Living Among the Powerful Spirits
By David S. Lewis
Not so long ago, a mysterious people walked the land called Yellowstone who had lived there for many centuries. Their nature and ways have been described in historical accounts in such a manner that has made them seem almost non- human. While it was not the intention of these ill informed descriptions, we shall see that the Sheep Eaters of the Greater Yellowstone were indeed human beings of different kind than we are today, though they may represent another side of ourselves yet to be discovered in the modern world.
Perhaps the most maligned and least misunderstood of all native peoples, the Tukudika, or Sheep Eaters, took their name from the game that sustained them, as did other Shoshone—the Salmon Eaters, the Buffalo Eaters. Not often initiators of aggression, though they engaged in warfare, they were considered among the wider family of Shoshone Indians as great medicine men, and highly spiritual, for having lived at the rarefied altitudes, often above 7,500 feet, in the mountains and mountain valleys of Yellowstone, and in the surrounding heights of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, that the Shoshone believed were home to a higher order of spirits called Sky People.
The Sheep Eaters, though, gained an undeserved reputation, through written accounts laden with biases and superficial observations, as having been destitute, feeble-minded, and almost subhuman, though not all whites shared that view. It was these unfortunate impressions that took root though, and which endured through the power of the written word, but which, now, after a sincere examination of their culture has been undertaken, reveal more about the observers than the observed.
Often called Mountain Shoshone, they may have lived in the Yellowstone area for 10,000 years, although another version of their ancient history has them arriving less than 1,000 years ago in this area where we now live. Their nature, distinct from related bands, has been incorrectly assumed to be that of outcasts from the greater Shoshone family of tribes. The image of the Sheep Eaters in general, in fact, seems to have been so mischaracterized that dismiss-ing a good part of the once commonly held beliefs about them is in order.
Lewis and Clarke were the first whites to meet the Mountain Shoshone in the person of a Cameahwait, the man that would show them the way to the Salmon River country. That was in 1805, before the Corps of Discovery entered what is now Idaho.
Lewis wrote in his journal that these native people “live in a wretched stait of poverty, yet notwithstanding their extreem poverty they are not only cheerful but even gay, fond of gaudy dress and amusements; like most other Indians they are egotists and frequently boast of heroic acts which they have never performed, they are also fond of games of wrisk. they are frank, communicative, fair in dealing, generous with the little they possess, extreemly honest, and by no means beggarly. each individual is his own sovereign master, and acts from the dictates of his own mind, the authority of the Chief being nothing more than mere admonition supported by the influence which the prop[r]iety of his own examplary conduct may have acquired him in the minds of the individuals who compose the band.”
Cameahwait told Lewis, through translators, that the Broken Mockerson Indians lived in the westward mountain country (now Idaho), the Sheep Eaters having been so named, it is assumed, for having worn tattered footwear.
Lewis and Clark had found their way to Cameahwait with the help of Sacajawea, a Shoshone herself, who had been kidnapped and removed from her people many years before, but found them again in the person of Cameah-wait, her long lost brother.
In Mountain Spirit, authors Lawrence Loendorf and Nancy Medaris Stone, reveal many secrets of the Sheep Eaters, while dispelling various myths as well, and explain one of the reasons that they stand out among native peoples.
The horse and rifle, after the arrival of the Spanish in New Mexico, sent a seismic ripple through Native American cultures, we are told, that propelled those cultures in a new direction, forever altering their habits, and eventually, after white conquest, their very existence. The Sheep Eaters, though, while they came to use guns and horses to a degree (trading supplies for them with Lewis and Clark), and though they traveled greater distances on horseback than before acquiring horses, they continued to travel on foot in the traditional way and kept to the high remote areas, escaping the European influence more than other tribes and remaining deeply immersed in their landscape and ways, aided in no small measure by the all encompassing beauty and unspoiled wilderness of Yellowstone that inspired their beliefs, worldview and spirituality.
The Salmon Eaters, the Sheep Eaters, the Buffalo Eaters, then, and other Mountain Shoshone, seemed to have insulated themselves, for a time after the arrival of the white man, within the culture they and other tribes had known for what may have been 10,000 years, while other native peoples more readily changed with the times.
