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Some tipi rings

The Bighorn Basin holds plenty of old secrets.  Prospectors, miners, strike-it-rich schemes. But what stirs my imagination most are Indian signs.

The history of the white man here is short and meager, a mere 150 years or so.  Wyoming only became a state in 1890.  The Bannock war of 1878 was the last Indian war around here.  Truly that wasn’t so long ago.

And although Lewis and Clark came through here 200 years ago, Native peoples have been living here for over 10,000 years, with the population rising and falling with the climate.  I went to an interesting talk last summer given by an archaeologist who had a unique way of assessing population correlated with temperature.  The time period known as the Altithermal, around 5,000 to 8,500 years ago, saw the fewest people living around the basin.  The Altithermal was a dry hot period and many of the native peoples moved higher, into the mountains, to survive.  Interestingly, the Altithermal termperatures in the Big Horn Basin are approximately the temperatures we have today, as our own temperatures are rising.

So when I was hiking around the desert last week and ran into some tipi rings, I couldn’t help  imagining what these peoples might have been doing and how they were living.

You can see the ring of rocks embedded in the dirt

You can see the ring of rocks embedded in the dirt

Another view

Tipi Ring

The rocks were used to hold down the tipi skirt.  Used over and over again, this location contained four visible rings, high on a hill.  Water was far below, although we did find a dry spring along the other side of the hill and closer to the rings.  My friend thought this was a hunting camp, since it was small and near in a prominent landmark.  And he might be right because the location was perfect for watching game, especially antelope and deer that might pass through.

Just outside of Cody there are a large amount of tipi rings above the Shoshone River.  You can tell they are more recent, say 150 years, as the rocks are not very embedded in the dirt.  The Crow used to winter down along the river and use the hot springs.  The hot springs is now on private land.

Another view of several rings outside Cody

Several rings outside Cody


It’s such a nice gift to run into these ancient signs.  They should be left untouched as they are part of our story and the story of the Land.

Rock circle big enough to sit in

A vision quest site I found


Our American History

I spent the last month wandering through Southwest Anazasi ruins, specifically around Bluff/Blanding in the Cedar Mesa area.  With the help of a guide book, and the local who owned the motel I was staying at, I explored as many petroglyph and ruin sites as I could, given that the mesa had quite a bit of snow and many roads were impassable clay.

This guy never got out in the sticky red clay, even with all our help

This guy never got out in the sticky red clay, even with all our help

Cedar Mesa area is unique amidst cultural Anazasi sites.  Its a BLM study area that probably had a population 2-3 times that of today; that would be easily 10,000 people living there. And it shows.  Hike down any canyon and you will absolutely see granaries, old stonework and dwellings, kivas.  In short order, anyone will be able to judge what topographic features would attract an Anazasi dwelling:  south facing cliffs,  high alcoves, inaccessible nooks with some access to water.  Some of the ruins obviously housed many families, while others were small and may have held only a few.  Invariably though, they’d be a kiva always there, sometimes several.  These were community meeting rooms and the general size of the mesa kiva seemed like it could house no more than ten comfortably.

Large extensive alcove run

Large extensive alcove run

View of ruin approach.  The ruin is right at this large pour off, difficult to access purposely for defensive purposes

View of ruin approach. The ruin is right at this large pour off, difficult to access purposely for defensive purposes.  You can see the ruin on the right side.  The left side of the pour off has a small alcove with handprints and grinding stones, below.

Corn grinding stone.  A common site within dwelling areas.

Corn grinding stone. A common site within dwelling areas. Also cuts where axes were sharpened

I fantasized that women were grinding the corn, and when their hands got too muddy with red clay, here they went to clean them off.  Many handprints also had the familiar spiral inside

I fantasized that women were grinding the corn, and when their hands got too muddy with red clay, here they went to clean them off. Many handprints also had the familiar spiral inside

I took a lot of photos of walls.  I know something about building stone walls, having designed many and used many masons in my work.  These walls were very well-constructed.  Of course!  They’ve lasted over a thousand years.  Some built more meticulous than others.  Granaries could be quickly constructed, while housing was finer work.  Stones were honed for corners.  Although most of the finish has worn off, one can still see in places where plaster was applied so that the end product hid the stone work.

This interesting structure was obviously a kiln

This interesting structure was obviously a kiln

Fingerprints are common to be seen on the plaster and mortar work.  If this doesn't connect you with the people who did this work, nothing will.

