On a path through Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area that native peoples have trod for 10,000 years, the National Park Service on Saturday will dedicate the park’s first cultural interpretive trail.
Two Eagle Trail circles scattered tepee rings — remnants of campsites that hundreds or even 1,000 years ago sheltered nomads following buffalo herds from the plains of Wyoming to the prairies of Montana.
Nearby stand ancient rock cairns, piles of stone that may have been used to drive animals to their deaths in a narrow gully. Many of the tepee rings reflect the unique four-poled lodges of the Crow people, who for hundreds of years called huge chunks of southern Montana and northern Wyoming their homeland.
As Euro-Americans invaded and overwhelmed the West, the southern section of spectacular Bighorn Canyon was severed from the vast reservation originally allotted to the Crow by treaty. Gradually, this arid plateau where their ancestors killed, skinned and butchered the animals that sustained their way of life faded from memory.
For years, Park Service archaeologist Chris Finley has worked to bring the Crow back, forging ties with tribal elders and cultural leaders as well as bringing Crow students to the park to learn about archaeology. With their help, the Park Service created an interpretive path through the well preserved site near Lovell, Wyo. Together they designed eight interpretive signs have been erected on the short and easily accessible trail.
A traditional Crow ceremony to dedicate the trail and celebrate the partnership between the tribe and the Park Service is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the trailhead. The site is north of the Devil Canyon overlook.
Burton Pretty On Top, director of the Crow Cultural Committee, will begin the traditional pipe ceremony. Tribal officials including Chairman Cedric Black Eagle are expected to speak, as are park officials, including Finley and park Superintendent Jerry Case.
The interpretive trail is the result of ongoing field school projects that focused on the tepee rings. Students from the University of Memphis, Indiana University, St. Cloud University, Northwest College and the Crow Tribe’s Little Bighorn College helped identify and record more than 140 tepee rings. Several of the field schools included Crow teenagers enrolled in summer science programs and Crow and Northern Cheyenne college students earning certificates that qualify them to work as archaeological technicians on other projects.
Elders were called on to tell the students stories associated with the sacred canyon as well as to explain how their ancestors used elements of their natural world.
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Finley said the field schools did not find many artifacts in the tepee rings, probably because the site represented short-term occupations. People probably stayed at the site only a few days at a time. Another reason for the absence of artifacts could be that easy access to the site that meant it was picked clean before protections were put in place, he said.
But students learned much from the tepee rings themselves. They found some that indicated tepees with flaps open to the morning sun and others with double stone rings, which may indicate an interior lining necessary for a winter camp.
Their elders taught them that it was Crow tradition to welcome strangers to their homes, even people from enemy tribes as long as they came in peace.
A report by archaeologists Judson Finley (Chris Finley’s son), Laura Scheiber and Kelly Branam said radio carbon dating of charcoal taken from fire pits in 10 of the tepee rings showed clustered occupations between 700 and 1000 A.D. and between 1100 and 1400 A.D. Charcoal from one of the outliers was dated more recently — between 1500 and 1600 AD.
“The sheer number and density of tepee rings in Bighorn Canyon NRA attests to the fact that it is a domestic landscape,” the archaeologists’ report said. “Each ring may document no more than a day or a week in the life of a nomadic people, but when taken as a whole, Bighorn Canyon tepee rings are a testimony to and a reminder of a way of life now witnessed only through the lens of oral history and archeology.”
While they didn’t find a lot of artifacts, those they did collect indicate that camp inhabitants were using tools and projectile points manufactured from local stone. They also identified a few obsidian artifacts that show a connection to Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park, and even further afield.
“Somehow, a single obsidian artifact made its way north from Valles Caldera, N.M., to be left behind in Bighorn Canyon,” the report said.
What the stones can tell archaeologists is limited, the archaeologists conclude.
“But here Apsaalooke (Crow) oral tradition speaks clearly where tepee rings remind people of what is good about their homes and their mothers, about their morals, and most importantly about how to treat other people,” their report said. “These are the lessons we attach to the archaeological record that we intend to see preserved for all future generations.”