The Battle of the Rosebud

The expansion of the American empire westward across the Mississippi River was motivated by greed and supported by God. During the nineteenth century American greed was manifested in an obsession for privately owned land and for gold, silver, and other precious metals. Americans believed that the role of government was to obtain land and mineral rights from the Indian nations that owned them and then give them to entrepreneurs for private exploitation. Many Americans believe that their God has made them a chosen people with dominion over both nature and all pagan nations.  

In 1876, American greed focused on the possibility of great wealth in the form of gold in South Dakota’s Black Hills, an area of great historical and spiritual importance to many Indian tribes, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and others. Turning a blind eye to U.S. law, international law, and U.S. treaty obligations, the government focused on getting the gold into the hands of non-Indians.

When the Sioux, the tribe declared by the United States to be the owners of the Black Hills, made it clear they did not wish to relinquish this land to the gold seekers, the United States simply declared war on them.  The Sioux must relinquish the Black Hills or starve. Congress passed an act which provided:

“hereafter there shall be no appropriation made for the subsistence of the Sioux, unless they first relinquish their rights to the hunting grounds outside the [1868 treaty] reservation, ceded the Black Hills to the United States, and reached some accommodation with the Government that would be calculated to enable them to become self-supporting.”

Any Indian who hunted in the unceded lands was not able to receive any food or supplies. If an Indian went out to hunt, even if starving, it meant losing all benefits for the rest of the year.

The United States then issued an ultimatum to the Sioux: all of the bands were to report to their agency by January 31 or be considered hostile. The ultimatum was intended to result in war for two basic reasons: (1) moving a band in January was difficult, if not impossible, and (2) most of the bands outside of the agency were unable to get word about the ultimatum.

The army then launched a three-pronged pacification campaign against the “hostiles” who had “refused” to come in. While the prong led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer is best known, there was also a campaign from the south led by General George Crook.

Traditional Indian warfare on the Northern Plains, while it involved battles and occasional deaths, was very dissimilar to European warfare. Warfare, according to Sioux writer Charles Eastman, was about courage and honor:

“It was held to develop the quality of manliness and its motive was chivalric or patriotic, but never the desire for territorial aggrandizement or the overthrow of a brother nation.”

The motivation for war was personal gain, not tribal patriotism. Through participation in war an individual gained prestige, honor, and even wealth (as counted in horses.) While it was not uncommon for warriors to kill their enemies in battle, this was not in itself considered to be a particularly noteworthy act of valor. The greatest feat of bravery a warrior (male or female) could perform was to touch the enemy. This was the act of counting coup.

At the headwaters of the Rosebud River in Montana, General Crook’s troops, with 176 Crow and 86 Shoshone allies, encountered an encampment of Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux under the leadership of Crazy Horse and engaged them in a day-long battle. Militarily the battle might be considered a draw as neither side won a decisive victory. Some military historians consider it a strategic defeat for Crook because he was unable to take the offensive and strike a decisive blow at the enemy camp. Chief Runs-the-Enemy said of the battle:

“The general sentiment was that we were victorious in that battle, for the soldiers did not come upon us, but retreated back into Wyoming.”

The Americans sustained casualties of 10 killed and 21 wounded. Crazy Horse later estimated that 39 Lakota were killed and 33 wounded.

From the traditional Indian perspective, there were two particularly important acts of valor in the battle and these two warriors were considered to have gained the greatest war honors.

The Shoshone and Crow shot the horse of Cheyenne Chief Comes in Sight out from under him. As they were closing in to finish him off, Buffalo Calf Robe (aka Calf Trail Woman), the sister of Comes in Sight, rode into the middle of the warriors and saved the life of her brother. Buffalo Calf Robe had ridden into battle that day next to her husband Black Coyote. From  the Cheyenne perspective, a woman warrior achieved the highest war honors that day.

One Crow two-spirit (berdache) put on men’s clothes and distinguished himself in battle against the Lakota. For this he was given the name Osh-Tisch which means “Finds Them and Kills Them.” Thus, from the Crow perspective a two-spirit-a person many people today might consider to be a transvestite-won the greatest war honors.

Battle of the Rosebud

Shown above is an artist’s interpretation of the Battle of the Rosebud.

Idaho’s Weiser Shoshone

In Idaho, an 1867 editorial in a Boise, Idaho newspaper stated:

“This would be our plan of establishing friendship on an eternal basis with our Indians: Let all the hostile bands of Idaho Territory be called in (they will not be caught in any other manner) to attend a grand treaty; plenty of blankets and nice little trinkets distributed among them; plenty of grub on hand; have a jolly time with them; then just before the big feast put strychnine in their meat and poison to death the last mother’s son of them.”

