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Yellowstone: Icon of Infamy or Convenient Scapegoat?
December 5, 2022
Yellowstone: Icon of Infamy or Convenient Scapegoat?
Montana writer Todd Burritt pens a scathing review of Megan Kate Nelson's portrayal of America's first national park in her book 'Saving Yellowstone'
A family of Sheepaters (Tukudika) west of Yellowstone in 1871. The photograph was taken by William Henry Jackson who along with painter Thomas Moran created visual imagery that convinced Congress to set aside the lands of current day Yellowstone as a national park. This image was taken as Medicine Lodge Creek in Idaho. Much speculation swirls around when and how many different tribes spent time in the high elevation terrain of Yellowstone. Did indigenous people live there year round? Todd Burritt finds it strange that author Megan Kate Nelson spends more time referencing the Lakota in her book than she does the Sheepeaters, Crow and other tribes. Photo courtesy National Park Service.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In a recent critique of the new four-part docuseries, Yellowstone: One-Fifty, appearing on the cable channel Fox Nation and featuring actor Kevin Costner as host, author Megan Kate Nelson sharply challenges the veracity of Yellowstone National Park's backstory.
"As a historian, I have come to expect that shady history undergirds many (most?) TV shows and films," Nelson noted in the piece, which appeared recently at Slate. "But for a docuseries like Yellowstone: One-Fifty to make such bold historical claims while mixing them with a few actually true facts is insidious."
However, as Paradise Valley writer Todd Burritt suggests in a book review, below, it's Dr. Nelson, too, who makes bold historical claims about the origins of the country's first national park and its indigenous past. Nelson's book, Saving Yellowstone, has received favorable reviews outside the region, but in the Northern Rockies her presentation of narrative has come under scrutiny, especially from local people who know the history of the park well, and its catalytic role in conservation.
Nelson has given many talks around the region and last spring delivered a keynote at a science conference in Bozeman commemorating the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone. Burritt says that not only does Nelson make assertions in the book that are debatable but he dissects her claim that Yellowstone is the “perfect symbol” of “Indigenous [land] dispossession."
"Before leaving academia to write full-time in 2014, I taught U.S. history and American Studies at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown," she writes on her webpage. "I earned my BA in History and Literature from Harvard University and my PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa."
Yellowstone Park officials have said that across time and space, 27 tribes have a historic connection to the terrain encompassed by Yellowstone's border. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition says that 50 tribes, including the Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Shoshone, Arapaho and other Indigenous peoples, have deep connections to the ecosystem.
When were each of those tribes in the park [they were not here all at once] and for how long did the tenure of each last? "Some of the historic peoples from this area, such as the Crow and Sioux, arrived sometime during the 1500s and around 1700, respectively," states an online Yellowstone National Park brochure produced by the National Park Service.
Nelson offers her own take on the above. According to Burritt, as noticeable as what she put into her book is what she left out. How would we be thinking differently about the West if Yellowstone had never been created and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as an organizational notion did not exist? Would the region's wildlife have endured? More importantly, where do we go from here? Ponder that as you read Burritt's review of Nelson's book below. — Mountain Journal
by Todd Burritt
In the foreword to Jeff Henry’s Yellowstone National Park: The First 150 Years (2022), Lee Whittlesey sums it up: on a major anniversary retrospectives can be expected to “appear like clockwork.” There were a number of book releases coinciding with Yellowstone’s one-hundredth-and-fiftieth anniversary this year, and in the spirit of things, I had fun checking a few of them out. Along the way I found some tidbits that were new to me but little to recommend. The least I can say is that one of those books provoked more thought than the others: it’s called Saving Yellowstone, by Megan Kate Nelson. Nelson is a historian and writer based in Massachusetts. Her previous book, The Three-Cornered War, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2021.
For several years now national parks have been catching fire for their contributions to social injustice. The criticism operates on a few different levels: there’s the fact that many of conservation’s founding fathers had racist beliefs and sentiments, and that white people visit national parks in greater proportions than minority groups today. Nelson’s book dives into another region of conservation’s shadow side: the relationship between national park designation and the dispossession of Indigenous people.
