An Introduction to the Wind River Indian Reservation of Wyoming


Like many western states, Wyoming has an Indian reservation within its borders.  The Wind River Indian Reservation contains over 2.2 million acres located in the central part of the state. It is home for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. While the Arapahos have more members (over 9,000+ compared to the Shoshones’ 4000+ members), the reservation was created for the Eastern Shoshones (and Bannocks) in 1868. This short article answers three commonly asked questions about the reservation: (1) Who are the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Indians? (2) If the reservation was set aside for the Shoshones, when did the Arapahos arrive and why are they there? (3) How does a reservation function?

Shoshone Prehistory

Shoshones have been in what is now Wyoming for a very long time. They originated in the southern Great Basin (now the southern part of Nevada) and spread northward in a fan-shaped pattern. They speak a language (Numic) that is part of the Uto-Aztecan group. The experts–anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists—argue about the history of the Numic spread, but Shoshones have lived in western Wyoming and the Wind River Mountains for at least 3500 years perhaps even 8,000 years ago.

Shoshone peoples inhabited Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming and called themselves Nuwe, or the People. They also refer to themselves by other names, which often translate into English as food groups. The best known of these group names are Salmon Eaters, Buffalo Eaters, and Sheepeaters. But these divisions were never definitive because Shoshones themselves often moved from one resource area to another. The Eastern Shoshones emerged from several of these groups with the acquisition of horses between 1680 and 1720.

Shoshone History, 1700-1780

Eastern Shoshones coalesced from people who lived in the upper Snake River basin of Idaho, along the Green and Bear rivers in Wyoming and Utah, and in the Salmon River country of northern Idaho, all of whom owned horses. From 1700 to 1780, they were active buffalo hunters and feared warriors, traveling into Montana, parts of southern Alberta, and throughout Wyoming. But at the same time, they still maintained strong ties to their homelands along the Green, Bear, Snake, and Salmon rivers.

Shoshone History, 1780-1850

The Shoshone expansion into Montana and Canada lasted only two generations. By the 1760s, enemy Plains tribes also were mounted and fiercely resisted further Shoshone advances. Moreover, they acquired guns—weapons that Shoshone did not have. Then deadly smallpox epidemics in the 1780s, combined with attacks by their foes, forced Shoshones to retreat west of the Rocky Mountains to their Idaho and western Wyoming homelands. From 1790 onward, Shoshones ventured into the buffalo hunting ranges only when they could do so with large groups. Thus, the Salmon River Shoshones (Lemhi Shoshones) joined Flathead Salish Indians from Montana’s Bitterroot Valley to travel to the Missouri headwaters to hunt in the spring and fall. They were sometimes bolstered by Shoshone and Bannock Indians from the Snake River (Fort Hall). At other times, Shoshones from the Green and Bear rivers in Wyoming (Eastern Shoshones) also hunted with the Flatheads and Lemhi Shoshones. Finally, Shoshone-Bannock bands Idaho frequently joined Eastern Shoshones to hunt in the Big Horn or Powder River basins in Wyoming.

Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery marked the beginning of a new era in Shoshone history when they traded met Cameahwaite’s Lemhi Shoshones in 1805. A few years later, mountain men trapped beaver in Wyoming’s streams. The fur trappers allied themselves with the Shoshones and by the mid-1820s, Shoshones regularly participated in the fur trade. All of the Fur Trade Rendezvous, from 1825-1840, were held in Eastern Shoshone country.

Beginning the 1840s, emigrants headed to Oregon traveled through the Shoshone landscape. Then the discovery of gold in 1848 sparked a veritable horde of travelers heading to California. Mormons also moved to Shoshone lands. They first claimed the Salt Lake region, then founded farms and towns in northern Utah and spread into Wyoming and Idaho. This influx of whites into Shoshone country sparked further changes in Shoshone lives.

