Wyoming's Indigenous Heritage

By Lesley Wischmann

February 25, 2016

Although the symbol of the cowboy on a bucking bronco has become a ubiquitous association with the state of Wyoming, the American cowboy's history in the region is relatively short. Several different Native American groups inhabited the region far before immigrants from the east settled there, and they are still here today. Indigenous peoples have traveled through what is now called Wyoming for thousands of years. Due to the harsh Wyoming climate, many groups were nomadic, coming only to hunt and gather. Despite the seasonal residency, Native American tribes left behind evidence of their presence. Evidence of early habitation varies. The most common type of site consists of stone debris from the making of traditional tools. Stone circles can also be found throughout Wyoming. Stone circles could designate a space as a tipi site, a social or religious space, and possibly tracking seasons or astronomy. Pit houses have also been discovered in Wyoming. These structures were likely primarily used for food storage, but could have had other social uses for the various cultures. Rock art sites are also found in Wyoming, reflecting a diversity of cultures that passed through the area. 

Prehistoric petroglyphs at Castle Gardens

Native American tribes also have many sacred sites that are still important in their traditions today. In northeastern Wyoming is Bear’s Lodge, commonly known as Devil’s Tower. The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, another famous sacred site, can be visited in Bighorn National Forest. Federal land management agencies such as the National Park Service have an absolute obligation to work closely with affected tribes whenever a project might compromise the integrity of any prehistoric sites. The exact location of many of these sites is often kept confidential, to protect them from vandalism and looting. In general, the Alliance for Historic Wyoming comments only broadly on prehistoric resources, preferring to respect the expertise of the allied indigenous peoples in determining how these resources should best be respected. However, AHW does comment on general management practices as they relate to prehistoric resources, will participate in determining the best way to mitigate impacts to these resources and does promote special land use designations that can assist in protecting these special resources.

Bear's Lodge, commonly known as Devil's Tower, was the United States' first national monument and is also a sacred site to numerous Plains groups.

While it is important to recognize the western ranching traditions that made us the "Cowboy State," it is equally important to remember that the people in Wyoming were not always cowboys, and their myths and traditions are as much a part of our shared heritage as the homesteads and cattle ranches on the open plains.

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