The Mountain Shoshones: Sheep Eaters
Where the Sheep Eaters came from
The Mountain Shoshones, also known as the Sheep Eaters or the Tukadika, are part of a
larger group of American Indians known as the Shoshone. It is believed that the
Shoshone migrated from the Great Basin, an area located between California and
Nevada, into the greater Yellowstone area, the Lemhi Fork of the Salmon River in central
Idaho, and into the mountains of northwestern Wyoming.
Absaroka Mountain Range in northwestern Wyoming
Modern linguists have traced their Numic based language, which is a derivation of the
Uto-Aztecan language family, from the Great Basin area (Dramer, 13). The Numic
speakers of the Great Basin divided themselves into three major groups called the
Northern Paiute, the Southern Paiute, and the Shoshone. Though the word Shoshone
may indicate one specific group, there were many different groups within this category of
people and were further divided according to their basic diet. Shoshone that mainly ate
salmon were called akaitikka or agaideka when translated literally means “eaters of
Salmon”; those that fed mainly on pine nuts were called tipatikka, or “eaters of pine nuts”
(Dramer 20); another group that emerged after the introduction of the horse were the
kutsundeka or the “buffalo eaters. Another of the subcultures of the Shoshone the Sheep
Eaters, inhabited the greater Yellowstone area and regularly frequented the grounds of
Yellowstone National Park.
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park
The Sheep Eaters were also known as the Tukadika (meateaters), and did not consider
this term to be derogatory.
Where the Sheep Eaters lived
The Sheep Eaters lived mainly in the Absaroka, Teton and Wind River Mountain Ranges
of Wyoming, and in what is now considered Yellowstone National Park. They made
good use of the topography and geology of the area in which they lived. The mountains
provided vantage points over the surrounding area allowing them to see great distances
and to identify trouble long before it could reach them. At these higher elevations the
temperature was cooler and there was a constant supply of fresh water available.
Jade Lake in the Absaroka Mountain Range of northwestern Wyoming
Due to the faulting, uplifting, erosion and deformation of the mountains, there was a
more abundant supply of minerals and other resources that most people and animals do
not have readily accessible. The Sheep Eaters based hunting techniques and annual
migrations on the accessibility of game animals such as the Bighorn Sheep, and the
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Ram in Torrey Valley
near Dubois, Wyoming
topography of the area in which they lived. They also made tools, paints and utensils
from the rocks and minerals available to them. The soil derived from these rocks or
mineral also determined the type of plants available for their use (Loendorf Lecture notes
Early Spring in the Rocky Mountains
Geology of the area inhabited by the Sheep Eaters
In order to understand the topography of this area of Wyoming, we must first understand
the geologic history of the area in which the Sheep Eater once lived as one of chaos.
Magma, molten rock material, cut down into the crust around 2.6 to 2.7 billion years ago
and cooled forming granite which is an intrusive igneous rock. Metamorphic rocks
also formed at this time through contact metamorphism. (Martin 1993:l) Over 2 billion
years ago erosion by wind, water and ice leveled the land, making it easy for water to
accumulate and settle in the area. Lake Louise in the Wind River Mountains is a good
example of glacial erosion. The glacier that was responsible for forming Lake Louise
and three lakes further down the u-shaped Torrey Valley is still in existence today.
Lake Louise in the Wind River Mountains was formed by the glacier in the background
Early in the Paleozoic Era, between 245 and 570 million years ago, a shallow sea existed
over most of what is presently North America. The sea retreated and then returned
during the Late Ordovician Period between 500 and 440 million years ago. This sea
contained more invertebrate (without spine) marine animals and was deeper than the
first sea. The sea withdrew yet again and another returned at the beginning of the
Mesozoic Era, during the early Triassic Period l80 to 225 million years ago when
dinosaurs roamed the earth. Shallow marine, swampy, and coastal environments
remained into the Jurassic Period 136 to 180 million years ago. During the Cretaceous
Period approximately 70 to 135 million years ago, the dinosaurs became extinct and the
shallow sea that had been covering parts of what is now Wyoming retreated for the final
time. Also during this period, the Laramide Orogeny began lifting the land west of
what would become the Wind River Mountain Range (Martin 1993:10).
The climate of Wyoming was much warmer then than it is today mainly because of plate
tectonics. This area of swampy, coastal environments was a part of Pangaea, the super
continent, and was located much closer to the equator than it is today.
During the Cenozoic Era, approximately 55 to 60 million years ago, the North American
Plate collided with the Pacific Plate. The collision occurred with such great force that the
land on the western side of the North American Plate folded resembling a crinkled piece
of paper. The land uplifted, creating the present-day Wind River mountains, the Bighorn-
Owl Creek-Washakie Mountains and the Wind River Basin.
The Wind River near Dubois, Wyoming
The Wind River Mountain Range contains many of the largest thrust faults in the Rocky
Mountains, and Gannett Peak the highest peak in Wyoming and reaches over 13,000 feet.
The “Windies” are also home to the Dinwoody Glaciers, “the largest ice field in the
United States outside of Alaska,” and are responsible for forming much of the landscape
we see today (Lageson and Spearing 148).
During the Pleistocene Epoch, there were three stages of glaciation in the Wind River
Mountains which lasted from about eleven million years ago to one or two million years
ago (Martin 45).
Around 38 million years ago, there was a massive eruption from which flowed tons of
volcanic material from a concentration of volcanoes located north and west of the Dubois
and the Yellowstone Park area of Wyoming and perhaps other surrounding areas. This
volcanic material, mostly in the form of mudflows, helped create the base of the
Absaroka Mountains. The material was deposited over the eroded northwestern parts of
the Wind River and Owl Creek Mountains. Glaciers and fast flowing water carved the
volcanic sediment into what is seen today as the Absaroka Mountains (Martin 1993: 36-
Absaroka Mountains in northwestern Wyoming
About 10 million years ago the Teton Mountains formed when a large amount of
uplifting of the land was followed by severe glacial erosion. The Tetons are among the
youngest mountain ranges in the Rocky Mountains and their glacially formed peaks seem
to pierce the sky. Even today the Tetons are rising ever higher as small earthquakes still
ripple through the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming. The Teton Mountains are composed
of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks (Lageson and Spearing 211:12).