At this time, the Weiser Shoshone, a group of Sheepeater Northern Shoshone, were declared hostile by the Americans because of reports of alleged depredations. The Weiser Shoshone lived in an area about 100 miles north of Boise, near the present-day town of McCall. The army received order to-

“proceed to the Weiser river and destroy the band of hostile Indians now marauding on said river and in its vicinity.”

The army, however, found that the alleged depredations had not been committed by the Weiser Shoshone, but by other Indian groups who had crossed into the area to hunt.  

The army discovered a camp which the Weiser Shoshone under the leadership of Eagle Eye had recently abandoned. They determined that it had been occupied by 75-80 people. In the camp, the army found footprints that measured` 17.5 inches long and this begins a “Bigfoot” legend. According to oral tradition, the Weiser Shoshone had created this legend by using huge stuffed moccasins to make the menacing footprints. We don’t know exactly why they made the footprints: it may have been that they wanted to terrorize the local non-Indians and troops by perpetuating evidence of huge Indians; or it may have been simply a joke; or there may have been some other reason. Whatever their reason, however, the story of a giant Shoshone warrior soon spread throughout the region.

In 1868, the American army captured 41 Weiser Shoshone, including Chief Eagle Eye. While the band had been accused of raiding American settlers, the army found no evidence of plunder among their belongings. They did, however, find a pair of moccasins which were over 16 inches long and which were stuffed with rags and fur.

Eagle Eye was interrogated by the military and the territorial governor about his people’s attitude toward the Americans. The band was then released and they returned to the mountains. Those who talked with Eagle Eye were convinced that his intentions toward the Americans were friendly and that he did not want conflict.

In 1869, a group of Americans visited the Weiser Shoshone camp of Chief Eagle Eye. For over two hours the visitors sat and smoked a peace pipe with the Shoshone. There was no conversation and when the visitors reached the point when they could no longer stand the silence-Indians are more comfortable with silence than are non-Indians-they opened a dialogue. Eagle Eye told the Americans that his people were friendly and that they had no objection to having Americans live in their valley as long as they did not interfere with the Shoshone fishing rights. Eagle Eye also made it clear that they had no intention of being relocated to the Fort Hall Reservation. When the Americans returned to Boise, they reported that the Weiser Shoshone numbered about 70 and that they were well supplied with guns and horses.

For the next five years, the Weiser Shoshone lived in peace in their homeland. However, in 1874 the American government ordered the Weiser Shoshone under the leadership of Chief Eagle Eye to report to the Fort Hall Reservation. Eagle Eye refused this demand and ignored the order.

Two years later, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was urged by powerful non-Indians in Idaho to have the Weiser Shoshone removed to the Fort Hall Reservation. They urged that troops be dispatched to force the peaceful Shoshone to relocate. The following year, Eagle Eye’s band of Shoshone were removed from their homelands in Idaho and forced to relocate to the Malheur Reservation in Oregon.

The Weiser Shoshone did not like their new life and in 1878 they left the Malheur Reservation in Oregon and returned to their home in Idaho. They found, however, that American settlers had already taken over their old meeting grounds in the Council Valley and that there was no longer a place for them in their old homeland.

At this time, the United States was involved with a war against the Bannock and many people had assumed that Eagle Eye and his people had joined with the Bannock. The Boise newspapers reported that Eagle Eye, the chief of the Weiser Shoshone, was surely killed at Birch Creek in the battle with the Umatilla. In fact, Eagle Eye was still very much alive and had not been involved in the fight with the Umatilla. Eagle Eye and his extended family were in the mountains where they spent much of the winter.  

For nearly two decades Eagle Eye and his people continued to live quietly out of the way of the non-Indian invaders, hunting, fishing, and gathering in the old way and working occasionally for wages. For the most part, non-Indians believed that Eagle Eye was dead and thus felt that the Weiser Shoshone no longer existed.

In 1896, Eagle Eye, the leader of the Weiser Shoshone, died. His people gathered together and carried the body of the old chief to the top of Timber Butte. They laid him to rest overlooking the valleys and mountains of the homelands of the Weiser Shoshone. His people continued to live deep in the mountains, out of sight of the non-Indians, until well into the twentieth century. Some eventually moved to the Lemhi Reservation and then to the Fort Hall Reservation.  

The Sheepeater Indian War

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It is not uncommon for Indian tribes to be named for the food they consume. One group of Shoshone living in the mountains between Idaho and Montana were called Sheepeaters because mountain sheep were the mainstay of their food supply. In 1879, the deaths of five Chinese miners was attributed to the Sheepeaters, even though the murders appeared to have been committed by a party of Americans disguised as Indians. This marked the beginning of the Sheepeater War.  

