The greater Yellowstone National Park area is full of Indian lore. Native American history flourishes in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, where a dozen Indian reservations are located and where some of the last Indian battles in the Northern Plains were fought.
Montana has the most reservations with seven; Idaho is home to four reservations and Wyoming has one. But Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation is the third-largest in total land size of all Indian reservations in the entire United States.
Home to the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho peoples, the Wind River Reservation in Yellowstone is also notable because the U.S. Army Buffalo Soldiers were posted at Fort Washakie and the guide of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Sacajawea, is allegedly buried there.
It is also the only reservation where the government allowed Indian people to choose their own land. The reasons are many, but simply stated, the great Shoshone Chief Washakie was a man of vision. He always placed the peace and welfare of his people above all other concerns and he knew that for his tribe to succeed, it would have to adapt to the changing world around them. As a result, Washakie was on friendly terms with the U.S. Army, and he and his band of warriors not only served as Army scouts, but they protected early white settlers from the raids of other tribes. As a reward for his cooperation, Washakie was allowed to establish the Shoshone Reservation on his tribe’s ancestral wintering and hunting grounds.
The Northern Arapaho arrived a decade later on a temporary basis, en route to a promised reservation in Idaho. But the new reservation was never established, and the two tribes now jointly administer the large area, home to over 7,000 American Indians.
The reservation contains some of Wyoming’s most scenic mountain and foothill vistas with more than 1,100 miles of streams and some 265 lakes, including the home of the rare golden trout, found only in high elevation lakes.
Tribal homes in Montana include the Blackfeet Nation’s reservation around Browning; the Fort Belnap Reservation around Harlem is home to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes; the Fort Peck Reservation is occupied by the Assiniboine and Sioux; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes call the Flathead Reservation home; and the Rocky Boy’s Reservation is home to the Chippewa-Cree tribe.
Idaho is home to the Shoshone Paiute tribe of the Duck Valley Reservation, plus the Nez Perce and the Coeur d’Alene, whose respective reservations bear their tribal identity.
Wind River’s claim as the burial place of Sacajawea is not without controversy. The states of North and South Dakota claim the famous Lewis and Clark guide died and was buried in 1812 at Fort Manual near the North Dakota border.
According to local historical accounts, Sacajawea, a native of the Idaho Lemhi band of Shoshone, came to live with the Eastern Shoshone several years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition ended. She played an active role with her new tribe, reportedly acting as an interpreter for the Indian Agency. The Sacajawea Cemetery contains a monument to her memory.
Eastern Shoshone Indian Days
The largest annual event on the reservation is the annual Eastern Shoshone Indian Days, which features one of the largest powwows in the region, an all-Indian rodeo and a reenactment of the signing of the Treaty of 1868. Shoshone Indian Days is traditionally held the last week of June at Fort Washakie.
Several must-see cultural centers on the Wind River Reservation include the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center at Fort Washakie and the Heritage Center at the St. Stephen’s Catholic Mission south of Riverton
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
The Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in south-central Montana share a common border, but it’s on the Crow Reservation where the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and the Reno-Benteen Battlefield are located and draw thousands of visitors each year. The sites commemorate the Sioux/Cheyenne victory over the Seventh Cavalry and General George Armstrong Custer. The site includes a museum and interpretive center.
The Crow Reservation is also home to Chief Plenty Coups State Park and the Montana side of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. After Plenty Coups’ death in 1932, his land and home was turned into a park for all people to enjoy.
Powwows and Rodeos
Major events include the Northern Cheyenne Powwow and Rodeo at Lame Deer over the Memorial Day weekend, and the Crow Fair Powwow and Rodeo the third week of August at Crow Agency.
The Shoshone Bannock Indian Festival at Fort Hall features a major powwow, rodeo and traditional Indian games. Try your luck at the Fort Hall Casino.
Also read: See a Pow Wow Near Yellowstone