Early Occupation Sites
Pompeys Pillar is within the territory historically acknowledged as the homeland of the Apsaalooke, or Crow people. The Pillar’s name in the Crow language, Iishbiiammaache, is variously translated as “Where the Mountain Lion Lies,” “The Mountain Lion’s Lodge,” or “Where the Mountain Lion Preys.” Pompeys Pillar is at a strategic ford of the Yellowstone, and its remarkable appearance virtually guaranteed its place as a natural landmark for the native people of the Northern Plains through the region’s more than 11,000 years of occupation.
In addition to the Crow people, Pompeys Pillar has been a landmark to numerous other American Indian people, including members of the Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Blackfeet and Salish tribes.
Archaeological evidence of past occupation of the Pillar area by Native Americans has been discovered at various depths below ground. These materials appear to be the remains of hunting and living camps, probably occupied by relatively small groups of people for short periods of time. The remains of butchered bison and other animals along with mussels from the nearby Yellowstone River are scattered among flaked stone tools and debris around small surface hearths. The ancient camps were buried by slow-moving flood waters soon after abandonment, preserving organic and other materials in place, with later occupations leaving remains on the new, higher surfaces.
The Yellowstone River has long been of significance to the Crow people. Clark made several entries in his journals seeing “signs” of the Crow, but never actually encountered them. On July 18, 1806, he noted seeing the “Smoke” of the Crow Indians. On July 19th, the Clark party passed an “old indian fort on an island,” and one expedition member, George Shannon, reported that there was a “remarkable Lodge” downstream near the mouth of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River (now managed by BLM). The Yellowstone Valley has long been the heart of Crow Country and is steeped in Crow history.
Sacred Burial and Ritual Sites
The Pillar was used for centuries as a favored campsite by Crows and other groups as they traveled through the area on hunting, trading, war or other expeditions. Ethnographic and archaeological evidence suggest that the Pillar was also a place of ritual and religious activity. In his journal, Clark noted evidence of Native American presence, “The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals....”
The presence of aboriginal rock art is an indicator of ritual behavior. The placement of prehistoric rock art in the Northern Plains is not random. It is clear that the places where rock art occurs were place of importance to the ancient artists. Pictographs and petroglyphs have been found on the Pillar.