Teton Mountains in northwestern Wyoming
The relationship between the geology and the making of tools and utensils by the
The Sheep Eaters used specific rocks and minerals in making tools and utensils. They
made mortars, bowls, and various other storage vessels from steatite, which is also
known as talc or soapstone. Steatite is a soft, powdery mineral, and usually has a white,
gray or greenish color. Talc or steatite is the number one or softest mineral on Moh’s
Scale of Hardness so you can scratch it with your fingernail. Steatite is a metamorphic
rock may have a greasy feel to the touch and is found in quarries. Quarries are sources
where large amounts of specific rocks and minerals may be found and extracted for use
(Hausel 41). Steatite quarries can be found near Simpson and Soapstone Lakes in the
Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. There are no steatite outcrops in the Yellowstone
area. The Sheep Eaters used steatite to make pots, bowls, and mortars.
Steatite bowls found in the Wind River Mountains and are now in the Dubois, WY Museum
The bowls were used to hold herbs, minerals, and various other materials to be pounded,
rubbed, or ground into powder materials that could then be used for paint, medicine, and
other substances. Steatite also retains heat, and was used by the Sheep Eaters as pots for
cooking stew. This stew is sometimes referred to as a “pepper Pot”, because different
things were “peppered” or added to the stew, and it was an especially important meal in
the winter. It is thought that there was always a bowl heating on the fire during the
winter months to provide a constant source of food for the Sheep Eaters (Loendorf
Lecture Notes 8/8/00). Most of the bowls or vessels were quite heavy and would be too
bulky and awkward to carry along with the Sheep Eaters on their migration routes, so
they would leave them at a particular campsite close to where they had made them
(Janetski 49). Upon their return, cooking utensils would still be resting where they had
been left which not only helped to identify the campground, but also required less effort
to make a new set of vessels.
The Sheep Eaters used steatite rock outcrops as anvils of a sort, cutting the vessel out of
the rock while leaving the base attached to the rock. They would begin with carving the
outside of the pot, then the inside or in some cases vice versa. The final step would be to
cut the utensil away from the rock or “anvil” that had been holding the vessel steady.
The largest steatite bowl found by archaeologists can hold up to almost three gallons of
liquid. The average holding size for most steatite pots is around a quart. Another use for
these bowls was to heat glue that was used in making Bighorn Sheep bows and other
tools and materials (Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/8/00).
The Sheep Eaters also made use of the many obsidian outcrops located mostly in what is
now Yellowstone National Park.
Obsidian Outcrop in Yellowstone National Park
Obsidian, also known as “nature’s glass” is volcanic glass and is usually dark brown or
black in color. It may also range from clear to red or even olive green. Obsidian is
created when lava or magma cools so quickly that crystals are unable to form therefore
producing a smooth, glassy texture and appearance (Hausel 91).
Obsidian Rock near outcrop in Yellowstone National Park
Obsidian is very rare in the eastern part of North America, and so was highly sought
after as a trade item. It was used to make some of the sharpest points which are known as
“bleeders”, and can even be used to cut leather garments. Obsidian can hold an edge that
is actually as sharp as, or sharper than, surgical steel. Scientists have developed a way to
trace obsidian back to its source by using its internal atomic makeup as a type of
fingerprint. Yellowstone obsidian tools have been found as far to the east as Ohio
(Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/8/00).
Other tools such as pestles were made from the surrounding rock material. Pestles were
used to pound or grind material such as berries, plants, and minerals usually in a bowl-
shaped stone called a mortar. Bone and rock were used to create awls, a tool often used
to punch holes in leather. Awls resemble arrowheads, but have a very sharp, thin point
that spikes out of the “body”. Hammer stones were used to crush berries and other
plants, to break bones, or to crush sheep or antelope skulls. Rounded stones left behind
from glacial or water erosion might have been used for hammer stones. Since there is
plenty of left over rubble from glaciers in the Wind River Range, the stones were
naturally shaped tools that could have been used without much alteration. “Stunners”
were also fashioned out of rocks or stones picked up from resting places and were used to
help drive Bighorn Sheep, Bison, or other game animals through “squeezes” and over
The relationship between geology and the trapping of wild game animals
The Sheep Eaters probably made use of naturally occurring geological features to herd
various game animals through passes called squeezes. Landforms were chosen that
created a funnel-like effect, allowing only one or two animals to pass through at a time.
A jump, on the other hand, refers to a ledge or cliff where game animals were herded
over to fall to their deaths.
The relationship between the Shoshone and the environment
All groups of the Shoshone were extremely sensitive to the delicate balance between the
land, the animals, and the people that shared their environment. Fishing is an activity that
displayed their sensitivity to the environment. Because female fish carry the eggs, the
fishermen realized that killing one female fish might accidentally be killing hundreds or
even thousands of that species in one fell swoop. Knowing this, the fishermen mainly
aimed their harpoons at male fish in order to guarantee the return of the species. In doing
so they would ensure that during the next fishing season there would be enough fish in
the various bodies of water to feed the members of their kin/cliques (Dramer 27).
The Shoshone knew that over use of natural resources could cause the extinction of
various animals, thus having a direct impact on their available food sources. Extinction
of animals could also upset plant life, causing various plants that might have depended on
these animals to keep them in check, to grow rapidly and to take over the soil. In other
situations these plants might not grow enough or might not even grow at all. The growth
rate could in turn have a direct impact on soil erosion, water quality, and survival of
animals dependent on certain plant life. Too much or too little plant life could cause
various animals to overpopulate or even to leave the area in search of more fertile ground.
This chain-reaction could cause the Shoshone’s own extinction as a result of disrupting
the natural cycle of the ecology (the total relationship between organisms and their
environment) beginning with the seemingly harmless act of over-hunting various species
Hunting techniques of the Shoshones
The Shoshones used a variety of skilled, intuitive, and ingenious techniques that differed
based upon the type of animal being hunted. An example of this is:
The Shoshone…captured birds. They used nets, sometimes first
disguising themselves in antelope skin and horns so as not to alarm
the birds…The hunter might also wear a duck-skin helmet, swim
under the surface using a tube of cane as a breathing apparatus, sneak
up on the birds, and pull them under (Dramer 27).
