The Sheepeater Indians of Yellowstone
Two summers ago, during my family’s annual camping trip in Yellowstone National Park, I was fortunate to attend a ranger talk about the local Indians of the area that played a large role in my Yellowstone Romance Series. The ranger’s talk was specifically about the Sheepeater Indians. Finding information on this tribe hasn’t been easy, and since I had just finished the Yellowstone book series, I was very eager to see if I “got it right.” I came away from the program fairly satisfied that I hadn’t really learned anything new about this hardy sub-tribe of Shoshone Indians that time and history seems to have forgotten. The only interesting fact I did learn was that the last small group of Sheepeaters was removed from Yellowstone in 1890, their way of life and customs untouched or influenced by white men.
The Sheepeater Indians, or Tukudika, which in their language means “eaters of meat”, a sub-group of the Shoshone, were the only native peoples to live in the Yellowstone region year round. Their primary source of food was the bighorn sheep that inhabited the high mountains of the park. They also lived on fish, nuts, berries, the root of the camas flower, bitterroot, and various other edible plants. Marmots (called whistle dogs, or whistle pigs) were considered a delicacy.
Often called Mountain Shoshone, they may have lived in the Yellowstone area for 10,000 years, although another version of their ancient history has them arriving less than 1,000 years ago. They were considered by other bands of Shoshone Indians as great medicine men, and highly spiritual, because they chose to live in mountainous areas often at 7500 feet or higher. These were areas the Shoshone believed were home to a higher order of spirits called Sky People.
The Sheep Eaters, though, gained an undeserved reputation, through written accounts by Lewis and Clark, and other explorers, as having been destitute, feeble-minded, and almost subhuman. Not all white men shared this view, and mountain man Osborne Russell wrote in his book, Journal of a Trapper, about their friendly nature and the fine quality of their hides.
Due to the remote and harsh areas where they lived, the Sheepeaters were not influenced by the arrival of whites. They didn’t have rifles, and no horses. They continued to travel on foot in the traditional way, utilizing dogs to help carry their supplies and in their hunts for bighorn sheep. They kept to the high remote areas, escaping the European influence more than other tribes. They remained deeply immersed in their landscape and ways, and no doubt the beauty and unspoiled wilderness of Yellowstone inspired their beliefs, worldview, and spirituality.
The Sheep Eater culture distinguishes itself from other tribes in various ways. They lived in small family groups in huts made from skins and branches (aspen and willow in summer, heavier materials in winter), called wickiups. Their hide tanning methods were of high quality and trade value. Their bows earned a near mythical reputation. They were made from the horns of Bighorn Sheep or elk antlers, which they heated at Yellowstone’s geysers and hot pools and then molded into hunting weapons. It was said that the force of their bows could drive an obsidian-tipped arrow clear through a buffalo.
“Like many other hunters and gatherers, the Sheep Eaters did not make a distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds. At the apex were the “Sky People,” below them were the “Ground People,” and still lower were the “Water People.” Physical phenomena were also hierarchically ordered, with the sun and lightning at the pinnacle and rattlesnakes occupying the bottom rung of the cosmos.” (from Mountain Spirit – The Sheepeater Indians of Yellowstone)
In the 1870’s, superintendent of Yellowstone, Philleus Norris, decided to eradicate all Indians from the park. The Sheepeaters were driven from their homelands, and taken to reservations at Wind River in Wyoming, and Fort Hall in Idaho. Several small groups did escape this eradication, however, and the last group still survived in the remote mountains of Yellowstone, living as their ancestors had for thousands of years, until 1890.
When I chose to include the Sheepeaters into my writing of my books in the Yellowstone Romance Series, I decided to use their spiritual beliefs as my vessel for the time travel elements in several of the books. The Sky People (although the Sheepeaters referred to the animals in the sky as “the sky people”, in my books I implied for them to be actual spiritual men) became the perfect source of the origin of the time travel device for the books.
Here is a short excerpt from Yellowstone Heart Song, Book 1 in the Yellowstone Romance Series:
Daniel nodded. He knew his mother had died in childbirth in the midst of a winter blizzard here in the mountains. His father had been unable to go for help from the nearby Tukudeka clan. How often had he heard his father blame himself over the years for his wife’s death, for taking her away from the safety of New Orleans and bringing her to the mountains?
“What I didn’t tell you before,” his father cleared his throat again, each word seemed to cause him pain to bring forth, “is that we had a visitor that night.”
“A visitor?” Daniel echoed.
“He was old. A Tukudeka elder. He got caught in the snowstorm and found the cabin. He was nearly frozen to death when he managed to pound on the cabin door.”
“Continue,” he said slowly, when his father paused again.
“I tended to both your mother and the old man throughout the night. She was getting worse, and he was starting to thaw out. That’s when he offered me the chance to save your life.”
“My life?” Daniel’s eyes narrowed.
“He handed me this.” His father reached into the pouch around his neck and produced a shriveled up, dried snakehead with eerily unnatural gleaming red eyes. Daniel stared at the object, then back at his father.
“He told me a story of how his grandfather received this snake from some ancient people who came from the sky.”
“The Tukudeka legends are full of stories of the Sky People,” he nodded.