General O. O. Howard was prompted to investigate these deaths. He had already been wanting to subdue what was said to be the last holdout of hostiles from the Bannock War along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. This gave him the excuse he needed.

In the first battle of the war, the army destroyed an Indian camp which had been abandoned about two hours earlier. Then, ignoring the findings of its scouts, the army followed a trail down the creek into a steep canyon. About two dozen Sheepeater warriors were waiting and the army unit was ambushed. Two soldiers were wounded. In a disorganized and hasty way, the soldiers retreated. The victorious Indians made no immediate effort to press their advantage by pursuing the fleeing troops.

The following morning, the Indians set fire to the base of the mountain and the winds carried the flames uphill toward the army camp. With shifting winds and carefully set backfires, the army escaped the flames and when darkness set in they were able to sneak past the Indians. The army lost 21 pack animals and all of their supplies to the Sheepeaters.

In the second battle of the war, Umatilla scouts led the army to a Sheepeater camp which had been hastily abandoned. There was an exchange of gunfire, but no casualties. The Sheepeaters lost a large cache of supplies, including goods which they had captured in their earlier battle with the army.

Several army companies spent four months battling a band of 51 people, which included only 15 warriors who had only 8 firearms: 4 carbines, 2 muzzle-loading rifles, 1 breech-loading rifle, and 1 double-barreled shotgun. In the end, the band surrendered after being pursued by the Army’s Umatilla and Cayuse scouts.

The Bannock War

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A casual reading of almost any book on American history-from popular accounts to textbooks to scholarly tomes-reveals that there have been a lot of conflicts or wars with American Indians since the creation of the United States. In 1907, the War Department officially enumerated 1,470 incidents of military action against American Indians between 1776 and 1907. This suggests that there was about one military action per month against Indians during the first 131 years of the nation’s existence. This count does not include a number incidents or wars involving state militias and volunteer groups, such as vigilantes. In some instances the military action was a single battle, in others there were a series of battles.

According to the War Department, only two of these actions have the formal status of “war” under U.S. Army terminology: the 1877 Nez Perce War and the 1878 Bannock Indian War.

Of the two “official” wars delineated by the War Department in 1907, the 1878 Bannock War is probably the least known. The Bannock are a Great Basin tribe which migrated from the desert areas of southeastern Oregon to the more propitious and well-watered region found at the confluence of the Portneuf and Blackfoot streams with the Snake River in present-day Idaho. When the Bannock moved into the Snake and Lemhi River valleys and the Bridger Basin, they came into close contact with the Shoshone, a group which is linguistically and culturally related. The Bannock language belongs to a branch of the Uto-Aztecan family known as Western Numic while Shoshone is Central Numic. Bannock culture tended to emphasize war more than Shoshone culture.

The Bannock call themselves Bana’kwut (“Water People”), and they often were called Buffalo Eaters and Honey Eaters by other tribes.

The Bannock War was about camas: Camassia quamash, a plant with a blue or purple flower which has a nutritious bulb about the size and shape of a tulip bulb. For many of the tribes in Idaho, Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, and Western Montana, camas was a major food item. It was gathered in late spring or early fall. It was either eaten raw or steamed in a pit for immediate consumption. If the camas was to be preserved, the camas bulbs were pounded in a mortar to make a kind of dough. The dough was then shaped into loaves, wrapped in grass, and steamed again. After the second cooking, the loaves were made into smaller cakes and dried in the sun. Without stores of camas, people would be ill prepared for the cold months of the year.

In Idaho, one of the most important camas areas was known as Camas Prairie.

In 1867 the Bannock met in treaty council with the American government at Long Creek. The Americans wanted to confine the Bannock as well as the Shoshone to a reservation so that the land could be opened for American settlement. In the discussions about the reservation, Chief Taghee told the Americans:

“I want the right to camp and dig roots on Camas prairie, when coming to Boise to trade.”

At this time, popular opinion among non-Indians in Idaho called for the extermination of all Indians. An editorial in the Idaho Statesman advocated that the military continue to kill Indians. According to the editor:

“The idea that the Indians have any right to the soil is ridiculous…They have no more right to the soil of the Territories of the United States than wolves or coyotes.”

Another newspaper editorial suggested:

“This would be our plan of establishing friendship on an eternal basis with our Indians: Let all the hostile bands of Idaho Territory be called in (they will not be caught in any other manner) to attend a grand treaty; plenty of blankets and nice little trinkets distributed among them; plenty of grub on hand; have a jolly time with them; then just before the big feast put strychnine in their meat and poison to death the last mother’s son of them.”