The Shoshone including the Sheep Eaters made use of a hunting device called the atlatl,
a hunting tool generally made of wood. The atlatl has been used around the world and
gives the arm extra length and throwing power. The atlatl is used with a dart or spear that
is attached to the end of it and is launched in the direction of the desired target, be it wild
game or enemy. The atlatl was not as accurate as the bow and arrow, but had incredible
penetrating power. A weight was frequently placed on the back of the atlatl for increased
balance and strength. The Sheep Eaters most likely used the atlatl for a long period of
time to hunt and ward off such dangerous animals as Grizzly Bears (Loendorf Lecture
Dr. Larry Loendorf demonstrates use of the atlatl during one of his lectures
Sheep Eater hunting techniques
Even though the hunting techniques already described might have been utilized by all
groups of Shoshone, the Sheep Eaters developed their own unique tools and techniques
for hunting. As indicated by the name given to them, the main source of meat for the
Sheep Eaters was the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
Rocky Mountain Bighorn
Photo by Ron Mamot
The male Bighorn Sheep may weigh between 260 and 280 pounds, whereas females
usually weigh between 190 and 200 pounds. The horns of a ram can weigh as much as
30 pounds. These sheep have brownish colored hair and fleece, and both males and
females have horns. The sheep have sharp eyesight and are amazing climbers. They
have padding on the inside of their feet that splays out and grasps the rocks, increasing
their stability and agility on rocky terrain and craggy cliffs. The males play tremendous
games of dominance over the females. When challenged, the males clash their horns
together with a force that has been measured to be as much as one ton. Eventually one
ram will emerge triumphant proving his dominance over the other male (Loendorf
Lecture Notes 8/8/00).
The Sheep Eaters invented many ways to hunt the Bighorn Sheep, and were very skilled
at what they did. They crafted large nets, such as the one that is on display at the Buffalo
Bill Cody Museum in Cody, Wyoming. This net was discovered on a mountain ledge
near Cody, and is made of twisted juniper bark. It has poles on both ends that could have
been used to stand it upright. When rolled out the net would probably be 50-60 meters
long and 1.5 to 2 meters tall. The juniper cordage was twisted in knots that get smaller
and more concentrated near the center of the net. Scientists have radiocarbon dated the
net to be around 8,800 years old (Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/7/00).
Sheep Eater use of sheep traps
Perhaps the hunting technique most unique to the Sheep Eaters was their sheep traps.
They constructed these amazing devices out of large pieces of logs, tree trunks, rocks,
brush, and any other material native to the area in which they were hunting. Using local,
natural materials helped disguise the traps as a part of the natural landscape. The Sheep
Eaters knew routes the Bighorn Sheep repeatedly traveled, and they strategically placed
their traps along what they observed to be migration and escape routes (The Wind River
Rendezvous Vol.XX: 8). The Sheep Eaters were also observers of wind, and they knew
that in the morning cooler air from higher elevations would move downslope as the warm
air later in the day would rise thus developing the convective currents that caused the
wind to blow. Knowing this, the Sheep eaters could predict when and where this wind
would blow in the morning and in the evening. They were able to take advantage of
these winds to help them hunt game, and often built their sheep traps downwind
(Loendorf lecture notes 8/7/00).
There have been at least thirty sheep traps found in North America, of which at least
eighteen are within a thirty-mile radius of Dubois, Wyoming (Loendorf Lecture Notes
Remains of the catch pen and ramp of a sheep trap used by the Sheep Eaters
Sheeptraps were normally constructed either at the base or the top of a hill or gully. They
consisted of drivelines intricately and skillfully constructed mainly from tree trunks and
wooden materials gave an unthreatening appearance upon first glance. These drivelines
were built to slowly narrow into a path that would eventually funnel the sheep directly
directly into the trap. Once the sheep were in the trap the Sheep Eaters would club them
Diagram of the driveline leading into the sheep trap
Photo by Ron Mamot
It has been speculated that hunters hid behind trees and other obstructions along the
driveline and would jump out of their hiding places in order to frighten the sheep and
keep them running in the direction of the trap. Evidence has shown that small ambush
structures were probably built close to steep slopes and densely wooded areas along the
driveline that might hide several hunters who would show themselves as the sheep
attempted to escape in their direction. Since the Sheep Eaters knew that wolves were one
of the sheep’s primary predators, they used their large wolf-like dogs to herd the sheep
towards the trap while making wolf-like howls to further frighten the sheep. This tactic
could have helped prevent the sheep from jumping the driveline and fleeing to safety
(The Wind River Rendezvous Vol.XX: 11).
Sheep traps were not built to be very high due to the Bighorn Sheep’s short height.
Because the sheep are speedy and able jumpers, the traps were constructed in a
rectangular shape, longer in length. The ramp leading into the trap was built so that the
logs were unstable which could have been an advantage by causing the sheep to lose their
footing and fall into the trap. Bighorn Sheep are most vulnerable behind their horns near
the top of their necks, and for this reason it is thought that the hunters used clubs to kill
them (Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/8/00). Archaeologists have found devices in some traps
called slide polls close to the ground. It has been speculated that these small sliding
“doors” might have been used to allow young sheep that had fallen into the trap to go free
(Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/9/00). This practice would guarantee continued habitation of
the Bighorn Sheep in the areas where the Sheep Eaters lived.
Some of the horns of the Bighorn Sheep rams have been found in tree branches with the
tree having grown around the horn. Such an example is on display in the Dubois
Museum in Dubois, WY.
“Perhaps such a placement could possibly have been an offering of
thanks giving to the ‘Great Spirit’ for a successful hunt” (The Wind River
Rendezvous, Vol. XX, 12).
This Bighorn ram’s skull was probably placed in the pine tree as an offering in thanksgiving for a
successful hunt. The tree eventually grew around the horn.
