The Boar’s Tusk rises from the Red Desert. The Red Desert is known as "Red Dirt Country" in the Shoshone language, according to Eastern Shoshone member Jason Baldes. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

RED DESERT – Sitting in the verdant shade of an aspen grove on Steamboat Mountain — which rises out of the Red Desert in southern Wyoming — Jason Baldes talks about buffalo.

As the buffalo reintroduction coordinator for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, this is not unusual for Baldes, who’s wearing a shirt that reads “Make Buffalo Great Again.” But on this day in early June, he isn’t focused solely on the herd he helped reintroduce to the Wind River Indian Reservation

Instead, he imagines the hulking creatures that once roamed this mountain being pushed by members of his tribe up the funnel-shaped valley toward an ancestral buffalo jump near its peak.

Sitting in an aspen grove on Steamboat Mountain, Eastern Shoshone tribal member Jason Baldes talks about his tribe’s historical food gathering in the Red Desert, including the use of a buffalo jump on the peak. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“They would put pressure on them to move right up this draw, right to where we’re sitting right now,” Baldes says. The animals would be channeled to a natural crevice formed by the rock, he says, where they would plunge over the edge and be easily harvested. 

“So that’s a sacred site,” Baldes says. “Untold thousands of buffalo harvested here.”

And those buffalo? Shoshone people used them from horn to hoof, he says — hides for tepees, organs for water bags, bones for tools, meat for sustenance. Baldes, who grew up riding horses, camping and rock hunting in the Red Desert with his father, calls the site “life’s commissary.”

A petroglyph panel in the Red Desert. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Baldes’ tale paints one scene in a tableau of stories about Indigenous uses of the Red Desert, which is the ancestral land of tribes including Shoshone, Ute, Goshute, Paiute, Bannock, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota and Crow, according to Citizens of the Red Desert, a coalition dedicated to protecting the Red Desert from large-scale industrial activities. In this vast and varied landscape, petroglyphs, ancient trading routes and other cultural sites offer evidence of tens of thousands of years of use and habitation. 

Led by Citizens for the Red Desert, advocates are pushing to educate modern-day users of the Red Desert about its full history. 

The Red Desert, Baldes says, was part of the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863, which established a 44-million-acre reservation for the Shoshone people. The reservation was drastically reduced by subsequent treaty revisions and other means and no longer includes the Red Desert, but the significance of the area was in no way diminished. 

Baldes believes the recognition shared by many Indigenous cultures of nature’s interconnectedness can benefit anyone who cares about the Red Desert, he says. 

“I think that that has a lot of potential in helping people see and understand our relationship with places like this,” he says. 

A beautiful and bizarre landscape

The Red Desert yawns across much of southwestern Wyoming and beyond — from South Pass City it spills south, east and west, past the Utah and Colorado borders. 

Wildly diverse features occupy the landscape, where otherworldly badlands, isolated mountains, unexpected buttes and shifting snow-white sand dunes erupt from sagebrush seas. The longest ungulate migration in the continental U.S. crosses through, and it is home to a collection of wilderness study areas. 

A panorama from the Killpecker Sand Dunes area. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

It’s austere, beautiful and odd. It is also peppered with oil and gas leases, and it has long been the focus of conservation efforts. 

Those efforts have ramped up in recent years in anticipation of long-awaited revisions to the BLM’s Resource Management Plan for the area. Conservationists, concerned that the new RMP could open up more of the Red Desert to energy leasing, are doubling down on efforts to educate the public about its outdoor-recreation, cultural and historical resources. 

Citizens of the Red Desert, which aims to secure federal protections for the landscape, is in the early stages of working toward a congressional bill, according to coordinator Shaleas Harrison. It is engaging a host of stakeholders from the petroleum industry to ranchers, she says, and several of its team members, like Baldes, are tribal citizens. 

“I want to build up a platform for tribal nations to speak about their ancestral and contemporary lands,” Harrison says.

Northern Arapaho citizen Yufna Soldier Wolf and her daughter, Blue Moccasins, walk up to White Mountain Petroglyphs. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

That makes sense, Baldes says. The traditional ecological knowledge of tribal communities “overlaps really well with our understanding of environmental science and ecological principles.  

“I think it’s just now that conservation organizations are finding out how to work with tribal communities though,” he added. 