Fingerprints are common to be seen on the plaster and mortar work. If this doesn’t connect you with the people who did this work, nothing will.

Here the plaster is still visible

Here the plaster is still visible

And there’s so much more to Cedar Mesa area–the petroglyphs and pictographs.  I took hundreds of photos of writings at many different sites.  Seeing so many, I still could not come up with why some sites were picked for writings and others not.  There are plenty of perfect patinas for drawings that are empty.  Petroglyphs of course were not done in just one period, but a site may contain pictures that span hundreds of years.  I found drawings in home dwellings, and more elaborate ones at the very top of a ridge line (on Comb Ridge i.e. the Processional).

The location of this artwork.  This is at the very top of Comb Ridge with a view to the San Juan River miles below

The location of this artwork. This is at the very top of Comb Ridge with a view to the San Juan River miles below

A more macro view of the story

A more macro view of the story

This is a small piece of a very large story called The Processional

This is a small piece of a very large story called The Processional 

Petroglyphs seemed to be at prominent places, like when we hiked down to the San Juan River to a wall with thousands of glyphs.  Perhaps this was a crossing place, a signpost for travelers telling them about the game or where to go; maybe it was a vision quest site; or a rock that marked territory. Some of the sites are astronomical indicators and these have been documented.    I suspect that glyphs contained all these elements depending upon the site.  One thing that becomes obvious quickly:  white people write their names and dates; native peoples were telling stories about the land, the landscape and the animals.  “As if the Land owned us”  says a Ute Indian.

This was my third year of exploration in the Southwest.  I highly recommend reading House of Rain by Craig Childs if you are going.  It helps to put this great history into perspective.  But it wasn’t until I went to Chaco Canyon that the Four Corner Regions all knitted together into an amazing historical tapestry.

Chaco is our greatest preserved heritage in the United States and so few people have visited it let alone know about it.  Frankly, I didn’t either.  But once I saw it, I understood so much more about the multi-cultural groups bundled together as the Anazasi than ever before.  Chaco was at its height around the 10th-11th century.  A massive undertaking of architecture in the middle of the desert, the Chachoans built huge kivas and ‘pueblos’.  Pueblo Bonito alone has only had 3 acres excavated and they suspect there are over 6 acres.  And there are many many more structures here, all aligned astronomically, all built by the finest builders of the land.  Chaco is a ritual landscape, a landscape of spirit lines, where geography and the spirit world combine through astonomy.

Yet so few people actually lived here, less than 6,000 at most.  Bins of turquoise, corn from 100’s of different regions, feathers of exotic parrots from the tropics, were found.  This was a place of opulence where probably a few priests and caretakers lived.  Goods came in, but not out.  People today have no words nor concepts for that.

The buildings were not built all at once, but over hundreds of years and changed over time.  Great roads over thirty feet wide and so perfectly straight they could have been engineered today fanned out across the landscape.  If the road came to a cliff wall, they didn’t go around but build steps straight up to the top.  These wide roads, sometimes lined with crushed potsherds, connected to Great Kivas hundreds of miles away.  They recently found one from Chaco to Bluff.

Although they don’t know what Chaco really was, if you go there when its quiet, like I did, you can feel a lot.  Chaco was a great spiritual center; it was the Heart of the Anazasi, where pilgrimages were made, maybe annually or bi-annually.  Maybe just once in a lifetime.  And when you went, you brought your gifts of corn.  Maybe you stayed a bit, especially if you had spiritual prominence in your smaller community, or did a spirit quest.  One can imagine great celebrations and games taking place.

Unique corner window where the light shines through perfectly on the winter solstice

Unique corner window where the light shines through perfectly on the winter solstice

Exquisite walls by master builders at Chaco could be over 4 stories high

Exquisite walls by master builders at Chaco could be over 4 stories high


This is a kiva at Aztec Ruins that was reconstructed.

This is a kiva at Aztec Ruins that was reconstructed.