I have what I’ll call a local’s interest in Yellowstone history: I like learning about it, but I’m no scholar. That said, it hasn’t been lost on me that many writers over the last few years have sought a direct link between the establishment of Yellowstone and Indigenous possession. Journalist Brian Oaster, for example, tells the story this way:
“In order to create [Yellowstone], President Grant had to empty the Park first. So he drove out the Shoshone people and the residents of what we now know as Yellowstone. Of course, it was done through violence and coercion. So that was the beginning of the national park system, and it set the pattern, really.”
Meanwhile, demand number one in the LANDBACK manifesto—a movement that seeks to return all public lands to Indigenous ownership—is to “dismantle white supremacy structures that forcefully removed us from our Lands and continue to keep our Peoples in oppression,” e.g., “National Parks Service.” But there is a basic issue of timelines that tends to not be addressed: the first Crow Reservation, which included most of what we call Yellowstone today, was defined in 1851. By 1868 it was reduced to a fraction of its former size, centered well north and east of the park.
Meanwhile, another 1868 treaty removed the Shoshone and Bannock peoples from their traditional homelands throughout the Greater Yellowstone to reservations to the east and west. These removals started years before Yellowstone was made into a park; more than a year, even, before an expedition of white elites “discovered” Yellowstone phenomena for the world. I came to Saving Yellowstone, then, with sincere enthusiasm to see how a renowned historian would tackle this seeming paradox head-on. And, of course, I was piqued by her headline-grabbing takeaway.
Let me frontload, then, that the critical tone of this review is a reflection of just how little Saving Yellowstone taught me about Indigenous dispossession and Yellowstone. To say that the author failed to deliver the goods on her sales pitch—that is, to demonstrate why Yellowstone should be considered the “perfect symbol” of “Indigenous dispossession,” and of America’s hypocritical approach to social justice in general—is an understatement. Questions kept surfacing, uncomfortably, in the back of my mind: “What is this book about?” and “Why was it written?”
A cynic would point out that its subject is trending, there was a major anniversary to capitalize on (the book release was on March 1, 150 years to the day after the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act), and leave it at that. But how I wished to give Nelson the benefit of the doubt.
One of many things I’m still puzzling over about this book is its title. Unlike the last person to name their book Saving Yellowstone (Robert E. Hartley, who recounted the first presidential visit to the park in 1883—a trip that brought attention to the need for additional funding and more deliberate management of Yellowstone’s unique resources), Nelson does not make a case that Yellowstone was saved by its designation as the world’s first national park.
If Nelson limited herself only to names of existing books about Yellowstone, a more obvious fit would have been Empire of Shadows, the title of George Black’s revisionist history from 2012. Nelson’s first reference to George Black’s book is on the second page of her prologue and the last is the final sentence of her final chapter. There, she deploys Black’s title—an 1870 quotation from Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane—as though it’s the unifying theme of her book, not of the last best history to come out about this place.
Black’s dark side of Yellowstone history centered on the landmark 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. Nelson’s spin is to follow Ferdinand Hayden’s 1871 Yellowstone Expedition. In the broadest terms, Hayden’s survey reads as a repeat of the more influential exploration the previous year—its literary record is lackluster by comparison, and Hayden himself described the trip as “nothing remarkable” despite his proclivity for self-promotion.
Nelson’s book is largely a retelling of this expedition as amalgamated from the journals of its participants. While she can disparage her original sources as an appeal to the interests of the “white middle-class,” by and large it cannot be said that her retelling offers something fundamentally different. When it does, it is through the heavy-handed and often unconvincing imposition of her thesis.
It is my suspicion that the readers most familiar with Yellowstone history will have the greatest difficulty following her case. She introduces it by way of Truman Everts and the 1870 Yellowstone Expedition (rather than the 1871 expedition of her focus). Everts spent about seven weeks in what is now Yellowstone. He didn’t encounter any Indigenous people during that time. For thirty-seven of those days he was lost from the rest of his party—and while he was, he recorded his hopes of seeing Indigenous people, in the belief they could help him.
After indulging in the sensational aspects of his story Nelson promptly characterizes it as an attempt to “erase Native peoples”—even after explaining that it makes sense he encountered no Native peoples in all his travels, since “(t)hey were far away from the [Yellowstone] Basin that time of year.” (Or was it because they’d already been ordered onto reservations elsewhere?)
