Collaborative efforts lead to interpretive trail at tipi rings site

Bringing cultural history to life is the goal of a project in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area to interpret a concentrated area of tipi rings south of Barry’s Landing.

The project to survey the Two Eagles site south of and across the road from the Ewing-Snell Ranch, began nine years ago and will culminate with the construction of the interpretive trail this summer and fall. A key event in the process took place on Friday morning, June 15, with a visit to the site by members of the Crow Tribe Cultural Committee including Director Burton Pretty On Top and a tribal elder, John Pretty On Top.

During Friday’s site visit, archaeologist Judson Finley, director of the Bighorn Canyon NRA Field School, said the Two Eagles site has 154 tipi rings and extensive survey work has documented and mapped with GPS accuracy 7,000 to 8,000 rocks. He said there are some 2,300 stone circles in the national recreation area.

A report for the National Recreation Area and the Western National Parks Association describes the Two Eagles site as an “extensive native campsite” that includes the numerous tipi rings and a big game driveline for bison hunting, adding that the site is “among the largest known tipi ring camps within Bighorn Canyon NRA.”

Extensive collecting of surface artifacts over the years has, ironically, made the Two Eagles site perfect for an interpretive trail, Finley said.

“There are very few artifacts,” he said. “It has been picked over for years.”

Thus, he said, there’s no harm in leading visitors into the middle of the site, especially with the extensive documentation of the rings and rocks.

“It’s about as close to being 100 percent documented as you can get,” Finley said.

Archaeologist and Bighorn Canyon NRA Field School Director Judson Finley points out the interpretive trail to be constructed later this summer during the June 15 site visit to the Two Eagles site near the Ewing-Snell Ranch.

Bighorn Canyon NRA archaeologist Chris Finley, Judson’s father, agrees, noting that the Two Eagles site was not only picked over but also looted – and the transpark highway cuts right through the site.

“There’s a stone circle under the shoulder of the road,” he said.

Test excavations of tipi rings indicate through radio carbon dating of charcoal that the rings were occupied over the course of the last 800 years, Judson Finley said, and added Chris, the site was occupied until the arrival of pioneers.

Ethnographer Kelly Branam said during the site tour Friday that it is important to tell the story of native peoples, with interpretation already performed extensively for natural features and white settlement in the park.

The park has needed “native lifeways interpretation,” she said, adding, “This is Crow home land. More and more Crow people are coming here to tell us their interpretation of the site.”

“We are really glad you guys are here,” said Judson Finley to the Crow visitors. “We had hoped to choose a site for people to get a good sense of native life in the canyon.”

Project history

Chris Finley said he was brought to Big Horn Canyon in 2003 to perform an analysis of the Hillsboro and Lockheart ranch sites for restoration compliance, and he was then asked to survey the areas adjacent to the transpark highway for a resurfacing project.

“I came on a 130-day assignment and I haven’t escaped yet,” he joked.

When the road was built in the 1970s, there was no cultural compliance performed at all, Chris said.

“I found 32 sites undocumented, and the road goes right through the middle of it (the Two Eagles site),” he said. “I was absolutely astonished. Part of it was destroyed.”

He also found two stone circles excavated by an archaeologist from the University of Montana that were undocumented.

“I knew something was happening here,” he said. “I realized how immense the site was and that I would never be able to document it alone. That’s one of the reasons we started the field school.

“It was still being looted until the early 2000s, so we started to educate our law enforcement people, too.”

In recent years, field schools that engaged the Crow community with their heritage through archaeological research have performed the extensive survey work necessary to document the Two Eagles site, which Chris Finley said was named because when field school personnel worked the site, two golden eagles would circle overhead. That work paved the way for the interpretive trail to come. Students from four colleges also performed detailed fieldwork last summer.

In the mid-2000s, the Western Area Power Administration and the National Park Service began negotiations about the project under way this summer to repair and restore power lines through the park, and the two entities came to an agreement about cultural properties.

“We knew there would be some damage to the sites due to the roads,” Finley said. “To mitigate the damage, WAPA decided to help fund the interpretation of the Two Eagles site.”

Funding was two-pronged, Bighorn Canyon Chief of Resources Cassity Bromley said. WAPA is funding the trail construction including materials, research and construction of interpretive signs, site preparation and the like, and the Western National Parks Association funded research and high resolution mapping of the site.

She noted that Friday’s visit by the Crow Cultural Committee was the second visit by the tribe to the site. Last fall the tribal historic preservation officer and a member of the cultural director’s staff visited the site. Crow input is key to the interpretive trail, she said.

“We want to tell the story in a way that is acceptable to them,” she said.

Added Finley, “It’s part of compliance, and it really develops a relationship with the Crow people.”

The trail

Work on the trail will begin in July, Bromley said, with a Wyoming Conservation Corps crew starting construction. The trail will come first, followed by interpretive signs. A grand opening will be scheduled for the fall.

“We’ll continue working with the tribe and get their comments on the draft language for the signs,” she added.

The trail will generally follow the path of a power line access road built in the 1960s, according to the draft project plan. The interpretive trail will be circular and will have seven stops, starting with a pullout and information kiosk along the road that will include a photograph, site map, an overview of the interpretation and a brochure.

Topics of the next six stops will include the 12,000-year-old Bad Pass Trail and the life of native peoples, tipis, cairns, federal preservation and the need to protect heritage resources, archaeology of the tipi rings and, finally, contemporary issues and collaboration.

By David Peck