Grizzly Bears

While Grizzly bears were once found throughout much of the American West, today there are two primary locations where Grizzly bears are abundant: Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Although at one time there were an estimated 50,000 Grizzly bears in North America, the current population is estimated at about 1,800. At the present time, federal wildlife officials are considering lifting protections for the Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area. This would allow trophy hunting of Grizzly bears outside of the Park. A number of American Indian tribes are protesting this possible decision, citing the spiritual importance of Grizzly bears to traditional Native religions. For many American Indians, the Grizzly bear is a sacred animal.

Indians and Bears:

In general, American Indian people have seen themselves as being in harmony with nature and animals, such as the bears, are spoken of not only as people, but as relatives. Some examples of the importance of bears to Native American spirituality are described below.

Among the Ute, the veneration of the bear is expressed ceremonially. Anthropologist Bertha Dutton, in her book The Ranchería, Ute, and Southern Paiute Peoples: Indians of the American Southwest, reports:

“The bear is regarded as the wisest of animals and the bravest of all except the mountain lion; he is thought to possess wonderful magic power. Feeling that the bears are fully aware of the relationship existing between themselves and the Ute, their ceremony of the bear dance assists in strengthening this friendship.”

The Bear Dance is a traditional Ute ceremony which is performed in the Spring. During the 10-day ceremony, a group of men play musical rasps (notched and un-notched sticks) to charm the dancers and propitiate bears. According to oral tradition, this dance was given to the Ute by a bear. The circular dance area represents a bear cave with an opening to the south or southeast. Traditionally, the dance area was enclosed with timbers and pine boughs to a height of about seven feet.

In the Ute Bear Dance, women choose male partners and the women lead in the dancing. Spiritual leader Eddie Box, quoted in Nancy Wood’s book When Buffalo Free the Mountains: The Survival of America’s Ute Indians. says:

“Bear Dance is a rebirth, an awakening of the spirit. It’s a time of awareness. You come to learn from the past in order to arrive at the present with an understanding of the harmony of things.”

Historian Richard Young, in his book The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century, describes the Bear Dance this way:

“Probably the oldest of the Ute Dances, the Bear Dance was a festive, social dance that had always been held in the spring before winter camps disbanded and family groups went their separate ways in search of food.”

The Utes are not the only tribe with a bear dance: the Shoshone, who are linguistically related to the Ute, also have a bear dance. This was originally a hunting dance, which had nothing to do with hunting bears. Men and women would face each other in two long lines and dance in a back-and-forth manner. In one form of the dance, a drum is used while in another form an upside-down basket is scraped by a rasp stick.

In the Dakotas, the Arikara, an agricultural nation with villages along the Missouri River, also had a bear ceremony. Among the Arikara, the bear-medicine men would put on a ceremony to gain the bear’s help in hunting. The ceremony was conducted in an earth lodge where seven elders would sing a number of songs. A young man would then be instructed to go out and get a certain kind of clay. From this clay, the bear-medicine men would make little figures of men, horses, and buffalo. They would then have the little men hunt and finally have them jump into the fire.

The bear also has important spiritual significance for many other Indians.

 Non-Indians and Bears:

When the English began their invasion of North America, they tended to view the Americas as a wilderness, a frightening concept with strong religious overtones. Edwin Churchill, the chief curator at the Maine Museum, writes in his chapter in American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega:

“They viewed the wilderness as a place where a person might lapse into disordered, confused, or ‘wild conditions’ and then succumb to the animal appetites latent in all men and restrained only by society.”

The English world-view tended to reflect the ethnocentric notion that they were divinely commanded to subdue the earth. According to Frank Waters, in his book Brave are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten:

“They leveled whole forests under the axe, plowed under the grasslands, dammed and drained the rivers, gutted the mountains for gold and silver, and divided and sold the land itself. Accompanying all this destruction was the extermination of birds and beasts, not alone for profit or sport, but to indulge in a wanton lust for killing.”

