History and Culture

Legend of the Sheepeater Indian Tribe in Yellowstone

Yellowstone was the permanent home of one Native American tribe, but racism bred untrue rumors and tales.

The Shadowy Tribe

Long before the restaurants popped upand rangers started leading naturalist tours, Yellowstone was the permanent home of one Native American tribe: the Sheepeaters (or Sheep Eaters), so-called for their primary food source, bighorn sheep. Anyone asking about the tribe in the early 20th century would hear a flurry of fantastical tales: The Sheepeaters were of a race of pygmies living deep in the mountains. No, they were a “feeble-minded” tribe. No, a band of destitute renegades kicked out of other native societies. No, they were a group of dirty, timid “primitives” afraid of the geothermal features that defined their home.

There’s just one problem: None of that turns out to be true. So who were the Sheepeaters? Today, historians think the band was a subgroup of the Shoshone tribe; the Shoshone distinguished such groups from each other with food names, such as the salmon eaters or buffalo eaters. They were seminomadic hunters who followed the bighorn sheep migration to high elevation in the summer and back down to lower valleys in the winter; they lacked horses, but used dogs to haul items from place to place.

Racism Turned Into a Myth

The grossly distorted accounts of Sheepeaters as tiny, dull wild men trace back to stereotypes of Native Americans of the age. “It was white men who didn’t know about Indians, and who were often trying to denigrate them,” notes Whittlesey. That includes Yellowstone’s second superintendent, Philetus Norris, who wrote in 1880, “The only real occupants of the park were the pygmy tribe of three or four hundred timid and harmless Sheepeater Indians.” Though evidence shows the Sheepeaters were of short to medium height—certainly not “pygmies”—the characterization spread. Historians point to the blatant racism of the period to explain why so many embraced this mythical image of the park’s original residents.

Still, much about how the Sheepeaters lived remains shrouded in mystery. Many wickiups, or cone-shaped shelters, have been found in the park, but experts debate whether other migrating tribes built them as they passed through the area. And though at least one historical account from an 1835 trapper places the Sheepeaters in the Lamar Valley, experts have yet to discover definitive archeological evidence of the band’s presence in the park.

Get closer… Keep your eyes peeled for remnants of Native American wickiups on the trails to Mt. Everts (Mammoth area) and Avalanche Peak (Lake area), but don’t disturb these cultural resources.