The Sheep Eater culture distin-guishes itself in various ways—their forest dwellings (not tepees) crafted of skins and branches (aspen and willow in summer, heavier materials in winter), called wickiups (see image); their wolf dogs, a breed that no longer exists today; their manner of dress; and their hides, which were of high quality and trade value. Their bows earned a near mythical reputation. Made from the horns of Bighorn Sheep or elk antlers, which they heated at Yellowstone’s geysers and hot pools and then molded into hunting weapons, it was said that their force could drive an obsidian-tipped arrow clear through a buffalo.
That which distinguishes the Mountain Shoshone in a more dramatic way, or at least paints an accurate portrait and dispels the historical myths regarding their powers of perception, is their spirituality. Loendorf and Stone paint this portrait in some detail in Mountain Spirit, and Loendorf himself seems to have an affinity for that portrait’s texture and hue, having gleaned some sense of the all pervasiveness of the Shoshone’s spiritual reality himself while high in the Beartooth Mountains.
Under the heading Living Among the Powerful Spirits, the authors write:
“Like many other hunters and gatherers, the Sheep Eaters did not make a distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds. This paradigm…accepts that the entities that today are classified by science as inanimate are actually living beings. In this worldview, strangely shaped rocks, animals, and human beings are all “animated” or given life by an indwelling spiritual power. One could say that the Sheep Eater religion was ecological in focus, for the spirit entities embodied in meteorlogical forces and various animals were seen as controlling the dynamics of their mountain environment: at the apex were the “Sky People,” below them were the “Ground People,” and still lower were the “Water People.” Physical phenomena were also hierarchically ordered, with the sun and lightning at the pinnacle and rattlesnakes occupying the bottom rung of the cosmos.
Spirits were not all equal: the strongest—those of the toyawo, or mountain medicine, lived “in the wooded mountain areas of the Yellowstone National Park, the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers, and possibly the Big Horn Mountains,” [according to Geraldine Hultkrantz’s Shoshone Tales, an unpublished manuscript developed from the field notes of Ake Hultkrantz]. Shoshone bands living at lower elevations also believedthat the strongest puha (power) existed in the mountains. Consistent with this spiritual hierarchy, the Sheep Eaters were recognized as ‘living among the powerful spirits’ and absorbing some or their power. When in the 1870s Sheep Eater groups were moved to reservations, they were regarded as particularly powerful medicine people.
In the seamless world of matter and spirit, Ta Apo, or ‘Our Father,’ was an omnipotent Supreme Being who was closely related to the sun: in fact, he created the sun, also a superior being. When praying, Sheep Eaters faced the sun, although their prayers were actually addressed to Our Father. …[T]he ‘our Father’ figure predated any contact with the white man’s religion, [which] is supported by…an ancient Father Dance in their ritual life.
Sheep Eaters believed that lightning and thunder were emanations from equally important, powerful spirits. Lightning was closely associated with thunderbirds, spirits that could be represented by eagles, although they more often assumed the form of a hummingbird. Screech owls were also sometimes associated with lightning, but they were a benign species compared to the malev-olent wokaimunbitsch, a large, owl-like bird that was believed to steal and eat people.”
“Other ‘Sky People,’” Loendorf and Stone continue, “included ravens, crows, and magpies, which could give people the power to find lost objects, and cranes had important puha enabling them to travel very fast. Within the hierarchy of powerful spirits, ‘ground people’ such as fearsome grizzly bears, crafty weasels, and powerful bighorn sheep had…potent medicine.…
Further down the Sheep Eater spiritual hierarchy were the ‘Water People,’ a variety of ghostlike creatures classi-fied under the general heading of pandzoavits, or water ghosts. These…’water babies’ [were] squat, heavy-set creatures inhabiting springs, creeks, rivers, and lakes.…”
Continuing from Mountain Spirit:
“As it was believed that spirits from the tree domains left their likenesses on rock surfaces in the form of petroglyphs, Sheep Eaters—especially men—often went to rock art sites to connect with their powers. It was claimed that the sound of these potent creatures pecking their images on the rocks was audible, especially in the wintertime, but that when a person approached, the spirits quit pecking. The supplicants’ quest for power followed an established practice: first he bathed in a lake or stream, and then he painted a little red pigment on his chest and forehead, smudged in cedar smoke, and placed himself in front of a panel of rock drawings. There he sat throughout the night and perhaps for several more days and nights, wrapped in a blanket, awaiting a visit from the spirits.
