My nation, the Apsáalooke, or Crow Tribe, has a substantial oral tradition and written record of our names and experiences all throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
BY SHANE DOYLE
Yellowstone National Park has been a shared homeland for dozens of distinct tribal nations since time immemorial, and the list of Indigenous placenames in and around the park indicates a long and rich connection still cherished today. Although many historic and cultural factors have combined to diminish our contemporary understanding of Native American history in Yellowstone, my nation, the Apsáalooke, or Crow Tribe, has a substantial oral tradition and written record of our names and experiences all throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
A deeper look into the ancient stories behind the Apsáalooke placenames in the park reveals an important and dynamic relationship between the people and the place. Reflecting on these names, stories and other cultural artifacts that are a part of the Land of the Burning Ground, as we refer to Yellowstone, five predominant themes emerge: Today’s Yellowstone was historically: 1) A central intertribal trade zone; 2) The source for raw and rare materials; 3) A spiritual and ceremonial hearth; 4) A land link to ancient origin stories; 5) A seasonal foodbank. As a foundational setting for their ancient way of life, Yellowstone could not have been more significant to the Apsáalooke people.
The Yellowstone Park area is believed to be highly spiritually charged, and following their ceremonial traditions, many Apsáalooke people sought power there through praying and fasting without food or water.
The Nez Perce Trail: Apupanníile/Nez Perce Road
The Apsáalooke and their many neighbors throughout the region flourished as hunter-gatherer-traders, so much so that they developed a sophisticated sign language to overcome their linguistic differences. Plains Sign Language crossed the Continental Divide and was practiced by Plateau Tribes including the Nez Perce. The annual Apsáalooke-Nez Perce rendezvous was such an ingrained tradition, the tribes began influencing one another’s sense of fashion, with generations of men in the mid-19th century opting to cut their bangs short and sculpt them into a pompadour with bear grease.
Sheepeater Cliff: Baáhpuakooteete/Wonderful rocks
Recognized as the only tribe whose primary home base was inside the park year round, the Sheepeater people were the originators of one of the region’s most prized trade items: the bighorn sheep bow. Using their knowledge of local thermal resources, the Sheepeater community perfected the art of soaking bighorn sheep horns in the acidic hot pots to make them pliable, then cutting them with obsidian blades and forming them to dry. They shared this technique with some of their Apsáalooke trade partners, as well.
BLACK GLASS, WHITE CLAY
Obsidian Cliff: Shíiptachawaxaawe/Ricochet Mountain
Ricochet Mountain is the most important archaeological site in Yellowstone National Park, and the Apsáalooke people cherished the exceedingly rare and utilitarian black glass that gleamed in the sunlight. Yellowstone obsidian has been found throughout North America, including hundreds of pounds in the Hopewell Native American burial mounds of Ohio.
Paint Pots: Alashipiiwishe/Where there is some mud
The Crow collected acidic mud from the Yellowstone Paint Pots and utilized it for many purposes, including to whiten tanned bison hides for tipis or clothing. Early fur trappers commented on the quality and beauty of the traditional bleached-white Apsáalooke lodges, and oral histories mention the use of minerals to color clothing green, blue and orange.
GOING WITHOUT WATER
Mammoth Terraces: Dappiish Iilápxe/Fringe’s Father
The Yellowstone Park area is believed to be highly spiritually charged, and following their ceremonial traditions, many Apsáalooke people sought power there through praying and fasting without food or water. The Fringe was an Apsáalooke medicine man who performed this ceremony at the Mammoth Terraces and was blessed with the ability to doctor wounds. It was believed that the water spirits of the place adopted him as their spiritual son, hence the name, Fringe’s Father.
Yellowstone as a tipi-Shoshone pass: Bilíaliche/Like a tipi door
When journeying into Yellowstone from the East Entrance in Cody, Wyoming, the canyon opens like a massive tipi door, the Shoshone River flowing swiftly through it toward the rising sun. Just as Apsáalooke lodges are always positioned with their doors opening to the east, the Land of the Burning Ground does as well. It was at this sacred doorway, on a promontory point high above the mouth of the canyon, that many Apsáalooke chiefs fasted for medicine dreams and received sacred medicine.
The river flowing from the Land of the Burning Ground was known as the Elk River for good reason: it provided a migratory pathway for some of the largest elk herds in the world
EARTH AND SKY
Liberty Cap: Hísshishtawia Isbachípe/Red Woman’s Digging Stick
According to Apsáalooke and Blackfeet mythology, Red Woman’s Digging Stick fell from her giant hand during ancient times when the world was becoming what it is today. Settling upright in front of Mammoth Terraces, the limestone stick was used long ago to dig roots by the monstrous Red Woman, whose hand remains visible in the night sky and is better known in the Western world as Orion the Hunter.
Dragon’s Mouth: Chíilape/The Bull, Mud Volcano: Isbíia/The Mountain Lion
Another Apsáalooke and Blackfeet star story explains the origin of the Dragon’s Mouth and the Mud Volcano. The Morning Star was once a man on earth before he returned to the heavens, but while on the ground, he rescued the people from a giant bison bull who was capturing people by sucking them into his stomach. He transformed the giant bison into the Dragon’s Mouth and placed a mountain lion nearby to keep watch over the bull. This explains the growling and rumbling sounds that emanate from these mysterious holes in the earth.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Yellowstone River: Iichíilikaashaashe/Elk River
The river flowing from the Land of the Burning Ground was known as the Elk River for good reason: it provided a migratory pathway for some of the largest elk herds in the world. Bison also migrated north and south along the Elk River, and archaeologists have identified more than 60 miles of rock drive lines in the Paradise Valley, a remarkable example of extensive infrastructure by a culture that left behind very little else.
Hell Roaring River: Aashchixxuá/River That Laps Over Itself
Here along the River that Laps Over Itself, the Apsáalooke people found a wealth of medicinal and edible plants, including broom weed, sweetgrass, horse mint, yellow and black tree lichen, chokecherries, juneberries and wild strawberries, along with raspberries, turnips and carrots.
Shane Doyle, of the Crow/Apsáalooke Nation, is a cultural consultant based in Bozeman, Montana. His work includes archaeological and genetic research, curriculum design, environmental advocacy, performance art production, and Plains Indian-style singing. He lives in Bozeman with his wife, Megkian, and their five children.