The oldest feature in Bighorn Canyon is the 10,000-year-old walking trail that indigenous Plains people once traversed. Extending all the way to the Wind River mountains in the south, this trail serves as a reminder that humans used the canyon and its resources long before it became the recreation area of today.
The Crow people’s relationship with Bighorn Canyon extends to the very beginnings of their own histories, and the Crow consider the land to be an inseparable part of their heritage. The canyon gains its name from the legend of Big Metal, in which the metal-horned and hooved chief of the bighorn sheep tells a rescued boy, Big Iron, that the canyon must never lose the name “Bighorn” or the Crow people will cease to exist. Records show that the modern Crow took up residence in the canyon in the early 1700s.
However, the Crow found themselves facing conflict from many different groups. Other tribes wanted access to the canyon’s rich hunting grounds, and the Crow warred with many of them. Among these tribes were the Sioux and the Cheyenne, who the Crow continued to find themselves at odds with as United States colonization encroached on their territory. The Sioux and Cheyenne fought against the US Army defend their lands while the Crow tried to preserve their territory by negotiating with the United States and acting as guides and mail carriers.
As white settler encroachment in the area escalated during the nineteenth century, so did the ire of many Plains tribes, were rapidly pushed out of their lands by the whites. Montana boundary disputes increased the already present tensions between settlers and Plains peoples. The federal government designated large segments of Montana land as Crow territory in 1851, part of which became the Crow Reservation in 1868, but nearby miners refused to honor these secessions. Bands of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe rallied together to fight back against this encroachment. Facing old foes once again, the Crow chose to ally with US troops, even fruitlessly warning Custer of his odds before the Battle of Little Bighorn. In exchange, the government promised the Crow land rights in the Bighorn area.
In 1966, five years after the groundbreaking on Yellowtail Dam, Bighorn Canyon became an official national recreation area. However, the park’s coverage included some Crow reservation land that the Bureau of Reclamation had previously acquired. In 1967, the Crow requested the return of land surrounding the newly completed Yellowtail Dam reservoir and the two entities formed a joint arrangement. Though this area still lies within the park’s boundaries, the Crow people retain control over assets such as the sale of fishing and hunting licenses and manage a fairly cooperative relationship with state and federal governments. The story of the Crow people shows that tribal history is not unilateral: rather, it is a complex series of relationships, with the land always at the center.