The following year, the Bannock and the Shoshone met in treaty council with the Americans at Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Once again the Bannock insisted that Camas Prairie be included in their reservation and article 2 of the treaty expressed this desire. However, instead of saying “Camas” Prairie, the wording of the treaty indicated “Kansas” Prairie.

In 1870, the American government, instead of establishing a separate reservation for the Bannock, assigned them to the Fort Hall Reservation which they were to share with the Shoshone. In moving to Fort Hall, the Bannock were to give up all rights to areas outside of the reservation, including Camas Prairie. Under military escort, the Bannock were moved to the reservation. The soldiers expressed little sympathy or concern for the Indians they were herding and some Indians were killed for slowing the procession down.

Life on the Fort Hall Reservation during the 1870s was not good for the Bannock and Shoshone. While the American government had promised to provide the Indians with rations as they made the transition from a hunting and gathering way of life to a more settled agricultural lifestyle, the promised food supplies were meager. Hunger was a regular part of life. By 1877, the Shoshone and Bannock were starving. To alleviate the hunger, the Indians once again travelled to Camas Prairie were they harvested camas to prepare for the coming winter.

In 1877, the Americans were afraid that the Bannock and Shoshone might join with the non-treaty bands of Nez Perce in their war against the United States. After the camas harvest, the chiefs travelled to Boise to meet with the governor and express their peaceful intentions. Once again, the Bannock explained to the Americans the importance of camas.  Bannock leader Major Jim asked that Camas Prairie be included in the Fort Hall Reservation. He complained that the Americans were driving their hogs and cattle onto Camas Prairie and destroying the camas. The Americans were grateful to hear that the Shoshone and Bannock did not intend to join the Nez Perce, but they did nothing about the Camas Prairie situation.

The food shortages at the Fort Hall Reservation did not improve, and by 1878 the Indian agent felt that he had no choice but to encourage the Indians to hunt outside the reservation. Bannock chief Buffalo Horn visited the territorial governor and obtained permission to buy $2 worth of ammunition for deer hunting. With Indians hunting off the reservation, fears and rumors about Indian wars spread throughout the non-Indian settlements.

Once again the Bannock went to Camas Prairie to obtain the food they needed. They found that American settlers had turned their cattle loose in the area and so the Bannock insisted that the Americans remove the cattle. The Americans belligerently refused, insisting that the Indians had no rights to the land.

The Shoshone and Bannock then met in council to discuss what to do next. Bannock chief Buffalo Horn and about 200 Bannock and Paiute warriors decided to go to war against the Americans.  The Boise Shoshone under the leadership of Captain Jim and the Bannock under the leadership of Tendoy opted for peace and returned to their reservations.

Buffalo Horn and a war party of 60 warriors were attacked by American volunteer troops. While the Indians killed two volunteers and wounded several others, Buffalo Horn was badly wounded. After several days travel, he asked to be left behind to die.

After Buffalo Horn’s death the war party went to Oregon. At the Malheur Reservation, Paiute Chief Winnemucca refused to join the war against the Americans and was taken prisoner. Sarah Winnemucca, his daughter, snuck into the camp and helped the chief and about 75 others to escape.

In Oregon, Oytes and Egan assumed leadership of the rebel group. Egan was initially a reluctant leader, but he was persuaded to become the war chief. Oytes was a Dreamer Prophet and this created problems for the Americans. Part of the reason for the Nez Perce War a year earlier was to eradicate the Dreamers-followers of the Washat Religion of the prophet Smohalla.

At this time, the regular army entered the picture. The army was headed by General O.O. Howard-America’s Christian general. Howard had fought against the Nez Perce and was strongly opposed to Smohalla and his Dreamer movement. He saw himself as a Christian warrior fighting against the forces of evil. Howard and his army were soon in pursuit of the rebel Indians.

At Silver Creek in Oregon, the Americans caught up with the war party and carried out a daring daylight attack with the scouts and some of the troops charging through the camp. Egan led a countercharge, but was wounded first in the wrist and then was shot in the breast and the groin. He was carried off by his warriors and Oytes assumed command. Though badly wounded, Egan directed a retreat and the war party crossed over into the John Day Valley with the army in pursuit.

The war party headed for the Umatilla Reservation hoping to enlist them in the war. Near the reservation, they engaged the army in a day-long battle in which five warriors were killed. The Umatilla under the leadership of Chief Umapine watched the battle from a hilltop. The next day, the Umatilla held council with the Americans. The Umatilla agreed to capture or kill Egan and in exchange tribal members were to be pardoned for their role in the war.