Trapping the Bighorn Sheep using traps was brilliant, effective, and efficient, but it was
not fool proof. If the wind suddenly changed direction, hunters that had been observing
and lying in wait might watch their targeted, calmly grazing sheep flee in the opposite
direction toward safety. Another factor that might prevent the sheep trap from being as
effective was that the trap and driveline only worked from one direction. The traveling
herds, if outside the driveline, would probably avoid the walls altogether. Since the
Sheep Eaters knew the migration patterns of the sheep, these factors did not stop the
sheep traps from being repeatedly effective. The wisely placed traps normally
guaranteed a successful harvest and the Sheep Eaters knew that it would only be a matter
of time before another herd of sheep would travel in the desired direction (The Wind
River Rendezvous Vol. XX: 8-12).
The Bighorn Sheep bows
The Sheep Eaters’ Bighorn Sheep bows and tanned hides were known to be of quality
and were sought after by many other North American Indians and Euro-American
trappers. Osborne Russell, a well-known trapper, made notes in his journal of the fine
bows made by the Sheep Eaters. Russell states that the Sheep Eaters,
“were well armed with bows and arrows pointed with obsidian.
The bows were beautifully wrought from Sheep, Buffaloe and Elk horns
secured with Deer and Elk sinews and ornamented with porcupine
quills and generally about 3 feet long (Russell 26).
The Sheep Eaters’ high quality bows were long-lasting, powerful hunting tools made
from the horns of the Bighorn Sheep through a time-consuming and difficult process.
According to the book, Indians of Yellowstone Park, “such a bow took two months to
make and could drive an arrow completely through a buffalo” (Dramer, 49).
Tom Lucas of Lander, Wyoming has been able to develop a process by which he can
make replicas of the Big Horn Sheep bow. It takes him about a year to make one of these
fine bows. Tom’s bows are functional and seem to have the same accuracy as the
Tom Lucas shooting one of his Bighorn Sheep bows
Photo by Judith Bendel
It has been said that such a bow could shoot an arrow at a speed of about 150 feet per
second. The most sophisticated, present day bows made from synthetic material can
shoot an arrow at about 240 feet per second which is a little less than half more shooting
power than the horn bow possessed (Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/9/00).
In order to make a horn bow the Sheep Eaters would first heat two horns possibly by
soaking them in hot springs or geysers. Heating would cause the horns to become
bendable without breaking, thus allowing the craftsperson to straighten out the naturally
hard and curved horn.
Tom Lucas places a set of ram’s horns in a hot spring near Thermopolis, WY
In the next step excess pieces of horn were then shaved off, saved, then mixed and
simmered with various other natural substances such as hide shavings to form glue.
Beginning the shaving and straightening process
Photo by Ron Mamot
After straightening and shaping, a tapered piece of horn ranging between 18 and 24
inches long and one inch thick at the butt was all that remained of the original horn
Clamps are used to hold the horn straight
Photo by Ron Mamot
Another horn was then prepared and shaped to the exact dimensions and proportions as
the first horn.
Shaving the straightened horn
Photo by Ron Mamot
In some instances, a bow would actually be made out of one horn, but it was far more
common for two horns to be used. After fitting the two pieces together in a manner
similar to tongue and groove, smaller pieces of horn were then placed above and below
The two completed horns are then glued and bound with sinew
Photo by Ron Mamot
The two horns were then glued together with the natural glue and wrapped
in glue-soaked sinew for strength.
Sinew is soaked in natural glue and used to “back” the bow
Photo by Ron Mamot
“Sinew is the thin membrane that holds all the animal’s muscles together. The longest
and widest piece of sinew is found down each side of the animal’s back; shorter pieces
are found in the lower legs” (The Wind River Rendezvous Vol. XXI: 14). The average
length of a horn bow was approximately thirty-five inches and the longest bow that has
been discovered is thirty-nine inches in length (Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/9/00.
Due to the amount of work and time that went into creating one of these bows, the Sheep
Eater who owned the bow probably considered it to be precious. These bows were said
to be worth around ten horses in trading and might have even been used in ceremonies
(Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/9/00). It is thought that,
[the Tukukidas’] high esteem for these animals [sheep, elk, and buffalo herd
monarchs] extended to the bow a hunter carried, as they believed the bow
had an inherent or ‘special medicine’ transferred from the majestic creature
from which the weapon was made (The Wind River Rendezvous Vol. XXI: 7).
Because of the effectiveness of the Bighorn bow as a powerful and accurate hunting tool,
it was used in trading to obtain materials such as premium buffalo hides, buffalo meat,
and other valuable resources that the Sheep Eaters considered precious and that were not
readily available to them (The Wind River Rendezvous Vol. XX: 16).
Moisture causes sinew to lose its elasticity. Since sinew backs the bow and holds it
together, there are not many horn bows found in the eastern part of the United States
where humidity is high and there is more rain. Thus, less arid areas of the country effect
the shooting power and life of the bow. Simi-arid environments are best for the horn bow
because if it is too dry, then the sinew dries out, cracks, and renders the bow useless. To
protect their bows, the owners would keep them in cases usually made of Mountain Lion
skin. Occasionally the owner would cover the back of the bow with rattlesnake skin to
guard the sinew and the bow from the elements ( Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/8/00).
The making of projectile points and other stone tools
The Sheep Eaters used whatever stone was available in their locale to fashion the
projectile points for their arrows. Often more desirable stone such as obsidian was
traded for if it was not native to an area. Projectile points as well as scrappers, knife
blades, and other tools were chipped from the stone. Harder stones, antlers and
sandstone were used in the chipping process (The Wind River Rendezvous Vol. XIX:
Knives with obsidian blades and either bone or horn handles
The making of arrow shafts
Arrow shafts were usually carved from a tough, strong wood such as greasewood, red
willow, or chokecherry. These woods were often used because of their hardness and
good quality. Shaft-straighteners, also called abraders, were used to straighten wooden
arrows while they were heated over coals. They were normally made from abrasive
sandstones and were usually small. A groove generally runs lengthwise over the surface
of the rock and is probably created by pecking the rock with bone, antler, or another rock.
After arrow shafts have been repeatedly rubbed over the groove, it wears down into the
rock. Shaft-straighteners also acted as a kind of wrench to provide leverage for the
craftsperson, and were used to grind or smooth out imperfections in the wood.