Washakie and the Eastern Shoshones

Washakie is the best known Eastern Shoshone leader and his personal history demonstrates the fluid nature of Eastern Shoshone origins. He was born to a Lemhi mother and Flathead father. His father was killed by Blackfeet Indians during a Montana buffalo hunt. He was rescued from the battle by Bannocks and grew up among them. During his teen years he joined a Shoshone band that claimed the Green and Sweetwater rivers as their main homelands. This band alternated winter camps near Pinedale or east of the mountains in the Wind River Valley. During the 1820s, he met the famous trapper, Jim Bridger, and became fast friends. (In fact, Bridger married Washakie’s daughter—Mary—in 1850).

Washakie was a noted young warrior in 1840 and rose to prominence in 1851. That year, Bridger persuaded Washakie to go to the first Treaty of Fort Laramie. Washakie led 200 people to the treaty grounds and thereafter, government officials and other white leaders considered Washakie to be the head chief of the Eastern Shoshones. He assumed this role very well: Throughout the 1850s and into the 1860s, Washakie was invited to the vast majority of councils with Mormon and U.S. government officials that concerned Shoshone affairs.

Creating a Reservation, 1850-1868

Wind River became a more important resource and base area for the Eastern Shoshones during the 1850s, in part because the lower Green River and the Bear River region became too populated with whites. But at the same time, Shoshones competed and fought with Crows, Sioux, and Arapahos for the resources of Wind River. Shoshone winter camps therefore alternated between the upper Green River area around Pinedale and the Wind River area, depending on danger.

At the same time, conflict between emigrants, settlers and Shoshones in Idaho and Utah broke out (a few of Washakie’s followers may have been involved), culminating with the infamous slaughter of Shoshones in the winter of 1863 at Bear River. The fighting prompted a peace treaty. Chief Washakie signed the 1863 Treaty of Fort Bridger to try to enlist the aid of the U.S. in securing and defending a homeland. This treaty defined Shoshone country as lands to the west of the Wind River Mountains (it did not include the Wind River Valley). Five years later, circumstances changed. In 1868 the Crows relinquished their claims to Wind River and in the 2nd Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) the Arapahos were denied a reservation in Wyoming. When Washakie signed the 1868 Treaty of Fort Bridger, he successfully claimed the Wind River Reservation for the Eastern Shoshones.

Arapaho History, 1600-1878

The Arapahos are comparative newcomers to Wyoming. Ancestral Arapahos farmed in Manitoba and Minnesota, then migrated to the Great Plains in the 1600s. By the early 1700s Arapahos were in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota.  They acquired horses in the 1700s, adopted the Plains Indian horse-and-buffalo hunting culture, and expanded further south and west.

About 1811 Arapahos allied with Cheyennes and the two groups often traveled and hunted together in the central Great Plains. Further alliances with Lakota, Dakota, Kiowa, and Comanche peoples helped the Arapaho establish a solid resource base by the 1840s that included southern Montana, most of Wyoming east of the Wind River Mountains, the Nebraska panhandle, central and eastern Colorado, and parts of western Oklahoma and Kansas. During this time, the Arapahos gradually split into northern and southern divisions.

Generally, Arapaho contact with white people remained peaceful. They actively participated in the fur trade . Their enemies were other Indians. From the northwest to the southwest, the Arapahos fought with Blackfeet, Crows, Shoshones, and Utes. But not all contact with these tribes resulted in battles. For example, Friday, one of the Northern Arapaho leaders, became friends with Washakie during fur trade rendezvous. This friendship played a pivotal role in the Arapahos’ eventual move to Wind River.

Arapahos signed the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, but U.S. officials ignored Arapaho claims to Powder River and set their as south of the North Platte in Wyoming and north of the Arkansas River in Colorado. The Powder River basin was delegated that to various Sioux bands. Yet for the most part, the peace established by the treaty between and among whites and Indians remained intact until 1864.

The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858 challenged Arapaho existence. Gold-seekers split heart of Arapaho and Cheyenne resource areas. This pressured buffalo herds, depleted grass and forage for horses, and deforested trees in the river bottoms that provided shelter and fuel during the harsh winters on the Plains. Minor conflicts broke out, but most Arapahos maintained the 1851 peace. In 1864, however, a peaceful camp of a mixed group of Cheyenne and Arapaho people were attacked and killed by Denver volunteers in the notorious Sand Creek Massacre. The Indians fought back over the next two years.