For the English, taming the wilderness and claiming their dominion over the land involved the eradication of many predators, such as wolves, bears, and (in their minds) Indians. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Americans continued the policy of extermination. Even within national parks, government hunters sought to kill as many wolves and bears as possible.

With regard to Grizzly bears, the extermination policy was nearly successful. One display sign in the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana indicates:

“Although the Grizzly inspires fear and can pose real danger to people, human beings are powerful natural enemies of this bear. Through killing this animal and competing for the use of its habitat, humans have eliminated the Grizzly from most of its original range.”

The Current Situation:

Protections for Grizzly bears were imposed in 1975 and since that time the bear population has rebounded. According to one newspaper report:

U.S. wildlife officials and their state counterparts in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming contend the region’s 700 to 1,000 bears are biologically recovered. They’ve been pushing for almost a decade to revoke the animal’s threatened status, a step that was taken in 2007 only to be reversed by a federal judge two years later.

Removing federal protections for Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region would mean that the animals would be under state management. This would allow the states—Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—to allow hunting of them. Wildlife officials in these states have been advocating bear hunts as a way to deal with problem bears.

Grizzlies have killed six people in and around Yellowstone National Park since 2010. In addition, they have regularly mauled both domestic livestock and hunters outside of the Park. The ranching industry has lobbied for eliminating protections for the Grizzly bears.

Under the Endangered Species Act, decisions regarding the Grizzly bear should be guided by “best available science,” but federal officials have indicated that they will take tribal views into consideration. Consultation with the tribes is required by Presidential Executive Orders and, according to tribal officials, by treaty obligation. Federal officials report that they have consulted with five tribes and have discussions scheduled with two more. In addition, letters have been sent to more than 50 tribes inviting them to participate in the discussions.

Tribal leaders from several tribes have opposed the removal of Grizzly hunting restrictions. The Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho is the home of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes. Tribal Vice-Chairman Lee Juan Tyler has stated:

“These are our treaty lands, our ancestral homelands. Too many times in our relationship with the federal government we have surprises. … We want the grizzly bear protected with those lands, and the grizzly bear returned to areas where we can co-manage them.”

Federal officials are expected to rule on lifting protections for the Grizzly bear sometime in the next several months. This decision would impact only the bears in the area around Yellowstone National Park. The area around Glacier National Park would not be impacted by this decision.

National Parks & American Indians: Yellowstone

( – promoted by oke)

In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant signed the legislation making Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming the world’s first national park. The official website for the park notes:

The human history of the Yellowstone region goes back more than 11,000 years. From about 11,000 years ago to the very recent past, many groups of Native Americans used the park as their homes, hunting grounds, and transportation routes.…

Yellowstone 1


For thousands of years Obsidian Cliff in the Park had been a quarry from which Indian people obtained obsidian for making stone tools. These stone tools were traded to tribes as far away as the site of the ancient city of Chahokia in Illinois.

Indians, in spite of their long association with the Park, were not consulted with regard to the creation of the Park.

Traditional Indian Use of the Park:

After obtaining the horse in the early eighteenth century, the Indian nations of southern Idaho and western Montana began using the Bannock Trail through what is now the park as a route to the buffalo on the Montana Plains. After the buffalo went extinct in southern Idaho in the 1830s, the use of the Bannock Trail increased. While used most frequently by the Shoshone and Bannock, it was also used by the Nez Perce and the Flathead (Bitterroot Salish).


Indian people camped and hunted in the park, and used the hot springs for both cooking and for preparing hides. In addition to the tribes from the Plateau area (Shoshone, Bannock, Nez Perce, and Flathead), the area was also used by the Crow and the Cheyenne. It was not uncommon for Blackfoot war parties to come into the area to raid Crow and Shoshone hunting parties, and later the American trappers.