"Let me frontload, then, that the critical tone of this review is a reflection of just how little Saving Yellowstone taught me about Indigenous dispossession and Yellowstone. To say that the author failed to deliver the goods on her sales pitch—that is, to demonstrate why Yellowstone should be considered the “perfect symbol” of “Indigenous dispossession,” and of America’s hypocritical approach to social justice in general—is an understatement." —Reviewer Todd Burritt
The following year’s Hayden Survey spent thirty-eight days in what is now YNP, and it also encountered no Indigenous occupants of the park. Nevertheless, one of Thomas Moran’s finishing touches to his famous painting, Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone, was to add two human figures: that of his expedition leader, Ferdinand Hayden, and that of a fictitious Indigenous guide. This inclusion, Nelson writes, was “meant to suggest that a vanishing Indian past was making way for a white American future.”
Maybe that is exactly what Moran meant to suggest. But Nelson doesn’t explain why this would necessarily be the case, and it doesn’t help when she compares Moran to Albert Bierstadt before curtly summarizing Bierstadt’s career as one that also “erased Native presence.” If you take her at her word it might surprise you to then look at Bierstadt’s pictures: many of his most famous compositions prominently feature Indigenous people in the foregrounds, engaged, however unrealistically, in traditional ways of life.
According to historian Peter Hassrick, criticism in Bierstadt’s time also focused on those figures, but for the opposite reason that Nelson does: proponents of manifest destiny found that the figures “marred” their “impression[s] of solitary grandeur,” complicating the supposed purity of their enterprise. The manifest destiny camp, in other words, wanted Indigenous presence erased from Bierstadt’s paintings (and, I would assume, Moran’s as well) in a much more literal way.
These issues can seem trivial in the context of the larger story. Yet I don’t share them because they are confusing. I share them because they are among the only examples that Nelson offers to relate the content of her book to her thesis.
Saving Yellowstone juxtaposes Hayden’s expedition with two parallel story lines: that of Jay Cooke Jr. and Sitting Bull. The result is a surprisingly lopsided frame through which to seek an understanding of the circumstances of Yellowstone National Park’s designation. Sitting Bull, for example, was a Lakota chief. While the Lakota tribe no doubt had deeper ties to the Yellowstone area than we can appreciate today, the author herself says only that the Lakota “had heard… of that region, but had rarely ventured” there.
Jay Cooke Jr., meanwhile, was perhaps the biggest power broker in late-19th century America. The spearhead of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and largely to blame for the Panic of 1873, he could be figured into almost any account of that era. His specific relevance to this story is through his friend, William D. Kelley. Nelson gives Kelley full credit for the famous (and increasingly infamous) “national park idea.” Her attribution is unusually definitive: there are at least half a dozen others who regularly share the credit—such as George Catlin who, forty years earlier, advocated for protecting large areas and everything found in them, including Indigenous peoples.
In Nelson’s telling the idea takes the form of cronyism: Kelley saw that a large tourist attraction along the Northern Pacific line would be profitable for his friend, and any pretense he gave it in terms of conserving natural phenomena, or creating a trust of public resources, was a ruse.
Nelson doesn’t mention how imperfectly Kelley fits the stereotype of a Gilded Age plutocrat—how frugal he was, and diplomatic to his rivals in a way that is almost unimaginable today—just as she neglects to mention that he began his career as a crusading abolitionist, helped found the Republican Party to support this cause, and that his later passion was to extend voting rights to minorities. In her hands, the national park idea is almost as simple as concentrating wealth in the spirit of white supremacy.
Cooke’s vision for the Northern Pacific Railroad put him at odds with Lakota rights and interests. In fact, this conflict—rather than the origin of Yellowstone—would be a more accurate summary of the story that Nelson is determined to tell. Otherwise, the parts of this book that I found most interesting were even more tangential: the story of Lucy McMillan, a former slave who lived in South Carolina, whose house was burned down by her former owner. In defiance of threats on her life, she later testified in federal court against the Klu Kux Klan.