The largest Kiva at Chaco could house hundreds if not a thousand people

The largest Kiva at Chaco could house hundreds if not a thousand people

Yet Chaco began to decline, and was no longer the center of trade, commerce, and spirituality somewhere around the early 1100’s and the center moved north towards Aztec.  And although drought gripped the region in the late 1200’s, that no longer is the sole reason archaeologists suspect for the regions abandonment.  To wander around Cedar Mesa, Mesa Verde, or Hovenweep, it becomes obvious these were a frightened people–building in the most defensible and inaccessible places.  Hovenweep with its unique towers is the epitome.  The towers are placed at the heads of drainages, protecting their precious water.  Cannibalism, decapitations, and other extreme violence is evident in these late periods.  Cedar Mesa may have held some of the last hold-outs.  Why this happened and what was happening, we’ll never know.  But more than drought was going on as this was a land of droughts and people had been living here for thousands of years.

Apart from the specifics of its history, my question when I finally visited Chaco was why are we not teaching this in our American History books to our school children?  Why does our history, still, after all these years of increased social awareness, begin with Columbus and. at the most, only a nod to native peoples who were here before Europeans?  Is it because we are committed to the United States being only an idea:  the idea of freedom and democracy? Is that what we have decided binds us, and so that is what we’ve decided we’ll teach?

America is not a concept.  It is the Land and the landscape as well, and if we are to be a people connected to Place, then we must learn about Place and how ‘the land owns us’.  And although the Anazasi migrated south, and are today’s Hopi, Zuni, and Puebloans by culture and blood, they are still part of the heritage of our America, our Place. And a Great One; one that we can learn from.   By excising this history from our studies, we divorce ourselves off from the long history of our Land and its peoples here.   I feel that if our youth integrated these ancient histories as their own, we would all come to cherish not only the ruins that remain, but the Land itself and our connection to its preservation.


Wind Rivers: Epicenter of Rocky Mountain Archaeology

Rich Adams, former Wyoming State Archaeologist, is rocking the premises of Rocky Mountain Archaeology with his discoveries in the Wind River Mountains of high-rise villages.  In 2006, an ancient village was discovered at over 10,700 feet on the eastern slopes near Whiskey Mountain in Dubois.    This is only one of two high rise villages in North America consisting of forty seven 10×14 dwelling pads, many artifacts including soapstone bowls.

Lake Louise near Whiskey Mountain and Ring Lake

Lake Louise near Whiskey Mountain and Ring Lake

Since then Adams has uncovered over nine high-rise sites in the Winds, with only one or two of them on the western side of the Divide.  But with these sites being over 4000 years old, archaeologists are going to have to rethink their dates of when the Shoshones came here from the Great Basin region.

I spent a few weeks backpacking early August in the Winds (next blog will be on that when the photos arrive) and had the opportunity to hear Adams speak and see the amazing petroglyphs on Ring Lake Ranch.  The villages and the glyphs are Sheep Eater Shoshone relics.  On my second backpack on the west side up New Forks, I met a Bridger-Teton archaeologist who was looking for Indian remnants.  Apparently there is an intensive effort now to document whatever can be found before being destroyed by fires or by humans.

Sheep Eater Shoshones lived in the summers at high elevations around 11,000′.  There are plenty of fairly flat sites in the Wind Rivers at this elevation for making a camp.  And although today this would be above timberline with no trees, thousands of years ago the weather was wetter and treeline was higher.  So these villages would be in a nice sparse forest of White Bark Pine.


They were into flying spirits

Sheep Eaters were there to hunt the Bighorn Sheep that range high up in summer, and come down lower in winter.  They followed the plant bloom and ate roots.  They could gather berries in August and pine nuts in the fall.  By late fall they’d venture down lower to a place like Ring Lake which has little snow throughout the winter and the sheep are nearby.  Their petroglyphs might reflect sacred burial areas, or vision quest sites.  They knew the Land and the landscape and let it dictate their wanderings.


Panel with a bighorn sheep



Lake Louise

The lichen was removed to better reveal these drawings



Bird like feet

Bighorn Sheep, Sheep Eaters and Soapstone

I’ve been thinking about sheep and the peoples whose diet centered around  them.

For quite some time, I”ve wanted to make an authentic Sheep Eater soup with a steatite bowl .  Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy one, the only solution was to make one myself.  Steatite is another word for soapstone, and the Sheep Eater Indians would quarry the stone and make bowls from them.  Few of these bowls have been uncovered , probably because they broke over time.  It appears they were passed down through the women, and possibly made by women as well.  The men might have quarried and shaped the starting blocks.