While Yellowstone was an area traditionally used by Indians, it was first encountered by a non-Indian a little more than 200 years. John Colter had set out to make trade alliances with the Crow. The Crow took him into what would become Yellowstone National Park and showed him the geysers and other marvels which were there. Upon returning home, many did not believe his tales and dubbed the area Colter’s Hell.

In 1865, a Blackfoot hunting party under the leadership of Big Lake described the wonders of present-day Yellowstone National Park to the Jesuit priest Father Xavier Kuppens. They then took the priest into the area, showing him the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Firehole Basin.

The Nez Perce  and Bannock Wars:

While the creation of Yellowstone as a National Park in 1872 ignored the Indian presence in the Park, Indians continued to use the area. This came to the attention of the press and the general public in 1877 when the Nez Perce, attempting to avoid a fight with the American army, entered the Park through Targhee Pass. Nez Perce warrior Yellow Wolf reported:

“We did not follow the usual Nez Perce trail. We traveled over a hunting trail instead.”

Yellowstone was a National Park at this time, and consequently there were tourists in the Park. The Nez Perce encountered a group of 9 tourists from Montana. Afraid that the tourists might tell the army where they were, the Nez Perce took the tourists captive. Upon the advice of Poker Joe, the Nez Perce leader during this part of their journey, the tourists escaped.

Unfortunately for the infant park system, the capture of tourists in Yellowstone National Park by “wild, renegade” Indians was a public relations nightmare. To counteract this bad press, the government began a campaign in which Indians were portrayed as “superstitious” and afraid of all of the evil spirits in the Park. Indians, according to Park literature, rarely entered or used the Park. It took more than a century for the Park to correct this misinformation.

During the 1878 Bannock Indian War, a small group of Bannock warriors decided to run to Canada to join Sitting Bull’s 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 who was actually in Yellowstone National Park at the time as a tourist, 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 observer 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.”

Complaints about Indians:

In 1887, Yellowstone National Park officials complained that the Shoshone band under the leadership of Major Jim had been burning grass near the park and that the tourists were nervous about having “wild Indians” in the area. The Shoshone felt that they were unable live on the rations issued at the reservation and thus needed to hunt in order to live. Burning the grass was a standard Indian way of managing the land and increasing the yield of deer, elk, and other mammals. Regular burning allows for a larger carrying capacity. Many non-Indians, however, felt that burning was bad for the land.

In 1888, the military superintendent of Yellowstone National Park complained to the Indian agents of the Lemhi and Fort Hall agencies in Idaho about Indian hunting in and near the park. He complained that not only were the Indians poaching, but they were causing some alarm among the tourists.

During the first half of the twentieth century, American Indians were no longer visibly present in Yellowstone National Park, either in its official history or in contemporary presence. From time to time, however, the Park Service did use Indians in a ceremonial fashion to help entertain the tourists.   In 1925, a group of Shoshone from the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho under the leadership of Chief Tyhee took part in ceremonies opening the new West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. In addition, Park officials invited a group of Crow from Montana to assist in a roundup of the Yellowstone buffalo herd. The Indians wore traditional dress and attracted tourists who watched the riders chase the buffalo through the Lamar Valley.

The Park’s dislike for the Indian history of Yellowstone National Park emerged in 1927. The pageant Masque of the Absaroka, was presented in Bozeman, Montana. The pageant was a dramatization of Crow origin mythology and used Crow actors. While the pageant’s organizers wanted to present the pageant in Yellowstone National Park, Park officials did not feel that it had any connection with the Park and were concerned about the fact that the presentation used “real” Indians.

The official Park Service story was that the geysers and other features within Yellowstone National Park frightened the “superstitious” Indians. The passage of the Nez Perce through the Park in 1877 was, according to the officials, an anomaly. In 1935, however, two veterans of the 1877 Nez Perce War, Many Wounds and White Hawk, revisited Yellowstone National Park. When asked about their reaction to the geysers, they stated:

“We knew that country well before passing through there in 1877. The hot smoking springs and the high-shooting water were nothing new to us.”