Amos Akerman, meanwhile, was one of the few reformed confederates to take a prominent role in reconstruction. As attorney general, he led the government’s crusade against the Ku Klux Klan and racist corruption in the south. Then he was asked to resign by an administration of Northerners he considered disingenuous and soft. Ely Parker was one of the highest ranking Native Americans during reconstruction, as well as the first Indigenous head of the Office of Indian Affairs under President Grant. Parker advocated for placing all tribes on reservations, which he considered to be key to their survival. Like Akerman, he, too, was forced into early resignation by conservative political interests.
The pivotal moment when Nelson’s telling of reconstruction (her specialty as a historian) finally promises to intersect with the creation of Yellowstone can be found about three-quarters of the way through the book. While debating the passage of the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act of 1872, Nebraska senator John Taffee asked “whether this measure does not interfere with the Sioux Reservation?”
Nelson gives this moment dramatic weight… then breaks. She doesn’t share the answer that was given, nor the shape of the discussion to follow, let alone elucidate that the proposed park boundary was, at its closest, about 150 miles away from the largest incarnation of the Sioux Reservation. Taffee’s question may have been made in ignorance and settled (more or less) in a word, but in Nelson’s telling, it takes the prominence of a smoking gun: park proponents had blood on their hands, and they knew it. The author rests her case on a misleading insinuation.
In Yellowstone during the summer of 2022, different tipi encampments were set up in the park to honor historic connections and remind millions of visitors that indigenous people haven't gone away, nor are they artifacts. Connections still run deep. Still, there's a question: if Yellowstone had not been created as a park, which tribes would have had the most legitimacy to lay claim to it—those who were in the park last or those who came before them?Photo of tipi encampment at north end of Yellowstone on the edge of Gardiner, Montana by Jacob W. Frank/YNP
Another way that Nelson hitches Hayden’s expedition to the story of institutional racism in America is through a criticism of natural science. Surprisingly, she does not do this by analyzing the patently racist writing, credited to Hayden, which might yet result in the renaming of Hayden Valley. Instead, Nelson takes on scientific surveys in general, depicting them not as an incremental quest toward the most objective—or universal—possible truths, but as a sort of geographic phrenology. Hayden’s purpose, she writes, was “mapping the West for settlement and on proving the nation’s geological exceptionalism.” As is so often the case in her book, this conclusion seems likely enough in the moment, then preemptive, and finally doubtful.
Hayden’s survey would eventually be replaced by surveys of a different sort, which narrowed the mission of governmental surveying to “scouting for mineral resources, surveying lands for homestead claims, and determining which areas of the West could be developed with irrigation.” By contrast, Hayden’s broad and interdisciplinary style would be contrasted (if not lampooned) for its interest in “ornithology,” for example—a field considered too flowery and naturalistic for official concern—and otherwise extravagant in its concern with “pure science.”
It’s unsurprising that Nelson fails to credit motivations of scientific inquiry beyond self-interest since the geological and geographic details she includes in her book tend to be garbled, or garnish, or both. The inaccuracies begin just a couple sentences into her book’s introduction, when she sets the scene at the Cut, “a narrow canyon through the Gallatin Mountains” of the type “created by rivers clawing their way from the [Yellowstone] Basin through the mountains…” In fact, the Cut is a dry dissection of a plateau, less than a mile long, perched hundreds of feet above the nearest perennial watercourse. After the Washburns, and their parent range the Absarokas, the Gallatins are the third closest mountain range to the feature.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, meanwhile, she describes as where “the basaltic rocks of the rim gave way to the breccia of the crater.” Actually, breccia is found on the rim of the caldera, basalt is a bit player, and neither have anything to do with the falls. The waterfall’s drop illustrates the difference between ryholite that has been weakened by hydrothermal activity and ryholite that has not. From the opening pages of this book it becomes increasingly clear that this is a treatment of a particularly complex human and physical geography by an author who has quite possibly never been there. (On the last page of the text we learn that she had visited the park once: decades earlier, as a child on family vacation.)
° ° ° °
The challenge that Nelson sets out for herself, of course, is drawing a direct connection between the establishment of Yellowstone and the dispossession of Native peoples. Considering that a revelation to this effect is the sales pitch of her book it is truly surprising how little time is spent on the subject. She mentions the Nez Perce and Bannock Wars. In 1877 and 1878, when the US Army pursued members of these two tribes in one side of the park and out the other. They were persecutions—treacheries, really; it’s not fair to call them wars. But the army never managed to engage the tribes within the park, and how park status may have affected the events of either altercation remains unclear to me.
