Wyoming’s Wind River Country is home to the seventh largest Indian reservation in the country. Encompassing more than 2.2 million acres, the Wind River Indian Reservation is home to the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes. Visitors to the area can go to powwows and museums to learn more about the local culture, or can recreate on thousands of acres of vast, unspoiled reservation lands with special permits.
When the U.S. government made it clear that Native Americans would be required to live on designated reservations, the Eastern Shoshone—unlike most tribes in the United States— were allowed to choose the location of their permanent home. They opted to settle in the “Warm Valley of the Wind River,” which was their traditional wintering area and an important hunting grounds. Protected by surrounding mountains and watered by alpine streams, the Wind River Valley is still known for the mild winters and abundant wildlife that made it an attractive home for the tribe more than 150 years ago.
Before the reservation was established, however, it wasn’t obvious which tribe would control Wind River Country. In those turbulent years, the West was becoming crowded with whites settlers and prospectors, and game had begun to be scarce on the Great Plains. Several tribes—including the Crow—were forced onto the Shoshone’s traditional hunting grounds in the Wind River Valley in search of food.
In 1866, the Crows were camped along the Wind River not far from Crowheart Butte well within the bounds of what the Shoshone considered to be their territory. The Shoshone chief, Washakie, sent a warrior and his wife with a message to the Crow saying they were welcome to hunt in the territory of the Owl Creek Range if they left the Wind River Mountains to the Shoshone people.
Chief Big Robber, the Crow leader, considered his tribe equal or more powerful than the Eastern Shoshone, and was not interested in being told what to do by Washakie. He responded to the offer by killing the warrior and sending a message back with his wife stating that the Crow were prepared to go into battle and they would hunt wherever they pleased.
Washakie immediately sent word of what had taken place to the Shoshone’s allies, the Bannocks, who were camped along the Popo Agie River a few miles south. The Bannocks joined the Shoshone in a surprise attack of the Crow camp. The ensuing battle raged for five days, with both sides evenly matched. Many warriors were lost and it was finally agreed that Washakie and Big Robber would fight a duel to reach some kind of conclusion. The victorious chief would have the right to claim the Wind River Valley.
The battle raged back and forth, but ultimately Washakie overcame Big Robber. In victory, the story goes, Washakie was so impressed with the bravery of Big Robber that instead of taking his scalp, he cut out his heart and placed it on the end of his lance as a sign of respect. Crowheart Butte was named after this act.
Among the local Indian tribes, the battle between Washakie and Big Robber settled once and for all who would control Wind River Country. In 1868, Washakie signed a treaty with the United States government formalizing this agreement and establishing the Wind River Reservation’s boundaries in Wyoming. Ten years later, the government moved a band of Northern Arapaho from Colorado into the Wind River Valley and onto what had been Shoshone tribal lands. Traditional enemies, neither tribe was happy with this arrangement, but the government assured them it was temporary. As was often the case with such promises, this one was not kept and 50 years later the Arapahoe were still living on the reservation. Finally, in 1928, the two tribes made their peace, and the Shoshone were compensated for the loss of land by the government. Today the Shoshone and the Arapaho share the reservation and govern it jointly.