Recognition of Indians:

In 1961, Yellowstone National Park issued the following statement:

“The National Park Service now believes that the Yellowstone Park Area may not have been taboo to the nomadic Indian tribes which frequented the Northwest in prehistoric times. Evidence collected over the past several years seems to indicate that many tribes have been more or less permanent residents of this geologically mysterious area.”

In 1996, the Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park was designated a National Historic Landmark and was recognized as one of the first industrial areas in North America. The Obsidian Cliff was the source of material for making stone tools for thousands of years and tools from this area spread across thousands of miles.

In 2001, Yellowstone National Park changed its entrance fee policy to allow members of “affiliated” tribes to enter the park for traditional purposes without paying the recreation fee.

About the Buffalo:

Buffalo Herd

In 1889, there were an estimated 200 buffalo left in Yellowstone National Park. In 1902, Yellowstone National Park purchased 21 buffalo from the Pablo-Allard herd from the Flathead Reservation in Montana and from the Goodnight herd in Texas. The new herd was kept quarantined and monitored to prevent cross-breeding with the wild mountain buffalo which were still in the Park.

Pressure from Montana’s livestock industry in 1945 resulted in a ban on shipping live buffalo from Yellowstone National Park. Ranchers feared that the buffalo may have brucellosis and may pass it on to cattle.

In 1997, a hard winter caused buffalo in Yellowstone National Park to migrate outside of the Park’s boundaries. In spite of protests by Native Americans and others, the government killed 1,100 buffalo. While the official reason for killing the buffalo was the fear that brucella abortus would be passed from the buffalo to domestic cattle, one leading authority on brucellosis reports:

“a bison would practically have to abort in a cow’s face to pass it on.”

Indians tend to see the battle over the buffalo as a traditional “cowboys versus Indians” thing in which the buffalo represent the Indians.

Yellowstone 2

Governor Schweitzer just sent me email…

Yes, THAT Governor Schweitzer; he just sent me an email about his efforts to abate the bison “management” problem in Yellowstone – follow me after the jump.

We’ve known for some time that bison who strayed out of the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park have been subject to removal, even slaughter, because of rancher’s fears of their cattle contracting brucellosis from the bison. Many of us wrote officials, asking if there wasn’t some better way to address the problem than what amounted to indiscriminate slaughter – and they responded.

Here’s the relevant parts of Gov Schweitzer’s message:

I would like to direct your attention to the recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) report on the Interagency Bison Management Plan, its shortcomings, and the inability to move to Step 2 of the Plan (expected to occur during the winter of ’02-’03).

The GAO conclusions track very closely changes that I have been advocating, including consummation of a grazing agreement with the Royal Teton Ranch, allowing for removal of that cattle herd, and passage through the ranch for hungry bison.

The State of Montana will continue to work with the land owners, livestock interests, wildlife and conservation groups, and the federal agencies that bear responsibility for bison management. At this point, negotiations have been completed with the Royal Teton Ranch, site of the largest cattle herd near the park. As directed by the Interagency Bison Management Plan, this agreement will better secure Montana’s disease-free status while providing more tolerance for bison…

As is urged by the GAO report… we will continue to seek and support vaccine research that provides protections against brucellosis, work with other willing landowners on creative grazing and management agreements, and utilize fair-chase hunting to manage bison in a manner similar to other large game species.

Sounds like some measure of success to me – although “fair-chase hunting to manage bison” is a phrase that lends itself to wide interpretation and potential abuse, if previous experience is any guide, and therefore stands out as a red flag. Keep an eye on that!

Kudos to Gov Schweitzer, who is proving our assessment of him to be correct; he is a valuable ally and supporter of common-sense progressive values.

We’ll be watching this as it works itself out. I’ll add more as I look into it – please post any additional info you dig up as well.