Elsewhere, Nelson writes that government surveys of Yellowstone did, in fact, encounter Native Americans within its borders. I tracked her citation through a couple sources, ending up at a reference to a single instance. While returning from work in Yellowstone, one government survey contacted a Shoshone family well outside the park boundaries.
Strangely, Nelson’s book makes only the briefest reference to the Sheepeaters, a division of the Shoshone that occupied various parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem year round. While she can lambaste early park proponents for not respecting Sheepeater title to their homelands, it should probably be added that, as a group, Sheepeaters have proven to be even harder for anthropologists to understand than many other tribal denominations.
"The challenge that Nelson sets out for herself, of course, is drawing a direct connection between the establishment of Yellowstone and the dispossession of Native peoples. Considering that a revelation to this effect is the sales pitch of her book it is truly surprising how little time is spent on the subject." —Burritt
As recently as 2000, Susan Hughes, an archaeologist and researcher, was able to publish a paper called “The Sheepeater Myth of Northwestern Wyoming,” challenging the facts of their very existence. This was not, apparently, an attempt to bury an uncomfortable reality, but because this ambiguous tribal classification seemed to her the disingenuous creation of white historians.
Nelson herself demonstrates only the least understanding and curiosity about who the Sheepeaters were and what they were all about. Despite having read two books devoted to this subject, the only suggestion I’ve ever seen that Sheepeater culture rested upon the domestication of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is found within the few sentences that Nelson dedicates to the people that had one of the strongest historic associations with Yellowstone National Park.
In short, a reader of Saving Yellowstone can be forgiven the growing suspicion that there is no evidence that Yellowstone National Park was responsible for the removal of any Indigenous people, because an authoritative-seeming book on the subject does not offer any. Personally I can only read so many references to forced removal before I want for details.
A little additional digging led me to a much-cited article from 2007, titled “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks,” by Seth Kantor. Kantor makes one explicit—though maddeningly brief—mention of Indigenous people being removed from the park: “The last of Yellowstone’s native inhabitant’s [sic], a band of Sheep Eaters, were removed in 1879.” When I first read this, it seemed monumental, and follow-up questions boiled into my mind: How many people were removed? Was the settlement permanent or seasonal? What time of year? How did it proceed?
Months passed before I finally got to sit down with the source for nearly all of Kantor’s citations: a 1999 book called Dispossessing the Wilderness, by Mark David Spence. I learned that the Sheepeater group of 1879 had made a summer encampment just a few miles from Mammoth, and Philetus Norris, Yellowstone’s second superintendent, was alarmed to find them so close to park headquarters.
Norris contacted a tribal agent, who sent a group of Shoshone people to escort them back to the Wind River Reservation. Norris was apparently applying the Yellowstone Park Act’s prohibition “against the wanton destruction of the fish and game” to the manner in which Indigenous people provisioned themselves for winter. This was more than cultural insensitivity—it was a legal grey area, since their right to hunt for subsistence was at that time protected by treaty. The ambiguity boils down to the question of how, when, and where we legally determine an area to be “occupied.”
The 1868 treaties provided members of Yellowstone-area tribes with the right to leave their reservations and hunt in “unoccupied” areas of the West. This wasn’t just a courtesy, or nod to tradition-- it was a provision for human survival, since basic subsistence wasn’t always possible on the marginal lands to which the tribes were removed. But as white settlers poured into Wyoming territory, they wanted the land—and the animals that lived there—all to themselves.
Meanwhile, pioneering outfitter-guides established themselves early in southern and eastern portions of the Greater Yellowstone. They made money by selling trophy hunts to the leisure class. To protect this budding industry, and bully Indigenous people out of one of their last remaining freedoms, Jackson Hole-area constable William Manning forced a series of violent confrontations with peaceable groups of Bannock and Shoshone hunters.