The bowls, being heavy, were  left at campsites, stashed for use when the peoples came back to the area.  Most of the sites seem to be very high up, above 3000 meters.  That is because these quarries are located high in the mountains.  The bowls were carved right close to the quarries, which makes sense considering how heavy the rock is.

Soapstone, or steatite, bowls were used for cooking Sheep Eater stews consisting of sheep, bulbs and forbs.  The bowls could be placed right in the hot coals.  Once removed from the fire, the bowls stayed hot for a long time.  One of the most difficult items for native peoples in any culture to obtain were containers.  Containers were prized possessions, whether they were constructed of fiber, pine needles, gourd or rock.  I’m sure that is why these bowls were passed down generation to generation.

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

Last year I set about trying to find a quarry.  I knew there was one in Dillion MT.  Since I was on my way to California for December, I thought I could find one there.  California has several soapstone or Talc quarries but none of them were operating.  I found a woman in Northern California who imported various stones for carving.  She sold me a block of Brazilian soapstone, warning me that a lot of soapstone has asbestos in it and hers didn’t.

In geology language, rocks are graded on a scale of 1-10 for their hardness qualities, with soapstone being a 1 and diamond a 10.  Since I thought all soapstone was equal, I began work on this block of brazilian stone.  After several months, lots of drill bits, dremel bits, chisels, etc., I had made little progress.  Apparently soapstone itself can have a variety of hardnesses.  This brazilian stone was awfully hard, and didn’t have the ‘soapy’ consistency that is associated with soapstone.  Complaining about my trials to a local friend, he immediately made a few calls and found me an original Wyoming piece of soapstone, quarried naturally from a secret spot out of Tensleep in the Big Horns.  The block he gave me had a strange shape, difficult to cut a piece out of for a bowl, but I managed.

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

I’d seen a video where Richard Adams said it took about 30 hours to make a finished bowl.  With the Brazilian stone, there was no way I was going to make a bowl in that time.  I’d already invested more than that and hadn’t come far.  So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began working on the Wyoming block.  But the going was easy, and in about twenty hours I had a decent bowl that I could call finished enough to cook in.

My almost finished bowl

My almost finished bowl


Requires lots of elbow grease. I learned a lot working both pieces of stone

Here is a photo from the Park achives outside of Gardiner (worth making an appointment to see the new building) of what Adams calls a pre-form, or an unfinished bowl.

YNP archives

YNP archives pre-form bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

Yesterday, after working on my bowl for several hours, I took a hike up nearby Margarite draw.  Last year I found a cougar den up there and I wanted to see if there had been any occupation this year.  As I hiked higher and higher through the trees, I spotted a low saddle and headed for it.  At the ridgeline the view of the Absarokas was breathtaking. Absaroka spring 2013 I saw a few elk grazing down below, but I had a hunch if I glassed these rocky hills I might see some sheep.  Sure enough, a group of ewes was farther along the ridgeline.  With the wind in my face, I figured I might be able to sneak up on them and get some good photos.  What little I know about bighorn sheep is that when spooked they always go higher.  So in approaching a group, if one approaches from higher up, they rarely look up to spot you.  I tried the tactic and sure enough, it worked fairly well.Bighorn sheep Young bighorn sheep

At the end of my several hour hike, I ran into the herd again, now grazing on the other side of the hills.Bighorn sheep

Pretty soon I’ll try out my new bowl.  The green-up is beginning and I saw some Pasque flowers.  Soon there will be Spring Beauties to add to my soap along with other greens.  A friend who shot a Bighorn sheep a while back will give me a bit of mutton to add so I can make an authentic Sheep Eater stew in my homemade steatite bowl.

The Wonderful Absaroka Front

This is an area I’d been to several times before.  A trail runs along the Absaroka front, and maintained trails around the Absarokas are unusual to find in general, let alone ones that are marked with cairns.  I was surprised at the height of the cairns, considering this is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.  “Why”, I asked myself, “would the BLM go to such great lengths to construct these massive trail markers?”

What is a cairn?  Basically it’s a pile of rocks that one usually sees to mark trails that are not easily visible in the back country.  In other words, they are usually placed at points where one might lose one’s way and are usually put there by hikers.

Last week I hiked this area again, this time with a friend who had heard that there were many more cairns and the cairns were put there by Sheepeater Indians.