Arrow shaft straighteners
Shaft wrenches usually made from bone, or shaft-straighteners were then used to carve
out imperfections and to straighten the arrow shaft. If the arrow shaft broke, hunters
occasionally carried hollow reeds that they would slide onto the shaft as if they were soda
straws. Sometimes the hunter would insert into the hollow reed a wooden piece to
reinforce the fibers, however an arrow shaft can function without this insert. The hunter
could then tie a projectile point onto the reed and have a functioning arrow in a short
period of time. The most work on the arrow shaft was usually in splitting feathers,
cutting grooves into the shaft into which to place the split feathers, fitting the feathers
into the groove, and wrapping the tips with sinew (Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/8/00).
Sheep Eater clothing
The Sheep Eaters were also known for their craftsmanship in the making of tailored
clothing considered by trappers and other North American Indians to be some of the best
made in the country. The Sheep Eaters made winter boots out of Bighorn Sheep hides
that were turned inside out, so that the fur was on the inside of the boot and against the
skin for warmth. For increased warmth, tailored leggings and drapes or scarves were
made from the tails of the ermine, which is a cousin to the weasel. After trappers moved
into the area the numbers of these animals rapidly decreased (Loendorf Lecture Notes
8/8/00). The hides from the ermine were considered to be of top quality and there was an
“universal theory that each animal has enough brains to tan its own hide” (The Wind
River Rendezvous Vol. XX: 15). According to various sources, by using two brains
instead of one, a softer and more flexible hide can be attained (Janetski 48 footnote).
Some people have speculated that the use of two brains instead of one was the secret to
the Sheep Eater’s high quality skins (The Wind River Rendezvous Vol. XX: 15). There
are many other important steps that must be followed before and after tanning that are
just as important in producing the final product. Osborne Russell noted that the Sheep
Eaters he met were,
“all neatly clothed in dressed deer and sheep skins of the best quality…[and we]
obtained a large number of Elk, Deer, and Sheep skins from them of the finest quality and
three large neatly dressed Panther skins…”(Russell 26-27).
Shirt made of tanned hides
Photo by Ron Mamot
The Sheep Eaters’ use of plants
Although the Mountain Bighorn Sheep were a major source of food, clothing, housing,
and tools for the Sheep Eaters, vegetation also played a large role in their diet and
migration patterns. The Oregon Grape might have been used for the yellow dye made
from its bark as well as a food source.
It is thought that on the average, seventy percent of the Sheep Eaters diet came from
plants and the remaining thirty percent from animals. Nuts such as the pine nut were a
valuable source of food and could be easily stored for future use.
Limber Pine cone produces pine nuts
Most of the edible plants were root vegetables such as camas, biscuit root, spring
beauty, bitterroot, and sego lily. The camas had to be baked in order to change the
naturally indigestible sugar into digestible sugar. The biscuit root when ground up
becomes a white-colored meal that can be used for flat cakes. The bitterroot can be dried
out and regenerated with the addition of water (Loendorf Lecture Notes 8/8/00).
The Sheep Eaters created an earth-oven in which to bake their vegetables. First they
would dig roasting pits that were lined with stone and fire. On top of the heated rocks
and coals, they would then layer grass to provide fuel to keep the fire going. The final
step was to add the roots and then to put more layers of grass over the roots. An average
sized pit could hold around nine bushels of camas or thirteen bushels of bitterroot. The
roasted camas could feed a family of four for about thirty days, and the bitterroot could
feed the same family of four for about forty-two days. During the winter months when
other food was scarce, these roots meant survival for the Sheep Eater family (Loendorf
Lecture Notes 8/8/00).
Seasonal transhumance of the Sheep Eaters
Because of the availability of seasonal food sources, the Sheep Eaters practiced what is
known as seasonal transhumance. This term basically means “people moving from
place to place”. The migration patterns of the Sheep Eaters included land in what is now
Wyoming, southern Montana, and Idaho. Within these areas, the Sheep Eaters would
follow the sheep high up into the mountains in the summer and down to the lower
foothills in the winter. It was natural that they would utilize the plant sources such as
roots and berries of the areas they were in at a particular time (Loendorf Lecture Notes
8/7/00). Other than the Bighorn Sheep, important sources of meat were deer, elk, fish,
birds and small mammals such as the beaver, porcupine, and squirrels. Mountain winters
and valley summers can be extremely cold or hot so by practicing seasonal transhumance
the Sheep Eaters found a happy middle ground for themselves, the animals they hunted,
and the plants they gathered. During the wintry months the Sheep Eaters would migrate
down towards the warmer valleys as they followed the sheep (The Wind River
Rendezvous Vol. XX: 4). Sheltered from the harsh winds of winter, the Sheep Eaters
would be able to have “convenient access to wood, fresh water and yarding elk, sheep,
deer or even Bison” (Janetski, 45).
Torrey Valley Mule Deer Herd
Seasonal housing of the Sheep Eaters
Because they followed their food sources, the need for permanent housing was not a
priority of the Sheep Eaters. Many times they would utilize the natural shelters in their
locale such as cliff overhangs or caves both of which could be sealed or closed with
either brush or hides (The Wind River Rendezvou, Vol. XX, 4).
The Sheep Eaters also constructed structures known as wickiups for a more secure winter
home while in the lower elevations. These wickiups were constructed in a wooden pole
configuration which took on a conical shape. Many times brush and domed willow were
also used in their construction. Once the wood or brush was in place, the wickiup was
then often covered with tree bark slabs, animal hides, or sheaves of grass tied together
with willow. These structures were usually ten to fifteen feet in diameter and were
occupied by two families (Janetski 46).
Bob Edgar, archaeologist, in front of a well preserved wickiup
Photo by Ron Mamot
Usually upon their return from the higher elevations, the Sheep Eater family only needed
to make minor repairs to prepare the wickiup for the harsh winter months.
