washakieandshosh

Through the Eyes of Tsutukwanah: The Reservation Shoshone by Dr. Peter Iverson

On the 3rd of July in 1868, Washakie signed one of the final formal treaties executed between an American Indian community and the United States government. The Fort Bridger treaty established reservation boundaries of over three million acres, enveloping the Warm Valley region that the Shoshone leader particularly prized. Following the usual stipulations in such documents, the treaty also called for the Shoshones to farm, to send their children to school, and to be peaceful. The government pledged assistance with farming and promised schools for the children. The treaty marked the end of an era, and the beginning of a new age.

As people from the Shoshone community pondered the treaty and this assignment of country, they may well have had somewhat different emotions than some of the other Indian nations of the West at this time. For the more numerous and militarily more powerful Lakotas, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 seemingly had guaranteed forever their rights to the sacred Black Hills. But the treaty quickly became pieces of paper without weight or meaning. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills soon prompted a forced agreement in 1876 and the sacred ground was lost. Elsewhere in the West Indian peoples often found themselves on a small portion of the land they had once controlled or removed entirely from the territory they had particularly cherished. By contrast, the Shoshones were where they wanted to be, even if they merited more land than they had ultimately obtained. Nonetheless, the treaty could be viewed as a triumph rather than as a capitulation.

If the initial land base signaled at least a partial victory, then it would be a victory carefully safeguarded in the future. At Wind River, the Shoshones soon had to share their reservation with the Northern Arapahos. A decade after the Fort Bridger Treaty, there were now two Indian communities. Washakie and other Shoshone leaders objected in vain to this arrangement; it did not make things easier in a beautiful but demanding land.

The central piece of legislation designed to achieve such goals is known as the General Allotment Act of 1887, or the Dawes Act, after its sponsor in Congress, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. Under the terms of the act, the government could authorize that a reservation be divided into 160-acre parcels, following the model of the Homestead Act of 1862. Federal agents were empowered to choose allotments for any heads of household or single adults who declined this offer. “Surplus” land left over after this forced division could be sold. In one swoop, private property had been encouraged, reservations usually were reduced in size, and non-Indian interests were satisfied.

Not all reservations were allotted, but the Indian people of the northern plains bore the brunt of this ill-advised initiative. Because their lands were seen as more promising for farming and ranching, and because larger numbers of Anglo-Americans were already on hand within this region, Indians in the northern plains lost more land through this process than did, for example, their Native counterparts in the Southwest. Allotment often left Plains Indian reservations a checkerboard of various interests—individually-held land, tribal land, and over time, lands leased to or owned by outsiders. With each generation, such a pattern became more disastrous. The splintering of inherited parcels inspired family divisions and progressively smaller pieces of land that became impossible to agree upon or use productively. The seeds of reservation underdevelopment within the area clearly were sown at this time.

In addition to the specter of allotment, the people of Wind River as well as other reservations faced the continuing threat of land cession. At Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Rosebud, Yakima, and Crow, federal negotiators made the journey to try to pry portions of reservation lands away from the people. The same drama took place at Wind River. The Brunot cession of 1872 relinquished southern lands where gold had been discovered. This was later compensated for and money from the settlement helped Indian people start their own cow herds. Twenty-four years later, ten square miles were subtracted from the hot springs area, including the site of the aptly named Thermopolis.

Two rather different forces pushed for further reduction of the Indian estate after the United States Congress declared in 1871 that no more treaties were to be signed. First, at a time in the West when most other lands had been claimed for farming, ranching, lumbering, and mining, existing Indian land bases were tempting targets for non-Indian Westerners who wanted to expand their land holdings or for newcomers or prospective migrants who wanted to regenerate their fortunes within the region. As they had heard before in their history, Native Americans listened to a continuing refrain that they had more land than they needed and they did not know how to use fully and efficiently the acreage they possessed. Western representatives in Congress and federal officials wanted to satisfy their constituents and saw in Indian reservations a chance to placate these clamoring folks.

In addition, individuals who labeled themselves as “friends of the Indians” (Native peoples around the world have learned to duck whenever they hear versions of “I am your friend.”) argued that the answer to improving the Indian conditions lay in treating individuals and communities just like everybody else. Influenced by what seemed like a comparable dilemma of assimilating immigrants from around the world, reformers began to gather annually at a hotel at Lake Mohonk in the Hudson River valley in New York to address the situation and to offer suggestions for specific change. They and others of similar conviction shared the perspectives of this time. Therefore they lobbied for private property, Christianity, agriculture, and universal education as keys to unlocking the Indian future in America. Above all, they contended, Indians should become individuals—freed from what were perceived as the shackles of tribal loyalties and the limitations of what critics usually referred to as “camp life.”