Koda has a drink of rainwater from a natural stone bowl in the high desert

So we hiked the trail, which after about 2 miles turns into nothingness, just peeters out and there’s a stock fence one has to cross if you want to continue.  Last time I did cross over the fence, but on the other side is a steep drainage, followed by a series of steep drainages.  Today we stopped near the fence, looked north up into a ‘V’ shaped drainage that was fairly steep.

We hiked up the 'V' shaped valley to a series of cairns

We began the climb up the drainage.  The Cairns appeared, large and numerous. At first it seemed like they were positioned on either side of the valley’s opening. The drainage narrowed as it rose higher, the cairns got closer together, at times steering around hummocks.  I was certain that this must be a Sheepeater’s animal drive, probably for Bighorns.

But then the pattern disappeared and it became very unclear what the purpose of the cairns’ were.  We found altar-like rock formations in two separate areas that were in the center of small clearings.  I insisted we hike as far as we could to see when the cairns stopped.  They stopped at a small flat clearing encircled by steep walls where the drainage splits into two.

We counted over 32 cairns with 2 altars.  Some of these had been already surveyed by the BLM, as they left steel markers beside them.  If you look at these cairns carefully, you begin to notice several things.

First, that they are very well-constructed.  Many of the rocks are quite large, probably weighing over 200 pounds.  Some of the rocks would take 3 people to move into place.  Also, each cairn is incredibly heavy and sturdy.

Second, that most of the rocks in the cairns are placed with their top side (the side that had been out of the dirt) facing the inside of the structure.  I have worked with rocks for many years.  I’ve spent hundreds of hours picking out rocks as well as supervising men to place them exactly how I want them to look.  If you are doing a design for a landscape, you want to pick out a rock with a lot of lichen.  Its also very obvious which side was in the dirt, because it doesn’t have any lichen growing on it and its dirtier.  Also, there is always an obvious line on a rock that marks where the rock was below and above the dirt.   You could still see the dirt line on these rocks, but because they’d been exposed for so long, the ‘dirt’ side wasn’t dirty, just a lighter color.  The darker side, the top of the rock, still had the lichen growing on it.  I had to wonder if this was intentional.  Because the lighter side was the most exposed, maybe you could see the rocks better in the moonlight, or in the snow, or at night with torches.   Light would reflect better off of a lighter surface.  Maybe it just stood out better in the landscape.

Thirdly, these were very large rocks, and the hillside was steep.  You would have to assume that these were rocks taken from directly nearby each cairn.  And if this were the case (it would be a much bigger building effort to carry rocks from a different location up this hillside), then you’d see depressions in the soil from which the rocks were taken.  But there was no evidence of this at all, which suggested to me that these cairns were very very old; old enough so soil had time to accumulate and vegetation to grow.  In this very dry and sparse country, land scars take a long time to heal over.

And lastly, many of these cairns were a work of art and beauty.  Having worked with rock and stone for so many years, I have a great appreciation for these things.  I can easily tell a stone wall constructed by a master mason, or when rocks are placed in a natural and considered manner.  Many of these cairns followed lines of an existing boulder perfectly.  Some were balanced intricately on the steep hillside. These cairns were done by master builders, and were still standing after many years.  They weren’t piles of rocks just to mark something.  They had intention in them.

One of the smaller but beautiful cairns. This one follows the lines of the existing boulder to form a triangle

Tonight as I was driving home,  I remembered that not too far away from these cairns is some private land where the Wyoming Archaeological Society studied a series of cairns that served as a buffalo drive.  I wondered if there was any connection between these two sites, which are so close together.

WY Archaeological Society map of an ancient buffalo drive area in NE WY

All this made me think again about the BLM’s plan for the next 20 years, which is in progress at this moment, though comments are now closed.  There are some factions who would like all our public lands open for drilling, without concern for wildlife, aesthetic beauty or even sacred sites.  There is also a strong movement to keep the Absaroka front off-limits to any kind of development such as oil and gas. Not only is the Absaroka front a very important corridor for wildlife movement, and not only is it uniquely stunning in its natural beauty, but here is living proof that it was, and still is, sacred ground.  These cairns are arranged as a hidden code, with meaning we have not unlocked, but with an intention very clear to their builders.  I believe that this site may have been some kind of animal drive, but it seems to have been more than that, especially since we found clear altar-type rock formations.  This site had sacred and special meaning and is just more evidence of why we need to protect this places and special places like this for all time into the future.