Egan regrouped his warriors in Oregon’s Blue Mountains and waited for the Umatilla to join him. A large party of Umatilla under the leadership of Umapine, Five Crows, and Yettinewitz, came into the camp to talk with Egan. The Umatillas then opened fire, killing Egan and 13 of his warriors. The Umatilla retreated with Egan’s scalp before his followers could react.

Following the death of Egan, the Bannock and Paiute broke into a number of smaller groups which were pursued by the troops. At Birch Creek, the Umatilla under Umapine surprised part of the fleeing war party. They killed 17 warriors and captured 25 women and children.

One of the small raiding parties decided to make a run for Canada to join Sitting Bull and the Sioux. They followed the Bannock trail through Yellowstone National Park where they encountered a survey team. The Bannock managed to capture the survey crew’s animals and supplies.

The army, under the command of Col. Nelson Miles, was actually in Yellowstone National Park. They were not on active duty, but were there as tourists. They surprised a Bannock camp near Heart Mountain, killing 11 and capturing 31.

Southwest of Yellowstone Lake, the army met some of the escapees from the Heart Mountain battle. After a brief fight, the Indians surrendered. While the army reported only one Indian killed, the captives reported that 28 were killed. One observer of the battle wrote:

“The Bannock decided to surrender to the troops, and they moved in a peaceful manner to do so. Nevertheless, volleys of gun-fire were poured into them and several of them were killed.”

The writer concluded:

“It seemed to me that killing these Indians when it was plainly evident they were trying to surrender was a violation of the humanities. They did not respond to the fire.”

Oytes and his followers elluded capture for another month.

In looking back at the causes of the Bannock War, the territorial governor explained that Camas Prairie was the Indians’ garden and it provided them with an abundant supply of vegetable foods. The governor further explained that the government had failed to follow through with the treaty stipulation to assign the prairie as part of the reservation for the Bannock. He recommended that immediate action be taken to assign it to the Fort Hall Reservation or to compensate the Indians in some other way.

In an interview with the Omaha Herald, General George Crook explained that the root cause of the Bannock War was hunger. He said:

“It cannot be expected that they will stay on reservations where there is no possible way to get food, and see their wives and children starve and die around them. We have taken their lands, deprived them of every means of living.”

Crook later wrote:

“Our Indian policy has resolved itself into a question of warpath or starvation; and, merely being human, many of them will choose the former alternative where death shall be at least glorious.”

The Idaho Statesman disagreed with General Crook, and the editor wrote:

“It was not the want of food which started them upon the warpath, but their savage thirst for blood, which had not been restrained and prevented by proper discipline and Governmental supervision.”

Mormons and Indians in Early Utah

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In 1847, the Mormons entered what is now Utah and began to build their Kingdom of God on Earth. There are some who feel that that this was to be a kingdom that did not include the American Indian residents of Utah. Unlike American settlers in other parts of the west, the Mormons have included Indians in their religion and their entry into Utah challenged their religious attitude toward Indians. The Book of Mormon promised that the Indians would be redeemed through the influence of the gospel, but the reality of the frontier situation in Utah demanded the immediate displacement of the Indians.

According to the Book of Mormon, Indians are descendents of Israelites who came to the Americas about 600 BCE. These Israelites were the descendants from Laman, the rebellious son of Lehi. Shortly after the Israelites arrived in the Americas, they divided into two great civilizations, one which followed the true gospel and the other which followed darkness and apostasy. The Book of Mormon describes how Jesus came to the Americas following his resurrection and preached to the American Indians.  

To the Mormons, redemption of the Indians (whom they called Lamanites) was a prophecy to be fulfilled and a scripture to be vindicated. Thus Mormon ideology regarding the origin and identity of the Indians was responsible for some favorable attitudes and policies toward them.

Shortly after the arrival of the Mormon settlers in the Salt Lake Valley, small groups of Shoshone and Ute came to trade horses for guns. The area was a buffer zone which was contested between the Ute and the Shoshone. The Shoshone told the Mormons that the Ute were interfering with their rights. Concerned about the possibility of conflict, the Mormons ceased trading guns and ammunition to the Indians. The Mormons also abandoned their earlier policy of buying or renting land from Indians and declared ownership based on divine donation and beneficial use. According to Heber Kimball:

“The land belongs to our Father in Heaven, and we calculate to plow and plant it; and no man shall have the power to sell his inheritance for he cannot remove it; it belongs to the Lord.”