‘A real special place’

As the daughter of well-known Northern Arapaho citizen Mark Soldier Wolf, Yufna Soldier Wolf grew up tagging along with her dad on trips to the Red Desert, where anthropologists and archeologists regularly sought his knowledge, she said. 

“He was always here,” she says, sitting on the flank of a dune in the Killpecker Sand Dunes, an enormous complex of sand and scrub. “He was always going somewhere on the land and I was always with him.” The fine sand winks under a full sun; today the wind has sculpted it into scallops and ridges. A small band of elk skirts a distant drift at a trot.

“He was always like, ‘this is a real special place. Don’t forget it,’” said Soldier Wolf, who is the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Wind River Coordinator and a Citizens for the Red Desert team member.

Northern Arapaho citizen Yufna Soldier Wolf at the White Mountain Petroglyphs. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The Northern Arapaho tribe hasn’t occupied the Red Desert as long as the Eastern Shoshone, Soldier Wolf says; her tribe was largely migratory, moving into the area later. But it’s still special for tribal citizens — wilderness is akin to church for many, she says. 

Soldier Wolf grew up knowing the dormant volcanic feature that rises prominently from the desert, which maps and guides call The Boar’s Tusk, by its Northern Arapaho name The Parents due to its resemblance of two human figures.

The landform commonly called the Boar’s Tusk in the Northern Red Desert is also known as The Parents by many Northern Arapaho citizens, according to Yufna Soldier Wolf. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Soldier Wolf hopes to disseminate Native stories in ways that make them as easily accessible as those from the settler cultures that erected the signs, named the landmarks in books and maps and defined ownership in Western terms, she says. 

“We can’t just let it go away, and not ever tell those stories anymore,” she said. “That’s my objective.”

She wants to ensure the stories are passed on to Native American youth. Like her own daughter Blue Moccasins, 14, who has accompanied her mother to the Red Desert today — just as Yufna once did with her father. 

Soldier Wolf’s job, she says, includes coordinating all the tribes whose ancestral lands are part of the Red Desert to determine what they want for the place, whether that’s certain protections or more acknowledgement of traditional narratives.

“Being able to tell stories from long ago, and connect it back to the land, that’s what a lot of tribes are doing now,” she says. “So I’m hoping that’s what comes out of that.”

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Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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  1. Regarding Bill Spillman’s comment, I have been in the Red Dessert when the sun was setting and the full moon rising. And I have been there when the sun was rising and the full moon was setting. And many stars were still visible after the sun was fully up. And I do believe. It is a magical and sacred place.

  2. I enjoyed this article very much. We must save this treasure and the stories of the indigenous peoples. Please keep up the good work.

  3. There is a lot of untold history in the Red Desert, and I appreciate how this article highlights some of that. Most people don’t know that Mexico territory went all the way into the Red Desert. Indigenous people from across the plains and southwest traded all through here. As a Mexican, I am proud to claim ties to this landscape. It belongs to all of us, and it still holds our stories and secrets.

    1. mexican territory? that pretty arrogant of mexico to claim land which indigenous/native ppl inhabited.

  4. Having lived a couple decades on the edge and in the Red Desert, I know how special a place it is. No where else like it and our current leaders need to work with the tribes and accept that the Red Desert offers more than what is on a TV screen. Go into the desert when the Sun is setting while a full moon is rising and you will believe. A very important place for all of Wyoming’s game migrations so integral and necessary for them. It is incomprehensible the pressures for development that assault this place. As soon as one gets shot down, another plan for extraction pops up. The Red Desert and Adobe Town should be placed completely off limits for any further oil & gas or coal extraction projects. Those items can be gathered elsewhere and are. Please, Wyoming legislators, get off the can and get some protection for these beautiful, sacred places. BS

  5. I have been reading “wyofile” for several years now. I truly enjoyed your recent article on the Red Desert that has become the most interesting and mystical places on earth for me. My son Jeff introduced me to the desert about 5+ years ago. I’ve done some exploring by myself but after one trip on my ATV I really felt the vastness and the immensity of the desert. I had antelope running along beside me on the road and wild horses grazing in the sage. I realized that it might be a good idea to have someone along with me on the next trip. I first came to Dubois, Wyoming in 1966 to work for the USFS for the summer. I returned the next summer and I was hooked on Wyoming for life. I have made many many trips back over the years and continue to find new an exciting areas to explore.

  6. We need to protect areas like the red desert and I know how difficult it is trying to educate the legislators in Cheyenne