Archaeologist unearths tepee poles in Bighorn

By Lorna Thackeray
Bighorn Canyon National Rec., Montana (AP) July 2010

Only a trained eye would have been able to spot fragile evidence left behind perhaps hundreds of years ago by native peoples traversing the semi-arid foothills of the Pryor Mountains.

It was only by chance that National Park Service archaeologist Chris Finley saw them at all – long strands of weathered wood that he identified immediately as pieces of ancient tepee poles.

When he saw the first one a year ago, Finley had been scrambling down a rocky incline checking on the work of contract archaeologists who were surveying in advance of a plan by the Western Area Power Administration to rebuild transmission lines through the park. After Finley showed the remnant to Crow tribal members monitoring the survey, they started seeing them everywhere.

Soon, they had counted 22 pole fragments, most of them 4 to 6 feet long. One measured 12 feet.

“I've talked to a lot of archaeologists and nobody has ever seen anything like this,” Finley said.

Tepee poles are not the most durable of artifacts, especially those left to the vagaries of weather on the Northern Plains. But maybe the near-desert climate on the southern end of Bighorn Canyon helped.

To the casual observer, these old sticks seem to blend in with the twisted, stunted and scraggly vegetation struggling for footholds in a landscape fractured by rocky fissures and draws. Juniper, limber pine and mountain mahogany dominate, Finley said.

“It's probably lodge pole pine,” he said, pointing to one of the artifacts.

No lodge pole pine trees grow anywhere near.

“You can see how out of place it is if you know what you're looking at,” Finley said.

The pieces he has identified are pole tips, probably broken off as they were dragged across the rugged landscape, Finley explained. The poles would have been cumbersome cargo in difficult terrain, especially in the era before horses arrived in about 1700.

He doesn't know how old the poles are, but scientific tests are planned to get a better idea. A small tree grew up around one of the poles, which is propped in its ancient branches.

The poles were found in association with the Bad Pass Trail, which native peoples used for at least 10,000 years. It leads from the Wyoming plains to the buffalo country in Montana. Thirteen miles of the trail pass through the recreation area in three segments, Finley said. The trails changed over time from footpaths to paths for people relying on dogs and finally to horse trails.

Cairns – rock piles constructed as trail markers – helped point travelers the right way. Many of them are still visible today.