The Mormons, unlike the trappers who had preceded them, intended to stay in Utah. Therefore they needed to develop a stable relationship with Native Americans. Brigham Young announced a policy of friendliness toward Indians that was designed to minimize tensions between settlers and natives. Brigham Young’s policy was to deal with the Indians fairly. Unlike other American settlers, the Mormons were not to kill Indians randomly, nor were Indians to be killed for stealing. This policy, however, was soon challenged.

In 1849, the Mormon settlers were having many horses and cattle stolen by Indians. In response, Brigham Young sent out a militia company to end the depredations. The militia surrounded the small Ute band of Little Chief and engaged in a four-hour battle in which all four warriors were killed. This engagement, carried out with determination and dispatch, shows a change in Brigham Young’s policy that Indians would not, or should not, be killed for stealing.

The following year some Shoshone warriors from Terrikee’s band rode through the grain fields and melon patches of Mormon settlers near Ogden. Fearing trouble, Terrikee sent his people away. However, he was killed by a Mormon farmer who thought that the chief was trying to steal corn. In retaliation, the Shoshones killed a Mormon settler. This incident heightened tension between Mormon settlers and the outlying Northwestern Shoshone to the north of Great Salt Lake.

In 1850, following an argument over a stolen shirt, Mormon settlers in Utah Valley killed a Ute known as Old Bishop, stuffed his stomach with rocks, and threw his body into the Provo River. When the Utes found the body, the Mormons feared retribution and asked for help from the Mormon Militia.

In response to the call for help, the Mormon militia engaged a Ute band of Big Elk which had been weakened by an epidemic. The Utes retreated with the sick and wounded, taking refuge in a nearby canyon. About 40 Utes were killed and the militia commander, who was under orders to take no prisoners, killed those who surrendered. The women and children were herded into an open stockade. Even though it was winter, they were fed slop in troughs like beasts. The captive children were distributed among the Mormons, to be brought up in the habits of a Christian life. Most escaped at their first opportunity.

By 1850 the Mormon policy with regard to Indians had changed. Reports of depredations were now followed by militia action. The best land was to be taken by Mormon settlers without payment. The Indians were to be strictly excluded from Mormon settlements. Stealing by Indians was often to bring swift punishment, including death.

Congress voted to organize the Territory of Utah in 1850. When Brigham Young announced this to the General Assembly, he also talked about the Indians:

“But habits of civilization seem not to be in accordance with their physical formation; many that have tried it, pine away, and unless returned to their former habits of living, die in a very short time. Could they be induced to live peacefully and keep herds of cattle, the conditions would very materially be ameliorated, and gradually induce a return to the habits of civilization.”

Brigham Young asked Mormon lobbyists in Washington to persuade the government to extinguish Indian title to lands in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada and to legalize Mormon settlement and land claims.

As an organized American territory, policies regarding Indians in Utah now came under the federal government. This, however, did not end the conflicts and over the next 20 years there were a number of Indian conflicts and wars.  

National Parks & American Indians: Death Valley

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Death Valley 5Death Valley, located in California, is the hottest, driest, and lowest place in the United States. It is an area of sand dunes and wilderness. Non-Indian tourism into this desolate region actually began in 1926 and in 1933 President Herbert Hoover created the Death Valley National Monument by Presidential Executive Order. While some saw this act as the first step in transforming one of the earth’s least hospitable spots into a popular tourist destination, for the Timbisha Shoshone, the aboriginal inhabitants of the area, this action made them landless. While the Timbisha Shoshone were not forced from their traditional homeland, the control over their land (and thus over their lives) was assumed by the National Park Service. Death Valley officially became a National Park in 1994.

Death Valley 6

Death Valley is called tumpisa by the Timbisha Shoshone. The name means “rock paint” and refers to the red ochre paint that can be made from a type of clay found in the valley. The name Timbisha means “Red Rock Face Paint.”

Timbisha 1

The creation of the new national monument in 1933 was the result of lobbying by the Automobile Club of Southern California. Monument planners emphasized Death Valley’s unique animal and plant life, but seemed to be unaware of the small groups of Indians living throughout the new federal park.

Timbisha 2

In 1936, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Park Service set aside 40 acres as a village site for the Timbisha Shoshone in Death Valley. The Civilian Conservation Corps built timber and adobe houses for the Timbisha. The model community was intended to provide modern homes for Indians near wage work at Furnace Creek. In addition, the community would have a trading post where the Shoshone women could market their intricate baskets and a laundry service where they could work.

For more than forty years, the Timbisha Shoshone seemed almost invisible to the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the federal government. Then, in 1978, Timbisha Shoshone leader Pauline Esteves negotiated an agreement with the Indian Health Service and the National Park Service to provide a new domestic water supply and waste disposal facilities for their village in Death Valley National Monument. The Timbisha Shoshone also purchased four trailers to augment their housing and finally receive electrical service.

