BIGHORN CANYON NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — When they talk quietly together standing among the dozens of tepee rings at the south end of this modern-day park, James Vallie, Aspen Brugh and Ross Pretty On Top envision how it must have been for their Crow ancestors hundreds of years ago.
“There would have been elk and deer and horses all out there grazing,” Vallie, crew leader at the archaeology field school, said as he stood in the middle of a stone circle gazing down a broad, sloping plateau.
“If they were all out here at once, it would have been just like Crow Fair,” Brugh suggested of the tepee rings that cover most of wide plateau above and below the park road.
Four-poled tepees, unique to the Crow, would have stood tall on the sparsely vegetated campsite, their hide skirts held down by heavy stones gleaned from the rumbling landscape in the foothills of the Pryor Mountains. Whirls of smoke would have been rising from lodges of varying size. There would have been tepees for families large and small. Some may have been used to protect their dogs against brutal weather blowing down the canyon. Dogs were an integral part of nomadic life. Before horses, they were the primary beasts of burden. They barked warnings of an enemy approach and, in times of hunger, provided a food supply. The largest of the tepees may have served communal or ceremonial purposes.
Bison and water may have drawn the Crow to this place in the semi-desert country that straddles what is now the Montana-Wyoming line. A small creek provided one of the few ready accesses to water outside the precipitous drop into the canyon carved by the nearby Bighorn River.
On the edge of the plateau, Crow hunters — on foot in the earliest times and later on horses — drove terrified bison over a cliff into a shallow gully. Meat from the kill would have been drying in the campsite, and women would have been scraping the hides. Skilled craftsmen would have been replenishing their stone arsenal, knapping rocks into intricate arrow points.
“It really sparks your imagination,” Vallie said.
“It puts a lot in your mind,” Brugh agreed.
Of the three, only Vallie had seen the ancient campsite before. Last year, as a student, he was part of the first Crow field archaeology school funded through a grant from the National Park Foundation, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization designed as the philanthropic and promotional arm of the National Park Service.
Pretty On Top said he had heard about the stone circles from relatives, but seeing them for the first time was “more like knowing.”
Once familiar territory to the Crow, who followed the Bad Pass Trail from the plains of Wyoming to the buffalo country in Montana, the southern end of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has lost its relevance to many tribal members. When the government finished whittling away at the once vast Crow Reservation, the southern end of Bighorn Canyon was not included. There are no roads that provide direct access from the reservation to that part of the canyon, and it’s far removed from common travel routes.
Most of the 17 Crow teenagers attending the weeklong field school as part of a six-week Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program, had not been to the south end of the canyon before and were unaware that their ancestors had probably camped there on their seasonal rounds for hundreds of years. Most had never seen stone tepee rings before.
“I learned they didn’t use stakes back in the day,” Brugh said, still marveling at all he was learning.
Hayley Nomee, a 2010 Lodge Grass High School graduate, said the experience had made her proud to know she is Crow.
“My grandpa, his mother probably knew about this,” she said. “I can probably go home and teach him something new.”
The field school was developed by National Park Service archaeologist Chris Finley and members of the Crow Tribe, including Crow cultural director Burdick Two Leggins, who want to make sure that future generations know their history and understand their culture.
Designed to help graduating seniors prepare for college and to introduce them to a cornucopia of career possibilities, STEM is in its seventh year, director Alda Good Luck said. Last year, an archaeological component was added. Indiana University and Little Big Horn College are working together to oversee the field school.
“We want to steer them into science,” Good Luck said. “All the students are doing maps and measuring and using their math skills here. It does spark something.”
The archaeological project is an effort to bring Crow people back to the area, Finley said. He and tribal leaders are hoping to create a new chapter in their relationship that will be mutually beneficial.
Funding was provided for the first year through an “America’s Best Idea” grant from the National Park Foundation. America’s Best Idea grants were an adjunct to filmmaker Ken Burns’ series of the same name — a popular public television production about the country’s national parks that ran last year and was repeated this year.
Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the foundation, said that one of the things that came out of the project was that people who live near parks had become disconnected with the national treasure in their midst. The grant program was designed to reconnect and reintroduce local communities affected by the parks. Most important, the foundation wanted to foster a rekindling of dialogue between the park and the community.
Bighorn Canyon presented a classic case — the National Park Service sought to better understand what the archaeological sites meant to the Crow people and hoped to involve the tribe in interpretation and preservation efforts, Mulholland said.
Finley said archaeology will help develop the site as the first Native American cultural interpretive area in the park. What archaeologists have dubbed the Two Eagle Site is ideal for interpretation, he said — close to the road, easy to see and convenient to monitor against vandals and looters.
Archaeological surveys have been ongoing for several years and the field schools are helping map the more than 140 tepee rings identified so far. The site is bisected by the park road, and the students are working on the downslope rings this summer.
Archaeologist Laura Scheiber of Indiana University said carbon dating of charcoal found in fire pits in the upslope tepee rings registered dates from 700 to 1650, in the pre-horse era. No samples have been taken from the downslope tepee rings, but those rings appear to be of a later date.
For now, the survey is limited to measuring the rocks and rings and drawing them on maps. The archaeologists have not dug into fire pits and haven’t decided if they will.
“We’re really saving this site,” Scheiber said. “We want to think about it. We want to be really sure about what we want to do before we start anything.”
There is so much more to learn. Vallie, for instance, ponders the openings in the teepees. Traditionally the flap would open to the east and the rising sun. But some of the doorways at the site open more to the southeast.
“The sun rises more to the southeast in fall,” he said. “Maybe this could have been a fall camp.”
Vallie, Brugh and Pretty On Top, who have become friends in the course of their summer of STEM, now feel their heritage at a much deeper level.
“At night we all tell stories — the stories that we know,” Vallie said of their nightly campfires. “We try to go to bed early, but we get caught up in our stories.”
“My uncles and aunties back then — my grandmother’s mom and her mom — they were all out here,” Brugh said. “It would have been pretty amazing.”
They amazed themselves, too.
Judson Finley, archaeologist son of Chris Finley, brought an atlatl, a wooden weapon used to propel the spears of ancient hunters, to the STEM camp for the students to try. They fell in love.
“We put pop cans on top of hay bales and practiced three hours,” Vallie said, his enthusiasm bubbling. “We went at it until the sun went down. I would like to go hunting with it.”
“You don’t need that much strength,” Pretty On Top said. “But it has a lot of power behind it.”
Pretty On Top found he had another natural talent as well — flint knapping. With the headlights of Good Luck’s vehicle providing camp light at the end of a too-short day, the students chipped away at rocks, working them into tiny arrow points. Vallie noted that Pretty On Top didn’t need as big a rock as others struggling to learn the ancestral skill.
Noel Two Leggins, a tribal legislator working at the site for a second year, said he hopes these students and what they are learning will be the basis to launch a new archaeological program at Little Bighorn College.
“The importance of being an elected official for the tribe is that I can go back and lobby for it,” he said.
Contact Lorna Thackeray at email@example.com or 657-1314.