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A Shoshone tribal gathering promotes linguistic and cultural preservation through hunting

A Native American man sits next to a basket of wood for a fireplace.
Courtney Blackmer
Wyoming Public Media
George Hardin, Shoshone elder, sits in front of the fire at the Darwin Ranch, a guest ranch in the Gros Ventre Mountains where the event was hosted.

Earlier this winter, Shoshone elders and younger tribal members gathered at a remote ranch in the Gros Ventre mountains of Western Wyoming. They were there to hunt for elk and learn about the cultural significance of the animal. Throughout the gathering, participants practiced the Shoshone language.

On day two of the gathering, two Shoshone tribal members, George Hardin and Justin Washington, set out on horseback with a hunting guide from the nearby Darwin Ranch. They called to the elk using a special hunting bugle. A nearby bull elk responded.

“What’s that?” Hardin whispered to the hunting guide.

A Native American man in camo and a fluorescent orange hat looks through binoculars.
Courtney Blackmer
Wyoming Public Media
Hardin peers through his binoculars at the herd of elk.

The elk bugled again as the two listened intently. They spotted the herd and crouched down behind a stand of trees to watch.

“There’s a bull just working this in front of us. There’s another one that might be closer around this corner. We can work to this edge over here, that’s where it opens up and you can see that whole meadow,” whispered the guide.

“I smelled them earlier. Can you smell them?” Hardin whispered to the guide.

The bull elk steps out into the open.

“Oh yeah, there he is,” Hardin said.

Hardin, an elder and experienced hunter, waited patiently for a perfect shot. He set his sights on the bull and pulled the trigger. It fell to the ground and Hardin said a prayer over the elk in Shoshone.

Hardin is one of the few remaining fluent speakers of the Shoshone language. He came to this event, put on by the Shoshone Cultural Center in Fort Washakie, to help educate Shoshone people about the tribe’s language and traditions.

Hardin grew up in a Shoshone-speaking household, but this is increasingly uncommon. He said that many Shoshone parents he grew up around didn’t want their kids to learn the language for fear that they would be punished for speaking it.

“When I went to first grade in Ruby Valley, our neighbors, they talked Shoshone and I used to see them get whipped when they’d talk Shoshone in the classroom. But I was lucky, like I said, my aunt and uncle were raising their kids to learn English so I learned English with them. So I could speak both so I didn’t get whipped in school,” Hardin said.

The forced and often violent assimilation of Native children in American schools resulted in widespread loss of Indigenous culture and language. This has a lasting effect today.

Unlike Hardin, Washington didn’t have the opportunity to learn the Shoshone language or culture as a child. He was adopted at a young age, so he didn’t grow up around his culture. But as he grew older, he made an effort to reconnect to his tribe.

“The reason why I would like to learn is it’s a source of identity, it’s something that you can attach yourself to,” Washington said.

And now, Washington wants to pass on what he knows to his two young daughters.

“So having George here showing me, and teaching, and guiding, and helping me with the songs and prayers, and also how to hunt and process the kill, and say prayers over it, it’s all deeply rooted in our traditions and our heritage, so to continue it… it’s an honor and a blessing,” he said.

The day after the hunt, Hardin taught Washington how to make a war shield using willows and elk hide. The two set out to a stand of willows beside a meandering creek. Hardin showed Washington which willows to pick and how to shape them into a shield.

Two Native American men. One is holding a bunch of willow branches.
Courtney Blackmer
Wyoming Public Media
George Hardin and Justin Washington with the willows that they harvested.

“We are going to bend it like that to make a circle. That’d be the top, and then maybe we’ll get another one and we’ll make a circle out of it. We’ll tie it together with elk tendon. Then you make a circle and then you put them across like this,” Hardin explained.

Later, they will stretch the elk hide over the willow frame and tie it down with elk sinew. Hardin taught Washington the Shoshone words for willow, elk hide, and war shield. Washington, a dedicated pupil, listened intently.

Over the course of the gathering, Hardin shared a wide range of cultural knowledge, including how to make instruments out of elderberry, how to write songs for different occasions, and how to prepare elk meat in the traditional way. For Washington, the experience inspired him to continue learning about, and teaching, his culture.

“Well, I sure enjoyed hunting with you,” Hardin told Washington before they parted ways at the end of the gathering.

“You too,” replied Washington.

“We’ve got to keep it going. Because after I’m too old to go hunt, you could be the one doing the singing and…” said Hardin.

“Making shields and showing the young bucks how to do it,” finished Washington with a chuckle.

“Yeah, yeah. That’s what we are here for, to pass it on,” said Hardin. “I’m at that stage where I want to pass everything I’ve learned on. And I’m so glad Justin is willing to carry it on. That’s what we need, younger generations and even the younger ones. We need that to keep our culture going.”

The event’s organizers at the Shoshone Cultural Center plan to organize future gatherings like this one to continue doing exactly that.

Courtney Blackmer is the host of Morning Edition at Wyoming Public Media. After years of producing and editing documentary films, Courtney has recently shifted her energies towards radio and podcasts. Originally from Colorado, Courtney has a longstanding love of the West and the people who call it home. She has an enduring interest in creative non-fiction storytelling and is passionate about telling the stories that shape our region. In her free time, Courtney enjoys skiing, kayaking, and other outdoor adventures.
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