In 1982, the Timbisha Shoshone obtained federal recognition from the United States government. They were one of the first tribes to obtain federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs federal acknowledgement process.

In 1994, the California Desert Protection Act added millions of acres to the Death Valley National Monument and made the entire area into a National Park. The act included a provision to conduct a study of the aboriginal homelands of the Timbisha Shoshone for the purpose of identifying lands which would be suitable for a reservation. The study was to be done in consultation with the tribe. Of the half a dozen tribes who had lands within a national park at this time, only the Timbisha Shoshone did not have a reservation.

Three years later, the leaders of the Timbisha Shoshone were notified by the National Park service that they would have to give up their 40 acre camp in the Death Valley National Park. While Death Valley has been a part of the Timbisha homelands for hundreds of years, the Park service had long maintained that no Indians had lived in the area.

In 1999, the National Park Service and the Timbisha Shoshone reached an agreement which gave thousands of acres to the tribe. Under the agreement, the tribe received 300 acres near the Park’s main tourist center which the tribe could use for homes, a gift shop, a medical clinic, and a motel. In addition, the tribe received 3,000 acres outside of the Park from the Bureau of Land Management.

In 2001, the Timbisha Shoshone held a celebration at their old Indian Village at Furnace Creek. Timbisha elders and the National Park Service personnel met together at a barbeque to symbolize a new era of cooperation.

Today the official website for the park says:

The Timbisha Shoshone Indians lived here for centuries before the first white man entered the valley. They hunted and followed seasonal migrations for harvesting of pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans with their families. To them, the land provided everything they needed and many areas were, and are, considered to be sacred places.

At the present time, the Timbisha Shoshone have a village at Furnace Creek.

Timbisha 3

19th Century Mormon Missionaries & the Shoshone

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In 1830, a new religion was born in the United States with the publication of The Book of Mormon. The new religion, founded by Joseph Smith, is unusual among non-Indian religions in that it incorporates some understanding of Indians into its teachings. The Book of Mormon, upon which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is based, offers a history of Indians and sees them as the descendents of the tribe of Joseph, one of Israel’s twelve tribes. Following the Resurrection, Jesus Christ appeared among the Indians in the guise of Viacocha, Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl. In founding the new religious movement, Smith announced that he had a revelation to carry the message of the Book of Mormon to the Indians.

In 1846, the Mormons entered what is now Utah and began to build their Kingdom of God on Earth. Upon entering the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormons abandoned their earlier policy of buying or renting land from Indians and declared ownership based on divine donation and beneficial use. The area where the Mormons settled was a contested buffer zone between the Ute and the Shoshone. The Mormons intended to stay in Utah and thus they needed to develop a stable relationship with the Native Americans who inhabited the area. Brigham Young enunciated a policy of friendliness toward Indians that was designed to minimize tensions between settlers and natives.

In 1853, the Mormons established Fort Supply as an outpost in Shoshone country. During the winter, a number of Shoshone sought refuge with the Mormons. Seizing this as a learning opportunity, the Mormons tried to learn as much as they could from the natives regarding their marriage customs, burial rites, and the tribal roles of the medicine men. They also studied the Shoshone language.

At the same time, Brigham Young established the Southern Indian Mission and stressed that missionaries had to learn Indian languages in order to convert them.

Two years later, Brigham Young appointed 27 men to conduct missionary work among the buffalo-hunting Indians of the Bannock, Shoshone, and Flathead nations whose territories lay north of Utah.

Subsequently, a Mormon missionary party settled on the banks of the Salmon River in Idaho to work with the Bannock. The mission was located near a site where the Bannock, Shoshone, Nez Perce, and Flathead met each summer for gambling and horse-trading. The Mormons were greeted in a friendly fashion by Sho-woo-koo, also known as Le Grand Coquin, who assured them that they could use the land for farming.

The Mormons quickly began holding classes to learn the Shoshone language and they soon baptized 55 Indians.

Not all Indians welcomed the Mormons. In 1858, Fort Lehmi, a Mormon mission in Idaho, was attacked by a war party of about 200 Bannock and Shoshone warriors. Two of the Mormons were killed and five were wounded. The Indians captured 250 cattle and 29 horses. As a result of the attack, the mission was abandoned.

In 1873 Mormon missionaries under the leadership of George Washington Hill traveled to southern Idaho where they baptized about 100 Shoshone and Bannock. Speaking to the Indians in their own language, Hill told them about the Book of Mormon and depicted its story by placing pictures on a scroll. The baptized Indians were then settled on farmland near Brigham City, Utah. The Indians named the new community Washakie, after a Shoshone Chief.