The Sheep Eaters use of dogs
The nomadic lifestyle of the Sheep Eaters made it necessary for them to have flexible
pack animals. Unlike horses which were in short supply and too fragile for the rocky
peaks of the mountains, dogs proved to be a more efficient pack animal and more adapted
to the rugged terrain of the mountains. As previously mentioned these dogs were also
used in the trapping process of the Bighorn Sheep (Janetski 43).
Osborne Russell, not only observed the Sheep Eaters use of dogs as pack animals, but
how content and well off they appeared to be without such European goods as the gun
and the horse:
“Here we have found a few Snake Indians [Sheep Eaters] comprising 6 men 7 women
and 8 or 10 children who were the only inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot.
They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality and
seemed to be perfectly contented and happy…Their personal property consisted of
one old butcher knife nearly worn to the back, two old shattered fusees which had
long since become useless for want of ammunition, of a small stone pot, and about
30 dogs upon which they carried their skins, clothing, provisions, etc on their
hunting excursions…They would throw the skins at our feet and say ‘give us what-
ever you please for them we are satisfied. We can get plenty of skins” (Russell 1965:
Misconceptions about the Sheep Eaters
Many misconceptions about the Sheep Eaters may have been created by early white
settlers. These settlers may have viewed them as an obstacle in the way of “progress” or
they might have just simply misunderstood them. Whatever the reason, one cannot
neglect the fact that these misconceptions still linger today. By studying this unique
culture one not only learns the underlining ignorance that has aided in the production of
such fallacious myths, but the knowledge of how to conquer them.
The following passages will highlight several untruthful presumptions regarding the
Tukadika culture and reveals the truths about these truly adaptable people.
Sheep Eaters of Yellowstone Park were described as pygmies…
In 1880, Philetus Norris, Yellowstone Park’s second superintendent stated:
“The only real occupants of the Park were the pygmy tribe of three or four
hundred timid and harmless Sheepeater Indians, who seem to have won this
appellation on account of their use of the Bighorn Sheep for food and clothing”
It is interesting to note that though Norris depicted the Tukadika as “timid” and
“harmless” he still wanted these “pygmies” to vacate the park grounds in 1881 (Loendorf
Norris described the Tukadika or Sheep Eaters to be “pygmies”. Although these people
were not incredibly tall, they were not as miniature in size as they were depicted to be.
Skeletal evidence found in Yellowstone National Park estimates that the average Sheep
Eater female was approximately 5’-5’1” in height and the typical male 5’4” –5’5”
Though they “were not tall people and as a group were medium to short in stature,” they
created and utilized their own sheep horn bows. According to Tom Lucas, a
contemporary bow maker, the typical Sheep Eater bow would require, “considerable
upper body strength,” as these bows possessed the “pull strength of about sixty-five
pounds” (Loendorf 163).
During the late 1800’s the Sheep Eaters were considered to be a “problem” to the overall
development of Yellowstone National Park. Many believe that by describing the Sheep
Eaters as pygmies, Norris, was “trying to diminish the shadows of their presence in his
park” (Loendorf 164). Norris was not alone in his attempt to evict the Tukadika from
their native homeland, as the late 1800s was a time of settlement and “anti-Indian
sentiment was ‘common among the prospectors’” (Loendorf 323).
Sheep Eaters of Yellowstone Park were mistaken as “timid and feeble minded”…
Another erroneous presumption made about the Sheep Eater Indians of Yellowstone
National Park, was that they were a “weak and degenerate race, wholly unfit to hold their
own” (Loendorf 164). In other words, the Sheep Eaters were looked upon as helpless
people unable to make a life for their own.
During this period of time, it was a common belief that the horse and the gun were
instruments of progress necessary for success. The Sheep Eaters, already satisfied with
the quality of their own hunting inventions like the sheep trap and the Bighorn Sheep
bow did not find it necessary to acquire the gun or horse. Due to the Sheep Eater’s
nomadic hunting and gathering schedule, the horse would only prove as a hindrance in
the Rocky Mountains and the gun a hassle, and they would have no use for the gun if it
broke or ran out of ammunition. Because the Sheep Eaters did not take part in either the
horse or gun trade, many believed these people to be cowards who were, “lacking either
the will or courage to compete in a world of the horse and the gun” (Loendorf 165).
The Sheep Eaters of Yellowstone Park were thought to be petrified of geysers…
It was commonly believed that the Sheep Eaters of Yellowstone Park “shunned the
geyser area (Loendorf, 166).
Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park
Anthropologist, Ake Hultkrantz, who studied the Sheep Eaters earlier this century,
initially thought that the reason these people avoided areas of geyser activity was because
they were fearful of them (Loendorf 166). After interviewing some Shoshone Indians,
Hultkrantz learned that the Sheep Eaters were probably not that fearful of the geysers, but
respected them. George Wesaw, a Shoshone Indian reported to Hultkrantz that his people
believed the geysers to be holy:
“The Indians prayed to the geysers because they believed that there were spirits
inside them. Sometimes, when nearing enemies, they let the water from the
geysers spray over them so they became invisible” (Loendorf 166 [Hultkrantz
The spirits of the hot springs and the geysers were felt to be the homes of both good and
bad spirits. Some Shoshone believe that a “dragon” once lived in the Hot Springs of
Thermopolis, Wyoming. It is also told that other aquatic spirits and creatures dwelled in
the thermal features of the area such as water ghosts and pan dzoavits who were
believed to make “the water boil” (Loendorf, 166). Pan dzoavits have also been thought
to be associated with dzoazvits, who were both supposedly mean-hearted spirits who
dwelled on the tops of mountains. According to Ake Hultkratz, “Most Shoshoni I asked
said that this kind of spirit is extinct nowadays,” however they “may exist underground or
underwater” (Hultkrantz 50).
Some Shoshone at the Fort Washakie Reservation commented on how the Sheep Eaters
and certain other Indian tribes would use the hot springs for their arthritis as it proved
“good for the bones” (Loendorf 313). In addition, the hot springs were commonly used
to keep individuals warm as one informant stated that:
“(Our grandparents) even told us that they would go down there just to be in that
water. There is also what they call mudbath, in Thermopolis by the river. They
would go in there and cover themselves with mud. That used to cure sores or
things on your body; it would bring out that sickness in your body” (Loendorf
The Sheep Eaters respected these wondrous thermal features, but probably were not
terrified by them as they lived in an area where other, “such natural forces like blizzards,
grizzly bears, and thunderstorms” were common. In order to survive in such a demanding
area, the Sheep Eater Indians not only had to be able to be aware of their surroundings,
but also successfully utilize it as well (Loendorf 167.