The final escalation came in the summer of 1895, when Manning and 26 deputies confronted a large family group in their summer encampment. The Bannock never fired a shot—meanwhile, Manning’s posse murdered one of them outright, a child was “lost” and never found, and a three-year-old was taken hostage. Manning succeeded in taking the tribe to court but he lost his case.
The state of Wyoming appealed the decision. Before the Supreme Court, attorney Willis van Devanter argued that subsistence rights for tribal members in the state of Wyoming were unconstitutional. Those rights were given to tribes by Wyoming Territory. But in 1890, when Wyoming became a state, they put Wyoming at an economic disadvantage to other states—thereby violating the “equal footing” clause, which stipulates a level playing field for all states upon admission to the union. As a result, he said, those rights had ceased to be valid years earlier, and Bannock hunters were subject to prosecution. (It’s interesting to note that the clause treats states like corporations in competition—rather than cooperation—and gives them more rights than humans.)
The court, after stooping to a new low one week earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson, accepted his argument seven to one. Ward v. Race Horse was overturned and took on new meaning: the Bannock and other Wyoming tribes no longer had the right to hunt for food off their reservations. They had to follow state game laws.
In his majority opinion on the case, Supreme Court Justice Edward Douglass White wrote that the right to subsistence hunting, as granted to Tribal Nations, was of a “temporary and precarious nature” because it depended, by definition, on “whether the land in the hunting districts was unoccupied.” As an example of how that status was destined to change with time he referred to the evolution of Yellowstone as a game reserve. Wildlife protection in Yellowstone pioneered such efforts for the nation as a whole. It started with the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872, gained teeth with the Lacey Act of 1894, and culminated in the Lacey Act of 1900—which remains the most important protection for wild animals in America today.
Spence describes White’s reference to Yellowstone as a “remarkable acknowledgement of the intimate link between national parks and native dispossession.” But the link is more tenuous than he makes it sound. White’s decision, notoriously biased and flawed, amounts to little more than an argument that the government did not mean what it said—or as Spence writes, “treaty rights existed only when Congress chose to honor them.”
His reference to Yellowstone does not represent a definitive insight into why Yellowstone administration decided to offer wildlife within its borders the highest protection possible, despite showing that such protections would come into conflict with the concept of subsistence hunting. (In the hands of a different writer, the decision by some white Americans to protect bison in Yellowstone, and thereby prevent their total extirpation, was not just business as usual. It was a turning of the corner, in marked contrast to the recent efforts of other white Americans to purposefully drive the bison extinct.) In some cases, Yellowstone administrators clearly applied wildlife protections in racist ways.
Some of the animals they protected also happened to represent the last best hopes for their species in this country, and wildlife protections were used to aggressively prosecute white hunters and poachers, as well. When Race Horse went back on trial in 2020, game protection measures in Yellowstone did not; when Race Horse was rightfully repealed, nothing changed for the bison herd of Pelican Valley. Today, offspring from those rescued bison have been used to restock ranges for at least 16 Native American tribes.
Ward v. Race Horse does not come up in Saving Yellowstone. Elsewhere, it has taken center stage in the case that Yellowstone (and the national park concept in general) is inherently racist. In her essay “Ethnic Cleansing and Continued Indigenous Erasure within the National Park Service,” Samantha Klein writes, “In 1895, in order to protect Yellowstone’s image of unspoiled wilderness and remove all Indigenous people from the park, Jackson Hole residents entered the park and destroyed a Bannock settlement…”
This is an incredibly inaccurate reimagining of historical fact (the assault Klein is describing took place about 80 miles south of the park, and the aggressors had much more prosaic motives than she describes), yet it offers us clarity, nevertheless. This is what some writers want Yellowstone to symbolize today, and they leverage this narrative in a larger critique of conservation and wilderness values. While researching this subject I read another article that, while seeking to make a similar point, described the Marias Massacre as taking place in Yellowstone. The actual distance between the two is about 270 miles.
Nelson’s book seems to have a similar departure point. It became almost impossible for me to believe that her conclusion did not precede her research. The facts she shares consistently suggest more complicated stories than her interpretation provides.
° ° ° °
I’m not saying that the stories of Yellowstone National Park-related dispossession that I constantly see being alluded to are not out there. I’m only saying that they are not to be found in Saving Yellowstone, and that the book is weak for that reason.