The Cave

Everyday spring flirts with the valley.  The last two days it snowed during the night, then melted off by noon.  Today was a glorious day with a bite in the air.  I awoke early to finish planting the 60 pine and fir liners (Thank God!  I’ve planted thousands of plants in my lifetime, but none so difficult as these in this ‘soil’ of rocks); then packed up my daypack to enjoy the rest of the day and the good weather.

I headed up a little used canyon looking for an elusive cave I’d heard references to.  I had an idea of the general area where it might be, but not the exact drainage.  There were many to choose from and I took a breath, glassed the possibilities, then used my sense and instinct.

Frankly, if I’d never found the cave, I’d have been just as happy as if I had, for it was the first time all winter I’d been able to really get out and hike without trudging through at least some snow.  There is still snow, in places in deep drifts, up in the higher areas around here.  And high up, in the Absarokas that separate the valley from the Park, white is the only color visible on the mountain tops.  The run-off still hasn’t begun and Buffalo Bill Dam is preparing by letting out water in anticipation of the raging waters soon to come.

Absarokas filled with snow viewed from near the cave

At the head of the drainage where the trees were thick, the dry creek separated into two channels.  I decided on the left, more narrow one.  As the creek steered left sharply, I saw a hole in the rock.  Right away it widened into what was obviously a massive lens-shaped cave.

View from the inside

The cave was a fantastic habitat, obviously used for thousands of years.  The dry creek probably wasn’t so dry many years ago, providing water to its inhabitants.  The cave was easily bigger than my own cabin.  At the very back of the cave was an old sifter, probably used for archaeological purposes.  But now, there were no artifacts, probably retrieved long ago by looters as well as archaeologists.  The pack rats had made a large nest in the middle of the cave, with freshly cut pieces of Douglas fir boughs and lots of old bones.

After exploring the cave and its environs for a while, I hiked up the right hand drainage to a frozen waterfall.

Frozen waterfall

To end a perfect day, on the ride home I glassed 8 rams resting on a barren hillside.

East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas–Crow Country

East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas, the Big Horn Basin, and the Big Horns.  To the southeast lie the Wind Rivers.  These were the original lands of the Crow peoples.  This is where I live. Below is a wonderful quote from a Crow Indian chief about 200 years ago.  If you stay here, you are in the Center of the Universe.  At the Center, things happen as they should and you will fare well, he says.  Wow,  two hundred years later and this is my experience too!

Big Horns from the Basin


“The Crow Country is a good country. The Great Spirit has put it in exactly the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you may travel you fare worse.”

“If you go to the south, you have to wander far over great barren plains; the water is warm and bad and you meet with fever and ague. To the north it is cold; the winters are long and bitter and there is no grass; you can not keep horses but must travel with dogs. What is a country without horses?”

“On the Columbia they are poor and dirty, paddle about in canoes and eat fish. Their teeth are worn out; they are always taking fish bones out of their mouths; fish is poor food.”

“To the east they dwell in villages; they live well, but they drink the muddy water of the Missouri – that is bad. A Crow’s dog would not drink such water.”

“About the forks of the Missouri is a fine country; good water, good grass, plenty of buffalo. In summer it is almost as good as the Crow Country, but in winter it is cold; the grass is gone and there is no salt weed for the horses.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. It has snowy mountains and sunny plains, all kinds of climates and good things for every season.”

“When the summer heat scorches the prairies, you can draw up under the mountains, where the air is sweet and cool, the grass fresh, and the bright streams come tumbling out of the snow banks. There you can hunt the elk, the deer and the antelope when their skins are fit for dressing; there you will find plenty of white bears and mountain sheep.”

Absaroka high country

“In the autumn when your horses are fat and strong from the mountains and pastures, you can go down into the plains and hunt the buffalo, or even trap beaver on the streams.”

“And when winter comes on, you can take shelter in the woody bottoms along the rivers; there you will find buffalo meat for yourselves and cottonwood bark for your horses, or you may winter in the Wind River Valley, where there is salt in abundance.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow Country.”

Arapooish, also known as Chief  Rotten Belly around 1830.

The Past and the Present

You might say that I’m living a life many of my friends would call simple and rustic.  My cabin is small, I’m surrounded by rugged mountains, I hike and live around grizzlies and wolves.  The dangers I have to stay aware of are not car break-ins or being mugged on a dark street, but being stuck in a sudden snowstorm on a trail, or spraining an ankle in an area where no one ever comes bye, not just for days but for months or years.  Some might say ‘She’s living raw, close to the land’.