Sheep Eaters of Yellowstone Park were thought to be paupers…
There were some people who believed that the Sheep Eaters were forced to flee to the
mountains because they were weaker than their more aggressive lowland neighbors.
Many did not credit the Sheep Eaters for their rough existence, as they presumed that
“fear of starvation constantly haunted the Shoshones” (Loendorf 167). It was not until
recently that scholars have come to realize that the Sheep Eaters were far from poverty,
and enjoyed the mobility and leisure that accompanies a hunter and gatherer life-style.
Unlike some societies who constantly work on raising their food, the Sheep Eaters merely
followed the natural patterns of plant life and game migration for their subsistence.
Wintering Elk in Teton National Park
However, like any other society the Sheep Eaters could not escape the chance of running
into shortages of food and periods of drought, so they did prepare for them (Loendorf
168). The Sheep Eaters dried berries, roots, meat and fish. They were also well aware of
their environment and knew which plants to look out for during times of starvation. If
hard times fell upon the Sheep Eaters they had to ability to identify plants like the
cambium of a pine tree, which would then be used a food resource. Also many times the
Sheep Eaters would have goods like obsidian and clothes that they could trade with other
parties in order to survive through hard times. In addition, “sometimes the Sheep Eaters
were known to have joined other bands of the Shoshone like the Ground Hog Eaters and
Fish Eaters for help” (Loendorf 169).
Though the Sheep Eaters were prepared for hard times, they were not poor and helpless.
If they had been constantly in such a poverty-stricken condition, then they would have
probably been unable to feed and take care of thirty dogs at one time or to provide
trappers with bountiful amounts of beautiful hides and skins (Loendorf 170).
The Sheep Eater Indians were once thought to be renegades…
This savage-like image of the Sheep Eater Shoshone was quite popular during the 1870’s,
which coincides with the time that Yellowstone Park and the area around it was
beginning to develop. The Sheep Eaters were referred to by some people of that period
as “outlaws”, whose “hand (was) against every man, and every man’s hand against them.
They lived chiefly by plunder” (Loendorf 170). As we know, many settlers during the
1860’s did not distinguish Indians according to tribes or nations, and only referred to
them as one group. Many times the Sheep Eaters were confused with and commonly
mistaken as “the band of excommunicated Bannack, Shoshoni and Nez Perce” Indians,
who were erroneously presumed to be “renegade Sheep Eaters” (Loendorf 171)
The Sheep Eaters did very well for themselves, as they did not appear to be in any state
of desperation according to Osborne Russell’s observations. As depicted in his account,
the Sheep Eaters typically traveled in small sizes groups “comprising 6 men 7 women
and 8 or 10 children” (Russell 1965:26-27). These small groups were called kin/clicques
and were family and friend groups or bands. It was common for the Sheep Eater bands to
grow in size during the winter, as they might consolidate with other bands in the warmer
valleys below the daunting mountain peaks in order to follow and hunt the Bighorn Sheep
(The Wind River Renedezvous Vol. XX: 4). Due to the nature of such small-scale
groups, the Sheep Eaters did not employ such titles as “chief”, using instead a “headman
whose tenure lasted as long as he was able to provide success in hunting and defense in
an egalitarian social structure” (Janetski 43).
The process of a “vision quest”
Though we are unable to know fully know if or how the original Sheep Eaters practiced
rituals comparable to that of the Plains Indian’s vision quests, anthropologist Ake
Hultkrantz has gathered some information on this subject from the Wind River
Shoshones of the 1900s, who are believed to be the ancestral descendants of the Sheep
The Shoshone of today believe in the distinguished power of such spirits like “Mother
Earth” and “Our Father”, however puha is thought to be “supernatural power” given to
certain individuals by guardian spirits (Hultkrantz, 51). It is believed that such puha or
“supernatural power” is received through dreams or sought by undergoing something
similar to a vision quest (Hultkrantz, 52). Contemporary Wind River Shoshones regard
dreams as a viable way of receiving such puha. Sun Dancing is also another alternative
to obtaining such “supernatural power”(Hultkrantz 52).
Though it is thought that the Shoshones have also placed a great amount of importance in
visions and dreams, there is some discrepancy as to whether vision questing was always
part of their traditional practices (Hultkrantz 52). Some people think that the Plains
Indians had some influence over the Shoshones as they are thought to have introduced the
practice of vision questing to them . Hultkrantz interviewed the Wind River Mountain
Shoshone during the 1940’s (Hultkrantz 52) and found that the Sheep Eaters were still
residing in places like Yellowstone around the turn of the century (Loendorf 163). It is
not totally inconceivable that the Mountain Shoshone may have partaken in the practice
of vision questing. The Shoshone did not typically divulge their beliefs and religious
practices to outsiders, some basic understanding of the procedure of a vision quest is
known to non-natives (Hultkrantz 52). It is said that a male is the typical participant of
this supernatural power seeking process, and he is expected to:
“ride(s) a horse up to the foothills where the rock drawings are…at a distance of
some 200 yards from the rock with pictographs he tethers his horse. Then he takes
a bath to cleanse himself in the nearest creek or lake. Without moccasins he walks
up to the rock ledge just beneath the drawings and makes his camp there. Naked,
except for a blanket around him, he lies down there under the open sky, waiting
for the spirits to appear. Sometimes, I was told, the supplicant directs a prayer to a
particular spirit depicted on the rock panel, anxious to receive that very power.
As we shall see, each spirit that blesses its client does so with a special gift related
to the spirit’s own abilities” (Hultkrantz 53).