In 1875, Shoshone chief Pocatello traveled to Salt Lake City where he demanded to be baptized by the Mormons. In addition to Pocatello, five other Shoshone men and four Shoshone women are baptized. Pocatello predicted that many more would follow seeking spiritual salvation.

In 1875, a Mormon missionary gathered a number of Shoshone on a spot between Malad and the Bear River in Idaho. They put in 140 acres of corn, wheat, and potatoes. The missionary then began a series of evangelical meetings which resulted in 574 baptisms.

While Mormon missionaries were having some success at converting the Shoshone and Bannock, the government did not look upon this favorably. The Indian agent at the Fort Hall Reservation accused the Mormon missionaries of teaching that the Indians were chosen of the Lord to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Furthermore, the agent accused the missionaries of fostering hatred of the American government. While the Indian agent prohibited the Indians from listening to the Mormons, the Indians snuck off the reservation to hear what the Mormons had to say. The government then sent in troops to break up the missionary enterprise and to bring the Indians back to the reservation.

When the military commander ordered the Indians to return to the reservation, they were on their second day of harvest. As a result, most of the crops which they had planted were lost.  Following this incident, the Deseret News reported:

“These shameful Indian scares are actual robberies-they rob the Indians of their hard earned crops and of the right to dwell in peace”

Undeterred by the military breakup of his Indian farm, the Mormon missionary established another farm for the Shoshone between the Bear and Malad Rivers. With the help of other Mormon missionaries, a dam was constructed and work on an irrigation system was started. Eighty acres were planted which the Indians harvested with their own reaper.

In 1877, in response to the establishment of a Mormon farm for the Shoshone, non-Indians again demanded that the Indians be forcibly returned to the Fort Hall Reservation. Rumors circulated that the Indians were well-armed and that their horses were in good condition. The district attorney reported that the Indians had become members of the Mormon church, that they were under Mormon control, and thus they were “disloyal.” He recommended that the Indians be returned to the reservation and that the missionary should be charged with “illegally tampering with the Indians.” While the district attorney argued that military force be used to move the Indians, the Indian agent noted that the Indians in question had never resided at Fort Hall but had always made the Bear River area their home.

In 1880, a Mormon missionary went to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to work among the Shoshone. When he asked his old friend Chief Washakie for protection against the Gentile Indian agents, he was told that Washakie was not interested in talking with him nor was he interested in learning more about Mormonism. Washakie explained that Mormonism was an invented story, but also confessed that the Mormons had always been his friends. After a discussion with Washakie, the Mormons received permission to tell the Shoshone about the Book of Mormon.

The Mormon missionary, Amos Wright, explained to the Shoshone the contents of the Book of Mormon, their relationship to the Lamanites, and the promises that God made to them. Wright spoke to them in broken Shoshone, but in spite of this his talk made such an impact upon those assembled that 87 requested baptism. Washakie and 17 of his family members converted. Wright baptized 422 Shoshone during a four-week time period.

Lawrence Coates (1972: 7) writes: “Wright’s success rested partly upon the Shoshonis’ long tradition of accepting dreams and visions as being divine manifestations. To them, the visions described by Wright could easily fit into their religious beliefs.”

In 1882, John Taylor, the president of the Mormon Church, received divine instructions for the church to renew its determination to educate and convert Native Americans. Assignments were made to various apostles to supervise the work among the Indian nations.

In 1883, the Indian agent for the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho estimated that 300 Bannock and Shoshone were now members of the Mormon Church. He asked the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for help in stopping the Mormons from instructing the Indians in polygamy and other “vile doctrines.”

In 1885, Mormon president John Taylor urged more church responsibility in teaching the Indians. He said:

“We know there are difficulties in reaching the Indian but this must not be an excuse in our neglecting to teach them.”

Conclusion:

The Mormon missionaries were successful among the Shoshone for a number of reasons. While most missionaries sought to convert them on behalf of the United States government, the Mormon religion, like the Native American religions, was suppressed by the government. Thus Indians felt a sense of kinship with the Mormons.

The Mormons, like the Indians, were also persecuted because of their practice of polygyny. This contributed to a sense of similarity with the Mormons.

Third, the Indians viewed Mormon doctrine as similar to theirs with its origins in a vision. And the Mormons told the Indians the story of the Book of Mormon in their own language rather than requiring the Indians to learn English. Unlike other forms of Christianity, Indians are included in the religious stories.

And finally, unlike many of the other missionaries which Indians encountered, the Mormons seemed to be genuinely interested in helping them, not only spiritually, but also with regard to their economic well-being.