The Wind River Indian Reservation

04-smallWyoming has one of the largest Indian reservations in the US called the Wind River Reservation which covers an area half the size of New Jersey. It covers a large part of the Wind River Valley and the surrounding mountains with good farm land and excellent hunting and fishing. It has significant oil and natural gas production which provide royalties to the tribes and it is inherently one of the most desirable of all the country?s reservations. The land was originally given to the Shoshone Tribe on the comparatively early date of 1868 because, under the wise leadership of Chief Washakie, they had been indispensable allies of the US cavalry against their ancient enemies like the Sioux and other tribes hostile to white encroachment. Washakie was a towering figure of exceptional stature who dominated the history of the Wind River Valley for most of the 19th century. He lived to be a hundred years old and led his people through a time of enormous change. Washakie understood that winning an occasional battle and plundering a few wagon trains would not stem the flood of immigrants. The pyrrhic victory of the Sioux at the Battle of the Little Big Horn led only to far more trouble for them. His foresight, integrity and magnanimity shine at a time of violence, greed and bitter rivalry.

Initially Washakie won leadership of the Shoshone through his outstanding prowess as a warrior and military strategist in battling surrounding hostile tribes like the Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne and Arapahoe. The best known of his many exploits was at the Battle of Crowheart Butte. The butte itself is an impressive landmark which thrusts up dramatically from the floor of the Wind River Valley near the center of what is now Fremont County. The Plains Indian tribes had always struggled with one another for hunting rights and the acquisition of the horse made these conflicts more acute and frequent. There are varying contradictory accounts of the battle, but perhaps this version is as good as any. The Crows under their chief, Big Robber, tried a test of strength and began hunting near Crowheart Butte, not far from where Washakie and his tribe of Shoshones had an encampment. The fighting which ensued caused grievous casualties on both sides, so they decided to settle the dispute by a hand to hand fight between the two chiefs. They rode out like knights of old with their lances and their shields to fight to the death. Washakie triumphed and either as a sign of respect or in victory celebration he cut out the heart of the Crow chief. Some accounts say that he placed the heart on the tip of his lance; others that he ate it. Whatever the truth may be, the name persists.

05-smallA decade after the Shoshone had settled on the Reservation an agreement was reached to allow several thousand Indians from the Northern Arapahoe Tribe to settle there also and they moved mainly into the eastern end while the Shoshone stayed on the western side. The two tribes were traditional enemies with many important cultural differences and some frictions remain, but they have managed to live together peacefully now for over a century.

A colorful cultural life flourishes today on the Reservation, adding greatly to the allure of Wind River Country for the visitor. Several Powwows are held each year where Indian dancers perform in magnificent traditional costumes complete with eagle feather headdresses and beaded leather clothing. The dances represent themes like hunting, tracking and war while there is chanting and incessant drum beating. The dancers often imitate the movements of animals. The buffalo has particular importance because it provided much of the food, tools and clothing for the Plains Indians. Dance groups from the Reservation perform frequently.

The sacred Sundance ceremony, performed around the summer solstice each year, is an integral part of the pre-Columbian Indian religion and is taken very seriously. Outsiders can observe, but no pictures are allowed. The ceremony lasts up to a week and includes dancing, drumming, visions and fasting. The ancient religion had many aspects of pantheism and showed great respect for animals as spiritual beings. It had much in common with the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi. The ceremony is an affirmation of the necessity for harmony between all living things and a celebration of rebirth and renewal. Recently several successful casinos have been started on the Reservation which help provide income for education and health care as well as employment for local people.