Rock art of the Sheep Eaters
Petroglyphs are pictures that were typically engraved or pecked on soft rock like
sandstone. This type of rock art was produced by American Indians such as the Sheep
Eaters. It is thought that the Sheep Eaters drew their elaborate pictures on the sandstone
by the pecking on the rock with antlers or harder rock. It is impossible to date the
petroglyph itself, however other sources of related evidence such as algae growth close to
the vicinity of the drawing may prove helpful in dating of the rock art (The Wind River
Rendezvous Vol. XVIII: 2).
Torrey Valley Petroglyph that shows resemblance to both human and animal form
Pictographs are paintings done on rocks and can be located in several different areas of
Wyoming. Wyoming’s early inhabitants converted minerals, charcoal and plants into a
painting medium. Pictographs were mostly painted on rocks that possessed porous
surfaces, as it would absorb the paint better. (The Wind River Rendezvous Vol. XVIII: 3).
Theories about the petroglyphs of the Wind River Valley
The meanings of the Wind River Valley petroglyphs cannot ever truly be understood for
sure as their creators are not around to question. Some believe that these drawings or
peckings represent spiritual or mythical beings, others suggest that these petroglyphs
represent something more on the personal level, like one’s dreams or occurrences (The
Wind River Rendezvous Vol. XVIII: 3). Some people speculate that the figures in these
petroglyphs may be linked to “hunting magic”. Though we do not totally understand the
practices of the Sheep Eaters, some believe that individuals may have practiced the art of
luring animals into a certain area by drawing their images on the rocks of that location
(The Wind RiverRendezvous Vol. XVIII: 3).
Many of the petroglyphs found near Torrey Creek, an area that is believed by
archeologists to be a familiar residence of the Sheep Eaters, are made up of images that
resemble human and animal figures (The Wind RiverRendezvous Vol. XVIII: 6).
Anthropologist, Ake Hultkrantz describes how some places like Crowheart Butte, were
areas where some Native Americans may have written their war records. It is believed
that individuals would travel to places like Crowheart Butte to seek guidance and aid
from “good guardian spirits” (Hultkrantz 49). Some say that the petroglyphs found in
such places like Crowheart Butte, Sage Creek, Owl Creek and other similar areas have
either been drawn by individuals in order to represent such guardian spirits, or have been
produced by the spirits that dwell there (Hultkrantz 49). According to Hultkrantz:
“Indians have told me that in the spring and summer they have discovered new
drawings on the rock face, apparently pecked by the spirits since their last visit.
Some Shoshoni who approach the rock drawing places in the wintertime may hear the
spirits working on them. When they withdraw from the place they can again hear the
knocking” (Hultkrantz 49).
Though Hultkrantz was able to interview some Shoshone of more recent times, these
individuals may have been continuing their ancestor’s traditions and beliefs.
One of Hultkrantz’s sources remarks was that, “the spirits are not as common today as
they were in the old days. The power lines and poles especially have scared them away.
They have retreated for good to the mountains” (Hultkrantz 49).
Many of these sacred sites that were formerly used, have been abandoned for one reason
or another. There is some speculation that the influx of white settlers may have deterred
the Shoshone from returning to these spaces as they may have deemed these sites as
“useless” (Hultkrantz 50).
Many Sheep Eaters became guides
One of the best known Sheep Eaters was a medicine man named Togwotee who took up
the occupation of guide after joining the plains tribe of Shoshones who were under the
leadership of Chief Washakie after they were located to the Wind River Reservation in
Wyoming. Many other Sheep Eaters also became guides because of their extensive
knowledge of the Wind River Mountains.
“In 1882 five Mountain Shoshones guided General Sheridan through parts of
Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. One year later Togwotee led President Chester
Arthur and his party from Fort Washakie through Yellowstone National Park. One
can only imagine what Togwotee must have felt as he guided the ‘Great White
Father’ through what was once the exclusive homeland of his people” (The Wind
River Rendezvous Vol. XX: 18)
The decendents of Togwotee still live on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
Dramer, Kim. The Shoshone, Chelsea House Publishers: Philadelphia, 1997.
Haines, Aubrey L., Editor. Journal of a Trapper: Osborne Russell, University of
Nebraska Press: Lincoln/London, 1955.
Hausel W, Dan. Minerals and Rocks of Wyoming, Larry B. Glass, State Geologist,
The Geological Survey of Wyoming Bulletin No. 66: Laramie 1986.
Hultkrantz, Ake. Native Religions of North America: The Power of Visions and
Fertility, Harper San Francisco: A Division of Harper Collins Publishers: New
York City, 1987.
Janetski, Joel C. Indians of Yellowstone Park, Bonneville Books, University of
Utah Press: Salt Lake City, 1987.
Lageson, David R. and Darwin R. Spearing. Roadside Geology of Wyoming, 2nd
Edition, Mountain Press Publishing Company: Missoula, 1988.
Loendorf, Larry and Peter Nabokov. Restoring a Presence: A documentary
Overview of Native Americans and Yellowstone National Park, 1998.
Loendorf, Larry. Notes from 8/8/00-8/10/00 lecture held at the Wind River Historical
Center, Dubois, WY.
Martin, Wayne. Outline of the Geology of the Wind River Basin, Dubois Area of
Wyoming, Miami University: Oxford, Ohio, 1993.
Martin, Wayne. Summary of the Geologic History of the Wind River Basin of
Wyoming, Miami University: Oxford, Ohio, 1997.
The Wind River Rendezvous, Vol. XVII, No. 2, St. Stephens Indian Mission
Foundation: St. Stephens,WY, Apr/May/June 1988 .
The Wind River Rendezvous, Vol. XX, No. 3, St Stephens Indian Mission
Foundation: St. Stephens, WY, Jul/Aug/Sept 1990.
The Wind River Rendezvous, Vol. XXI, No. 2, St. Stephens Indian Mission
Foundation: St. Stephens, WY, Apr/May/Jun 1991.
Text and Photographs by Sally Wulbrecht, Wind River Historical Center, Dubois,
Research Assistants were Rebecca Cricillis and Fran Connolly, Student interns from
Rhodes College in Memphis Tennessee
Additional Photographs were used with permission from Ron Mamot, Editor of the
Wind River Rendezvous Magazine, St. Stephens Indian Mission Foundation, and
Judith Bendel of the Lucius Burch Center in Dubois, Wyoming