But frankly, even way out here in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the wildest place in the lower 48, I feel inadequate, modern.  Sure I could probably survive for three or four days in a pinch out in the back country.  I take provisions and precautions for that.  I carry a satellite phone.  I bring bear spray.  I even know some wild foods that could tide me over.   But my upbringing and my life experiences have never prepared me for living like peoples here did hundreds of years ago.  That is cultural knowledge that was passed down generation to generation.  The Native Americans who overwintered for 5000 years at nearby Dead Indian Campground  passed on their life skills as well as their intimate relationship with the Land–lifestyles that have been lost forever.

Those skills are not learned by a single individual in a single lifetime.  Just as much as evolution is physical, those skills were a cultural evolution, breathed and lived by a community.  Larry Todd described to me that by even the very early 1800’s, the life skills and the community of the Native Americans at Dead Indian had already begun to dissolve.  Around here, that was about the time Lewis and Clark came to town.  Their expedition is still the best description of the land and the way things were ‘pre-white’ man.  The land may have not changed much, but the cultures were already disintegrating due to disease and other factors.

300 year old wikiup standing till 25 years ago when destroyed by cattle

You know how your grandparents or parents talk about the past, their past, in a longing way.  That is how I feel, but in a way that goes much farther back to an America that was ‘discovered’ long ago.  Long ago, in the 1800’s, an idea was floating around to give Native Americans the land west of the Missouri.  That, of course, was never Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

I must admit, I am weighted down with a longing for a past no longer present.  I envision the days when bison roamed freely here, when the beaver and the mink were so plentiful that people were able to trap them in the hundreds. When there were more animals than people. When animals whose mere presence in the landscape today is so controversial, such as wolves and bison, were sacred to the peoples.

In each new landscape I consider “What must this have looked like hundreds of years ago, before the white men made their mark here.  What were the native trails like?”  I walk what appear to be these pristine mountains and listen hard for ancient echoes of songs, murmurings of people long dead who knew the ways of living with the earth much better than I will ever know in my lifetime.  Their songs long gone, I wonder how we can learn the secrets it took so long for them to discover and pass on.

I am obsessed with the past and how that past might be brought into this present time. My friends tell me it will never be again and to move on.

I conjure up dreams of how to fit ‘wildness’ into the puzzle of modern existence.  Do we set aside large tracts of unmanaged lands with uncollared wildlife, leave them uncharted and unmapped, to enter at your own risk?  Or is our hope in the advocates of green renewable city living, where most of the population will live, work, and grow their own food, leaving the large acreage of rural unfettered areas?  Unfortunately, the politics of wilderness seems to always involve an uphill battle, with the needs of wildlife superseded by human needs and greed.


A mere 'blip' of the Bison there used to be

Sensitivity.  It is a attribute we must all strive to cultivate as human beings.  What we can do is walk lightly, live in wonder, become increasingly aware that all life is conscious, alive, and part of our connected existence.  If each one of us were to make that our task, then the earth might become renewed again, full of wild existence, of which we are a part.

Wikiups, cattle and a few hundred years

This is not going to look like much, but there’s a story here.

This summer I contacted the Forest Service archaeologist.  The forest service is planning on doing logging and burning in the valley for beetle damage.  Since our stream is on forest service land, and is a sensitive area, I didn’t want logging done there.  The hydrologist, the archaeologist and the permit supervisor came out and did a walk through.  Afterwards, I took the archaeologist aside and showed her some arrowheads and a large spear I’d found on my property.

2500-3000 year old spear head found on property

The archaeologist was amazed at the find and told me she wanted to come back with Larry Todd, a premier archaeologist in the state, and make some molds of the spear from clay.

In the fall, Larry and Molly came up to my house and made an identical mold of the spear.  Larry put the age, although it was very hard to age it, at around 2500 years old.  I showed him a small obsidian arrowhead that I had found, oddly enough, on the same day, behind my house.  He aged that at around 4000 years old.

Molly and Larry were on their way up the valley to find, document, measure, and photograph some wikiups.  They invited me to come along.  They had a rough photograph taken in the seventies of the five wikiups which were still standing at the time.  A former forest service archaeologist had measured and documented them.