The central piece of legislation designed to achieve such goals is known as the General Allotment Act of 1887, or the Dawes Act, after its sponsor in Congress, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. Under the terms of the act, the government could authorize that a reservation be divided into 160-acre parcels, following the model of the Homestead Act of 1862. Federal agents were empowered to choose allotments for any heads of household or single adults who declined this offer. “Surplus” land left over after this forced division could be sold. In one swoop, private property had been encouraged, reservations usually were reduced in size, and non-Indian interests were satisfied.

Not all reservations were allotted, but the Indian people of the northern plains bore the brunt of this ill-advised initiative. Because their lands were seen as more promising for farming and ranching, and because larger numbers of Anglo-Americans were already on hand within this region, Indians in the northern plains lost more land through this process than did, for example, their Native counterparts in the Southwest. Allotment often left Plains Indian reservations a checkerboard of various interests—individually-held land, tribal land, and over time, lands leased to or owned by outsiders. With each generation, such a pattern became more disastrous. The splintering of inherited parcels inspired family divisions and progressively smaller pieces of land that became impossible to agree upon or use productively. The seeds of reservation underdevelopment within the area clearly were sown at this time.

In addition to the specter of allotment, the people of Wind River as well as other reservations faced the continuing threat of land cession. At Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Rosebud, Yakima, and Crow, federal negotiators made the journey to try to pry portions of reservation lands away from the people. The same drama took place at Wind River. The Brunot cession of 1872 relinquished southern lands where gold had been discovered. This was later compensated for and money from the settlement helped Indian people start their own cow herds. Twenty-four years later, ten square miles were subtracted from the hot springs area, including the site of the aptly named Thermopolis.

The federal emissary of 1896 returned in 1904. That ubiquitous government employee James McLaughlin surfaced once again, armed with a U.S. Supreme Court decision of the previous year. The Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock decision of 1903 concluded that Congress did not need to consult a reservation community prior to reducing its land base, regardless of treaty or agreement language. Despite the articulate protests of tribal representatives, McLaughlin’s persistence was rewarded finally with a cession of a major portion of the reserve. However, the cession depended upon non-Indian settlers coming in and purchasing the land. Slow development of irrigation facilities and the gradual diminution of interest in such arid, high country lands eventually worked to the advantage of Wind River’s reservation people. Most of the land given up through the 1904 negotiations would be officially restored to the reservation by the 1930s.

Through this period, then, Shoshones had to endure the nagging uncertainty of the status of their lands. Some allotment and some cessions significantly reduced the size of the overall reservation. In 1932, in the Indian Court of Claims, the Shoshone tribe was awarded approximately $4 million for the settlement of the Arapaho on their reservation. Thereafter, the Shoshones agreed to share an undivided and equal interest in the trust property of the reservation with the Arapaho.

In the meantime they had to make their way in this fragile period. The oral interviews conducted for the Warm Valley Historical Project speak to people doing the best they could with what they had. As Marie Washakie, born in 1910, states succinctly, “We had to do the best we can in those days.” She remembers her grandmother’s big garden, a productive plot that allowed them to sell watermelons to others. Bullberries, chokecherries and other fruit could be gathered to supplement the diet, while roots could be used for medicinal purposes. Corn, rutabagas, turnips, cabbage, and chickens were raised for family consumption and taken to the gambling halls for sale. Many of those interviewed recalled canning and drying vegetables as well as hunting sage chickens and what scant game was available. Shoshone farmers also raised alfalfa and wheat, although mostly for their own use.

In addition to the challenge of feeding their families, people faced the dilemma of nurturing families and keeping them together. Despite the rigors of hauling water, living in housing that did not always provide full shelter from the cold and wind of a long Wyoming winter, and other comparable hurdles, individuals and families apparently showed great resolve. Lillian Hereford’s memory of the importance of grandparents and the degree of family stability prior World War II no doubt would be echoed by many others. In a time of more subsistence farming and less reliance on wage work or per capita payments, families may have often functioned somewhat differently and have encouraged a high degree of interdependence. Nellie Washakie and a number of others attested to the necessity of hard work and the double-edged sword of greater reliance on wage work and “per caps.”