Seeking refuge and escape from conflict, Northern Arapahos and Cheyennes moved to the remote Powder River basin. But even there, gold seekers traveling the Bozeman Trail to Montana brought more clashes. Arapahos joined forces with Red Cloud’s Oglala Sioux bands and attacked army forts along the Bozeman Trail. The fighting ended with another treaty, the second Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1868. The Arapahos argued in vain to get a reservation set aside for them in the Powder River country in Wyoming. Instead, the treaty specified three disappointing options. They could join their Southern Arapaho relatives in Oklahoma. Or, they could join the Crows in Montana. The third choice was going to a Sioux agency in South Dakota.

But Arapahos still hoped for Wyoming home. In February1870, Arapaho leaders, including Friday, reached a tentative agreement with Washakie to move to Wind River. But a Sioux Indian attack on a South Pass area mining camp got blamed on the Arapahos. In early April, a combined force of Shoshones and U.S. soldiers from Camp Brown (later named Fort Washakie), retaliated against an Arapaho camp. Tensions remained high between the two tribes.

Still, Arapahos did not go to their treaty-designated reservations. Instead, most stayed in the Powder River region, or traveled with Northern Cheyennes and Lakotas into the Tongue River or Yellowstone areas. Others clustered around Fort Laramie. Still others joined Red Cloud’s Oglala Lakotas at their agency on the Wyoming/Nebraska border. One band, camped on the eastern edge of the Big Horn Mountains in 1874, was attacked by Shoshones and soldiers in what has become known as Bate’s Battle.

While at Red Cloud Agency, Arapaho chiefs, most notably Black Coal, Sharp Nose, White Horse, and Friday continually pressed U.S. army officers and officials for permission to move to Wyoming. They finally succeeded in late 1877, and with Washakie’s and other Shoshone headmen’s approval, moved to Wind River Reservation early in the winter of 1878.

Reservation Politics, 1878-1900

Arapaho chiefs and headmen tried to demonstrate that were “good” Indians and an asset to the reservation community. They joined the Indian police force and cooperated with the government. Further, reservation officials invited Arapahos to participate in councils when Indian input was called for in the administration of reservation affairs. Expediency, rather than strict legality, prompted such actions. Technically, Arapahos were temporary residents, not the legal occupants of reservation lands.

The General Allotment Act of 1887 also was applied illegally on Wind River Reservation. This act, also known as the Dawes Act, called for Indian heads of households to claim individual parcels of land (allotments) on the reservation in an attempt to break up “tribalism” and land held in common by tribes. Arapahos as well as Shoshones took up allotments. However, most of the allotments were re-assigned in the 20th century because of questionable practices made by the allotting agent during the 1890s.

The purpose of allotting Indians individual parcels of land was to open up the remaining reservation lands to white homesteading and settlement. In the 1890s local farmers and ranchers called for land cessions from Wind River to open “unoccupied” acreage to homesteaders. Again, reservation agents and government officials illegally included Arapahos in these negotiations. There were two failed land cession councils in 1891 and 1893, but in 1896, the Indians ceded a 10-square mile area in the northeast corner of the reservation around a popular hot springs. This led to the founding of Thermopolis. Washakie always headed the Shoshone councils, while first Black Coal (1840-1893), then Sharp Nose (d. 1901), Lone Bear (1854-1920), and Yellow Calf (1860-1938) served as the Arapaho voices. It should be noted that the councils gave their decisions only after discussing matters with their respective tribes.

Wind River Reservation, 1900-1920s

Following the death of Chief Washakie in 1900, Wind River Reservation superintendents followed the basic practice of calling joint tribal councils together to make decisions about distributions of rations, land cession agreements, leases, and other business practices. The most important one was the McLaughlin Agreement of 1905, which split the reservation in half. Once more, Arapahos illegally participated in the cession councils, which took place in 1904. The cession agreement also required votes of the eligible males of both tribes. For both tribes, only a minority of eligible males actually voted for the agreement (for Indians, not voting meant the same thing as a no vote).