I knew the small drainage.  I’d hiked it several times.  It was an off shoot that had only a well-used animal trail heading up it.  The trail led to a small flat clearing which then separates into two very narrow draws, both of which get steep and dead end quickly.  I’d never seen any wikiups there.

We hiked up the draw and arrived at the clearing.  Molly had shown me the photo from the 1970’s.  The wikiups were upright and intact.  But now she pointed them out, a pile of sticks.  Once I knew what I was looking at, it was easy to find the five piles of sticks–old sticks, but still now just sticks.

The two archaeologists spent an hour collecting data.  Larry said these wikiups were probably over 300 years old.  The poles, unrecognizable to me even though I’m quite familiar with trees, were made of aspen.  Looking around, there were only one or two aspen in the area.  Obviously the landscape had been different then, changed mostly by frequent fire.

A long time resident had told Molly that he used to picnic here with his parents as a child.  The wikiups were still standing then.  But the cattle that are allowed to run free-range in the valley also liked to lay here and rub themselves against the standing wikiup poles.  Eventually the cattle knocked all of them over.

Wow!  After 300 years intact, these special artifacts were destroyed in just the last 25 years–by cattle.

300 year old wikiup standing till 25 years ago when destroyed by cattle

Would we let cattle  hang around the Liberty Bell, defecating and knocking the bell over?  I was saddened and appalled at the unconscious policies that allowed these cattle to run rampant over native sacred heritage sites.   These cattle, owned by a super wealthy ranch, provide only a nice tax break for the ranch owner.

Have we lost our perspective?  We must make an effort to preserve these delicate sites.  Soon fires will come and destroy them; that is for sure.  But our stance should be to protect these sites, as long as we can, for future generations, and, if for no other reason, out of respect to the peoples who came before and their present day ancestors.

The Totem

I know or have heard of many people declaring that their totem animal is one of the strong, impressive mammals–the wolf, the bear, the cougar, the lynx.  Why are so many of the small animals ignored as a totem?  For instance, Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Crow Indians, had a vision in which his totem animal was revealed to him.  This small little bird was his guiding inspiration, the totem whose wisdom saved his people and won them a reservation on their native lands.

The Lynx

“Listen, Plenty-Coups” said a voice.  “in that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee.  He is the least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind.  He is willing to work for wisdom.  The Chickadee-person is a good listener.  Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use.  Whenever others are talking together of their successes or failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words.  But in all his listening he tends to his own business.  He never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others.  He gains success and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself.  There is scarely a lodge he does not visit, hardly a Person he does not know, and yet everybody likes him, because he minds his own business, or pretends to.

“The lodges of countless Bird-people were in that forest when the Four Winds charged it.  Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person.  Develop your body, but do not neglect your mind, Plenty-Coups.  It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.”


We think only of these large mammals as totems because, I propose, we no longer fully ‘know’ animals anymore.  Who amongst us could understand the ‘Chickadee-person’ like Indians that lived with all the animals, large and small, observing them in detail day in and day out?  Each animal has a special quality, a unique force that can connect a person to that higher need in themselves.

I also wonder if there are dual totems; totems in tandem that make up the whole, rather than just a partial piece.  For instance, when I was told that Soona had bone cancer, I knew her slow death would be excruciating, as well as debilitating.  Not a life for a dog.  I got some good advice: take off work for a week and do all the things with her that she loves, then put her down.

I took off work, but was agonizing over the decision, even though I knew it was best for her.  During that week that stretched into two, I was given a series of dreams.   All my dreams had wolves in them–courage, strength, canine. Yes.  But they also contained an important critical ‘other’ totem–elk.  In each dream, over and over, I watched wolves take down and kill elk.  It was the full circle of life.   In every dream, my focus wasn’t on the wolves, but on the dying elk.  I would look deeply into the eyes of the elk as she lay dying and saw there was only a quality of complete surrender.   She knew this was her ‘dharma’ or lot in life.  No remorse, no fear.   I realized it was Soona’s time to go, like these elk, and she was surrendered to it.  It was only me that wasn’t.

So the totem wasn’t just the wolf, but the wolf and the elk.  They are one and there can’t be one without the other.  Their lives and deaths are intertwined.  They are one totem, coins representing both sides. The Yin and the Yang.

Does that mean my friend who changed his name to Wolf, should be Wolf-Elk?  Or the one now known as Bear be Bear-roots?  Lynx-Hare?  Cougar-Deer?