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Native History: Grand Teton National Park Created on Shoshone Homeland

On February 26, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill to create Grand Teton National Park, setting aside a 96,000-acre tract of land.
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This Date in Native History: On February 26, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill to create Grand Teton National Park, setting aside a 96,000-acre tract of land that included the magnificent Teton mountain range and six glacial lakes in northwest Wyoming.

It was the first step in a controversial, 52-year journey that led to the park’s present-day dimensions of 310,000 acres. The land, which park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs called “a park of purity,” includes part of the Snake River, the broad valley of Jackson Hole and the regal, iconic mountain peaks that rise nearly 7,000 feet above the valley floor.

“We are a park that evolved through controversy and eventually compromise,” Skaggs said. “There was a lot of political intrigue in the creation of the present-day park.”

The Teton Range—which comprises the grand, middle and south peaks, along with Mount Owen, Teewinot Mountain and Mount Moran—is part of the ancestral homeland of the Shoshone people, who used the Native word teewinot to describe the range’s “many pinnacles.”

That name is a sharp contrast to les trois tetons, which is attributed to French explorers in the early 1800s who looked at the mountains and called them “the three teats.”

The earliest evidence of indigenous people in the area dates back more than 10,000 years, said Laine Thom, a park ranger and naturalist at Grand Teton National Park. Before white settlers arrived in 1884, the nomadic Shoshone people occupied the area for thousands of years.

“They didn’t live there year-round because of the long, hard winters,” said Thom, who is Shoshone, Goshute and Paiute. “In the summer, they followed game there. They also gathered different types of vegetation for medicine and food.”

The Shoshone used as many as 125 different plant species found in the area, the Grand Teton National Park ranger said. The mountains and valleys also had spiritual significance, and they continue to hold importance for those who live on the neighboring Wind River and Fort Hall reservations.

Modern-day Shoshone people may have evolved from the Mountain Shoshone, or sheep-eaters, said Phil Roberts, a history professor at the University of Wyoming.

“They were called sheep-eaters because they subsisted on bighorn sheep,” he said. “They probably lived there throughout the year, with no migration.”

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The last known sheep-eater was a man named Togwotee, who lived in the late 1800s, Roberts said. When Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, all permanent residents of the area were relocated to nearby reservations.

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A Shoshone encampment in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, photographed by W. H. Jackson, 1870.

As early as 1897, the superintendent of Yellowstone proposed an expansion of the park’s boundaries to include Jackson Hole and protect wildlife. Neither Congress nor the Interior Department acted on these proposals.

In 1929, 13 years after the National Park Service was formed as a federal agency in 1916, Grand Teton National Park was established. No settlers lived in the Teton mountains and few lived near the glacial lakes at the foot of the peaks, Skaggs said.

“The Tetons and glacial lakes had not been homesteaded by settlers, so the original park was not too controversial,” she said. “But when ideas began to surface about including land in the valley of Jackson Hole to protect habitat for wildlife and enlarge the original park, the controversy grew and became more difficult.”

Ranchers, businessmen and Forest Service personnel opposed the expansion, Skaggs wrote in a history of the park. The park was established at a time when dude ranches were gaining in popularity and proprietors didn’t want to see improved roads or hotel construction.

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation to establish Jackson Hole National Monument, a 221,000-acre tract of land. Seven years later, in 1950, the two protected areas were merged, creating the present-day boundaries of the park.

An estimated 2.8 million people visit the park every year, Skaggs said.

This story was originally published February 26, 2014.