the way up to Oregon, where their ancient contacts were made with the Klamaths; but they rarely come into the park and the visitor to that region should look for Indians in the more northerly valleys.

Crater Lake National Park is in the heart of the country of the Klamath Indians. As one goes toward the south or east entrances of this park, he passes through the Klamath Indian reservation, which has many broad mountain meadows and splendid forests. The Klamaths were trouble some when the whites first came into their territory, and the government had to build Fort Klamath and station troops there to keep the Indians quiet; but it was not long until they came under the influence of missionaries and turned to peaceful pursuits. Old Fort Klamath was a picturesque reminder of the early days of Oregon, and stood near the road to Crater Lake Park until very recently. Crater Lake Park figured prominently in the legends of the Klamaths.

The Indians west of Rainier Park and in the Olympic were Diggers resembling in many respects those of the tribes of the California coast and interior valleys. They were the Nisqually, the Puyallup, and the Cowlitz tribes, all short, flat-faced, unattractive Indians who gave the white settlers very little trouble and did not quarrel much among themselves. They speared fish, principally salmon, dug clams in the sands of Puget Sound, and in summer gathered berries and roots in the hills.

Quite different are the characteristics of the Yakimas and Klickitats who lived beyond the park territory on the east. They resembled the Plains Indians. They were tall, lithe, and had strong features. They owned horses and were excellent riders. They were hunters, and each year came to the great mountain to stalk the wild goat, deer, bear, and the big elk which formerly roamed that country in large bands.

Many of these tribes worshipped Mount Rainier, which because of their religious veneration, the author John H. Williams has called "The Mountain That Is God," in naming one of the best books that has been written on the park in which it lies. The Indians viewed with alarm the efforts of the white men to climb Mount Rainier. The records of various parties which undertook to scale the mountain tell of the difficulty of securing Indian guides. There is preserved in the records of the Stevens party a sincere warning voiced by Sluiskin, the Indian guide to the expedition, who refused to go beyond Paradise Valley. Said he to his white friends:

"Listen to me, my good friends. I must talk to you. Your plan to climb Takhoma (one of the Indian names for Mount Rainier) is all foolishness. No one can do it and live. A mighty chief dwells upon the summit in a lake of fire. He brooks no intruders. Many years ago my grand father, the greatest and bravest chief of all the Yakima, climbed nearly to the summit. There he caught sight of the fiery lake and the infernal demon coming to destroy him and he fled down the mountain, glad to escape with his life. Where he failed, no other Indian ever dared make the attempt. At first the way is easy, the task seems light. The broad snow fields, over which I have often hunted the mountain goat, offer an inviting path. But above them you will have to climb over steep rocks overhanging deep gorges, where a misstep would hurl you far down, down to certain death. You must creep over steep snow banks and cross deep crevasses where a mountain goat could hardly keep his footing. You must climb along steep cliffs where rocks are continually falling to crush you or knock you off into the bottomless depths. And if you should escape these perils and reach the great snowy dome, there a bitterly cold and furious tempest will sweep you off into space like a withered leaf. But if by some miracle you should survive all these perils, the mighty demon of Takhoma will surely kill you and throw you into the fiery lake."

The impassioned warning of Sluiskin of the Yakima is expressive of the Indian's reverence for the wonders that are now the national parks. The Indian lived daily in the shadow, not only of the mountains, the cliffs, and the waterfalls, but of death. He lived as a wild thing lived, by the caprices of Nature. Life was to him fickle, hazardous, difficult. Little wonder that he resisted, albeit futilely, the invasions of the white pioneers into his hunting grounds. Natural it was that he fled for a last refuge to the lands of his gods. No picture of the national parks is complete without the story of the Indians that lived in them. Elsewhere, the white men have changed the Indian and his manner of life. In these few spots, where the devastation of civilization is held in check, it is fitting that the red man, too, should be found, still living as a child in the arms of Nature.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap6a.htm — 06-Sep-2004