The Mclaughlin Agreement allowed an influx of settlers to establish the town of Riverton and take up homesteads near railroad line being built by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Over the next three decades, irrigation projects gradually allowed a small number of non-tribal farmers to own land and gain a livelihood within the boundaries of the reservation. Both Shoshone and Arapahos received little benefits from these projects.

By the 1920s, federal policies aimed at detribalization resulted in more formal tribal councils with elected members. At Wind River, the Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendents inaugurated a joint business council, with six members elected from each both tribes. The superintendents tried to persuade Shoshone and Arapahos to delegate more authority and decision-making power to the business council, but both tribes resisted. Instead, they preferred to retain as much autonomy as possible within each tribes’ General Council.

Wind River Reservation, 1927-1940

In 1927, a change in federal law allowed the Shoshones to sue the United States for the damages incurred and their loss of one-half of the reservation due to the Arapahos’ presence. In 1937, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Shoshones’ favor and the tribe received over $6 million compensation. But the Supreme Court decision also made clear that the Northern Arapahos were considered equal partners with the Eastern Shoshone to the Wind River Reservation.

Shoshones, and also the Arapahos, firmly resisted other changes to tribal governance in the 1930s. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act as well as other measures intended to give tribes more autonomy. Other acts reversed federal policy that previously outlawed many traditional native practices. The 1934 IRA called for tribes to reorganize their governance. This including writing formal constitutions and endowing elected business council to make tribal decisions. Neither Wind River tribe adopted the IRA. Political sovereignty to the present day still resides in the General Councils of both tribes.

One other major change occurred to the reservation in 1940. That year, the unclaimed lands that had been ceded in the 1905 McLaughlin agreement were restored to the tribal land base. Thus, Wind River Reservation geography in the modern era basically encompasses the same area as existed in 1872. (In 1872 the Bruno Agreement ceded about one-third of the 1868 treaty lands from the southern portion of the reservation). The city of Riverton lies wholly within the reservation as do the white owned farms in Pavilion, Kinnear, and the Midvale Irrigation District.

Wind River Reservation, 1940 to the present

The Eastern Wyoming and Northern Arapaho tribes have separate governments organized under the auspices of the General Councils of each tribe. The administrative arm of each tribe is the tribal business council (the SBC and NABC). General Council members are all enrolled tribal members who are 18 years old or older. The General Council retains sovereignty for each tribe, but delegates many decisions for day-to-day activities to their respective business councils. Business Council members are elected to fixed terms of office. Each tribe has separate departments, such as housing, employment, social services, and the like. Until late 2014, the Joint Business Council (JBC) operated to attend to reservation matters that affected both tribes. Since then, however, the Arapahos have disavowed the JBC and use joint committees or memorandums of understanding to conduct joint business. Tribal revenues come from oil or gas leases, agricultural leases, casinos, hunting and fishing licenses sold to non-tribal members, cattle ranches, and other business enterprises.

Cultural traditions and ceremonies once banned by the government are now celebrated and encouraged These include rituals such as the sweat lodge, Sun Dance, Ghost Dance, and the Native American Church. Beadworking, powwow dancing, and other traditional practices continue to thrive to the delight of tribal members and non-tribal visitors alike. Both tribes are attempting to preserve their native language.

While older traditions and customs are preserved, practiced, and celebrated,  Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahos also participate in the larger American consumer world. Cell phones are carried in ornately beaded bags—or simply stuffed into jeans pockets. Ranching and farmwork provide employment both on and off the reservation. Others own construction businesses. Many are college educated with professional careers. Like Americans everywhere, Shoshones and Arapahos own homes, rent houses or apartments, and drive trucks and cars. Many still own and ride horses. Thus, “walking in two worlds”—living with respect for elders and traditions of the past go hand-in-hand with living lives of modernity.

Glossary (PDF)