It was Spence’s Dispossessing the Wilderness that finally taught me that, while the reservation reductions of 1868 almost entirely separated the Crow Reservation from what would later be Yellowstone, they didn’t entirely. There was a notable exception: a ribbon where Yellowstone’s northern border overlaps Montana’s southern border by three miles. For eight years this land was Indian reservation and national park. Superintendent Norris (again the villain) couldn’t bear this fact.
From 1872 to 1880, Yellowstone National Park and the Crow Reservation shared a three-mile strip of land where Yellowstone's northern boundary overlaps the state of Montana's southern boundary along the southwest Absaroka-Beartooth Front. Philetus Norris, Yellowstone's second superintendent, was determined to get the land removed from the reservation. It was. Photo courtesy Todd Burritt
In 1880 he traveled on his own dime to Washington DC during Crow treaty negotiations just to put his finger on the scales. Sure enough, the Crow Reservation lost that strip of land in the course of the meetings, along with a lot more north and east it. Spence goes on to suggest that Norris had nothing to do with this outcome: his input “mattered little” and likely “proved irrelevant.” By the time the final boundaries of the reservation were fixed in 1904 they were almost fifty miles from the park. This doesn’t change the fact that a high-ranking official did all he could to take land away from Indigenous people in order to augment Yellowstone’s boundaries.
I also don’t mean to suggest that the American government’s claim to Yellowstone is legitimate unless proven otherwise. Rather, from what I can tell, the Yellowstone landscape seems to be fraught in a way that is little different from the rest of America. And since Yellowstone today is not only public land, but an equal-opportunity employer with a Cayuse-Walla Walla director, overseen by a government department with a Pueblo head secretary, and the figurehead of a system that strives to combine public education with on-site interpretation of the landscape, and maybe even “the largest, relatively intact temperate ecosystem in the world,” I think it makes for a unintuitive—if not bewildering—focus of criticism for the field of environmental justice today.
Finally, nothing in this review is meant to diminish the fact that all the people with traditional affiliations to the Yellowstone Plateau were cheated, betrayed, prosecuted, murdered, and otherwise dispossessed out of most—and sometimes all—of their homelands by the American government. The national parks movement did not originate as a social justice movement.
"I also don’t mean to suggest that the American government’s claim to Yellowstone is legitimate unless proven otherwise. Rather, from what I can tell, the Yellowstone landscape seems to be fraught in a way that is little different from the rest of America." —Burritt
Many of its early administrators and champions demonstrated biases that can only be called racist today. The designation of Yellowstone as a national park did not improve the prospects of Indigenous cultures in the area at the time; in fact, it made them worse off by concentrating white presence nearby.
This is important knowledge and writers who bring attention to it do a service. Where Nelson and Kantor lose me, however, is in the determined and often convoluted way they try to make the worst parts of park history stand in for the whole. It creates the impression that the creation of a public land system contains some fatal flaw.
History, in my experience—be it personal, national, or otherwise—often mixes the good and the bad in a way that we aren’t free to pick and choose. Might national parks, despite the dark strands tangled in their origins, nevertheless contribute to social justice, today or in the future? Is the public management of shared resources something we can nevertheless value? It is my opinion that a balanced evaluation of Yellowstone’s legacy would at least address these possibilities.
Obsidian in Yellowstone used to make arrowheads and carving tools was a valuable trade item that reached dozens of tribes. This point speaks to its reason for existing: available wildlife killed for food. The contested land that was once shard by both Yellowstone and the Crow Reservation in the vicinity of upper Slough Creek includes highly productive big game habitat—and would've been valuable to hunting culture. This obsidian scraper was photographed by Burritt in 2014. Today, he notes, moose, a herd of bison, and elk can be found wintering in upper Slough Creek, accompanied by diverse predator species.
National park designation was one of the first and biggest steps our country took toward collective land ownership, yet this is the act that Nelson singles out for “undermining the Lakota tradition of collective land ownership.” The national park mandate was unique in removing lands from settlement, yet this is where Nelson seeks her “perfect symbol” of settler colonialism.