Locally and nationally the question of religion demonstrated the transitional nature of the period prior to the New Deal. Initially Christian churches were perceived solely as agents of conversion. Although Catholic and Protestant missions remained naturally committed to that goal, in time the process became altered at some churches. Mission priests and ministers could remain in a particular reservation community for a long time and fail to appreciate Native art, language and tradition. Some defined their role narrowly and rigidly, based on their negative attitudes toward such elements of Indian culture. Such an attitude did not preclude the acquisition of converts, but it could limit the number of them. In making a tentative or permanent choice to join a parish or congregation, individual Indians had to weigh a number of loyalties, instincts, and emotions. If the change become too personalized, if it meant a total break from older relatives, for example, then for many the decision became too traumatic.

Over time some priests and ministers who had resided for some years in a certain place began to alter their view of their responsibilities and their overall objectives. At St. Michael’s Mission on the Navajo reservation, the Franciscan fathers under the leadership of Father Berard Haile published an ethnological dictionary of Navajo life and a number of studies of Navajo ceremonies. Father Berard became recognized as a leading authority on Navajo culture. Other examples could be cited from our own time, with the Episcopalian priest Father Peter John Powell completing major works on the history and culture of the Northern Cheyennes. Mission churches also began, in some instances, to employ Indian artists to decorate the interior of churches and chapels with identifiably Native emblems and symbols. Not all immigrant children went to school. Others attended for a time and then drifted on or were compelled to enter the world of work. In the American South, Black students were kept out of schools designated solely for White children; separate but hardly equal facilities offered a more limited curriculum. In the guise of offering practical training, schools channeled students toward carpentry rather than chemistry. And while there was always a need for a certain number of carpenters, there could be little doubt that the Black physicians, attorneys, and other prospective professionals were denied their futures.

Another important form of worship emerged at the turn of the century with the rapid growth of interest and participation in the Native American Church. Employing the ritual use of the peyote cactus, this church represented a blend of Christian and aboriginal symbolism, belief and practice. However, it clearly mirrored the interest in creating a new faith for a new day and one designed for Indians themselves. For Indian men, denied the glory of war and the responsibility of hunting, the church offered roles and brotherhood. Although bitterly opposed by some missionaries and some adherents to traditional tribal ceremonialism, the Native American Church had established itself on most Plains reservations by 1920. Wind River fits this pattern. Eva Enos, born in 1914, remembers peyote meetings when she was a little girl, the tipis erected near St. Michael’s Mission in Ethete and elsewhere.

In the 1930s the arrival of the New Deal and the appointment of John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs marked a changing outlook at the federal level. Commissioner Collier embraced cultural pluralism. He believed that Indians were entitled to freedom of religion, to speak their own languages, and to promote their arts and crafts. Collier surely merits criticism for his administration’s imposition of livestock reduction programs on some reservations as well as majority-ruled tribal councils which ran against the grain of older forms of decision-making. On balance, though, the 1930s under Collier’s committed leadership represented a turning away from the most severe forms of assimilationist philosophy about land and culture. Try as it might following World War II to reverse itself, the Bureau of Indian Affairs could not return to the pre-Collier era. Indian reservations and thus Indian communities would not vanish.

As a number of people interviewed for the Warm Valley Historical Project reveal, things have not been easy since the war. Old and new problems are present. As do elders in all cultures, the people interviewed for the project have mixed emotions about what the passage of time has brought. As do other Americans, they welcome some of the material comforts that are more in evidence today. As do other Native Americans, they note more rodeos and pow-wows as examples of community spirit and vitality.

They may not address it directly, but the women and men interviewed also must take considerable pride and satisfaction in the very survival of Wind River. When the Shoshones won the Warm Valley through the treaty negotiations of 1868, few people outside the tribe would have believed that a century-and-a-quarter later the Shoshones would remain on their land. That they have persisted, that they have succeeded, that they have triumphed in this way is remarkable. It is a tribute at Wind River and in other Native American communities to the mostly anonymous women, men and children who forged a new way of life under the most trying of circumstances. One imagines they would tell James McLaughlin as well as Washakie: We are still here. We will always be here. This is still our home.

After World War II, handy cameras and candid snap shots became the order of the day. At this time surviving cultural characteristics unique to different ethnic communities tended to become guarded, more relegated to the private realm and less subject to public display. The average tourist or professional photographer seeing Indians in blue jeans with short hair, speaking English and riding in pickups instead of on horses found them significantly less exotic than their forefathers, in general too ordinary to document or photograph. What distinctive characteristics might be visible were also often too subtle for most outsiders to perceive.

Photographs of reservation life, thus, became a largely private matter with their domain as the family album or the living room wall. Someday, however, these too may offer invaluable, and in some cases, perhaps, the only means of access and understanding to a world that is rapidly changing.