A sufficiently large number of spiritual visitations have been recorded to permit a generalized description of the usual sequence of events. First, there was a visit from a nynymbi, or ‘little person’ who led the supplicant on a journey directly into the rock surface through holes or crevices that first seemed impassable. Once inside the rock, the human-nynymbi pair passed by a frightening series of ogres or monstrous creatures. As each of the creatures was encountered, the ‘little person’ would instruct the supplicant in the behavior appropriate to such a meeting, but at some point the little person would leave the supplicant to fend for himself. Now alone and terrified, he was often confronted by a creature that seemed at first to be an animal and then a man or animal composed of parts of different animals, such as an owl with human arms, or a rattlesnake with the legs of a weasel. At other times these creatures—who gave the supplicant supernatural power and defined the conditions and regulations for owning and using the powers—could take on a more natur-alistic form, so that, for instance, a spirit might look just like an anatomically correct bear.…
A Sheep Eater who had successfully completed a spiritual quest and now possessed supernatural power was recognized as a puhagant—or a medicine person—and could use his or her power to become a superb warrior, aided by the ability to make their bodies as hard as stone and therefore invulnerable to arrows and bullets. The power gave other persons the knowledge to cure the sick. Sheep Eaters believed that the many illnesses were caused by invisible arrows that were shot into their bodies by bad spirits.”
The Sheep Eaters, according to Loendorf and Stone, also used plants and minerals at once medicinally and ritualistically, the knowledge of which, and an entire pharmacopoeia, derived from the spirit world, which interacted with and was inseparable from visible reality.
Actual visitations, or the power of belief—self-hypnosis, through a collec-tive cultural consciousness untouched by the white man and European thinking? It’s a question that might best be addressed by inquiring as to whose cultural self-hypnosis, which take on reality and belief in its veracity is inherently more worthy and sustainable, their Sheep Eater’s or ours?
Their’s was an alternate psychological (if not actual) reality held in esteem by other Shoshone that earned Sheep Eaters the respect of their peers, unlike the notions once held by whites who judged their nature without understanding their ways.
We now walk the same lands as the Sheep Eaters, or view them from afar. We all know Yellowstone, which is in a sense our backyard, not just the park itself but the thrilling vistas that are the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, the Tetons, and the high valleys we encoun-ter with awe, and vast rolling meadows and high lakes that we see while driving or hiking in the park itself and nearby. Imagine, now, if you will, that you travel not by car, but on foot (as the Shoshone on page 19), guided not by a road sign, but by some internal knowing that understands the land and one’s place in it, and that you believe like a Mountain Shoshone, having never known other beliefs, that all that you behold expresses the unseen, having been given life by the same force that drives the rivers and shoots steam from geysers. You live in another dimension of understanding, one that does not comprehend the white man’s ways but senses the self in relation to a stunning natural world whose ravens, bears, waters, eagles and snakes are expressions of Spirit, as is oneself through intuitive knowledge.
How then could such a people, while being described as desti-tute, have been understood by the interlopers who judged at a glance.
In a way, it was the magnificence of the land itself, Yellowstone, that foiled the Sheep Eaters (though a remnant survives to this day), or rather the white man’s desire to contain and exploit that land in the form of a tourist destination, Yellowstone Nation-al Park, as Superintendent Norris drove the Sheep Eaters from their ancient homeland, and as they were pursued militarily in Idaho, then taken to reservations at Wind River, Wyoming, and Fort Hall, Idaho. And with that, Sheep Eaters in Yellowstone were no more. Gone like smoke on the wind.
Their Spirit remains.
Editor’s note: The full story of the Sheep Eaters can hardly be told in this brief format. Much of the above derives from Mountain Spirit, The Sheep Eater Indians of Yellowstone, by Lawrence L. Loendorf and Nancy Medaris Stone, a thrilling and comprehensive look into this tribe’s fascinating world, now gone, but accessible to those who would understand a great people who walked the heights of Yellowstone not so very long ago. The authors diligently chronicle Sheep Eater culture and dispel various myths, including the supposed non existence of Indians in Yellowstone. Read such a book, then visit the park, and see perhaps, in some small way, through the eyes of its original people.