Nelson tries to make the paradoxes stick by describing the land transfers that created parks as “land-taking,” thereby implying that, in the process of park creation, those lands were taken from one race of people and given to another. However, the lands of Yellowstone National Park were taken “from” a US territory “by” the federal government. They were merely bureaucratic. As such, they were opposed by political groups that championed states’ rights and unfettered capitalism; groups that were, less than a decade earlier, putting their lives on the line in defense of slavery. “Land-taking” is a term from their playbook.
Sometimes I leave Yellowstone with the feeling that it brings more cultural diversity into my life than the rest of my year combined. Admittedly, I live in a small town in a rural county in a red state—so I will defer to Ojibwe author David Treuer. After a tour of national parks in 2020, he wrote, “More than any other place I visited, Yellowstone seemed to contain the multitudes of America.” Treuer penned a provocative essay in The Atlantic titled "Return the National Parks to the Tribes."
When I consider the preceding question—whether public lands have a role in social justice—my immediate reaction is unequivocal. Of course they do. Then it opens onto others: why aren’t there more public lands? How can we make more landscapes accessible to more communities? Why is some land not public—Why is it our default to separate the people from the earth?
"National park designation was one of the first and biggest steps our country took toward collective land ownership, yet this is the act that Nelson singles out for “undermining the Lakota tradition of collective land ownership.” The national park mandate was unique in removing lands from settlement, yet this is where Nelson seeks her “perfect symbol” of 'settler colonialism.'" — Burritt
I feel like a strange—even reluctant—person to come to the defense of Yellowstone National Park. Maybe I even harbor a grudge that, for all the time I’ve spent volunteering in them, I never managed to get hired in one.
Minutiae of park management have been a favorite subject of trailside laments throughout my adult life. But it’s never hard for me to bring my diatribes around. It is never lost upon me that Yellowstone—the park closest to home—could have been privatized. Were that the case, my relationship to the earth (which is as much to say, my understanding of myself) would be unimaginably weaker.
I have long worked from the assumption that the creation of a public lands system is an important block in the foundation of the better world we’re trying to create. It’s an assumption, all right—but one that offers me beauty, insight, and direction in spades. I’ve found no basis for challenging it, yet.
When I drive south from my home in Livingston Montana toward Yellowstone’s north entrance, national forest lands soar above me. Below fall the fractionated borders of privately fenced parcels. These are lands claimed for the exclusive use and profiteering of individuals and corporations, and often enough, they are managed in accordance with unsustainable economic principles. Some properties are flaunted as trophies of the individualistic ego. Some are stripped and parceled so as to make concrete the exploitative belief that says the common good is nothing beside the sticks and carrots of free enterprise, and unabashed self-interest.
The connections aren’t just in my head. Landowners spell it out for me in the simplest possible terms—and sometimes, with letters a foot or more tall. “Protect our guns,” I read as I drive: “Vote Republican!” “Protect our children: Vote Republican!” “Park County is Republican Country.” “No Trespassing.” “NO ZONING!” I drive the speed limit but oversized pickup trucks with empty beds pass me like I’m standing still. With relief I reach the boundaries of public land—federal or state—and I remember why I live where I do.
In 1872, as well as a century and a half later, states rights, private property rights, and human entitlement to the earth go hand in hand with inequality, racial supremacy, and fear. I see us as living in a world where tribalism, while offering so much in terms of community and identity, carries manifest dangers when it comes to the real-world questions of managing shared resources for a diverse and largely uncategorizable populace of fantastically unique individuals.
I idealize a system in which every person born on this planet has equal stake in it; a system that does justice to the motley and fluid global community that is humanity as I know it. The rock, the soil, the flora—finding a place to land in the dislocated, digitized, and remixed civilization we live in—that’s what makes us one.
Horrible things have been done—and continue to be done—in the name of progress and patriotism in our country. Yellowstone’s history is anything but pure and simple; even today, its tourism culture appears no more likely to challenge problematic aspects of American identity than it is to encourage them.
Is this further evidence that the creation of the world’s first national park is the “perfect symbol” of Indigenous dispossession and racial hypocrisy in our country today? It’s a surprising and disquieting question, and the one that lead me to read Saving Yellowstone. Megan Kate Nelson believes the answer is yes, but having read her argument, I am no closer to understanding why.