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Yellowstone Confronts Its Past

Homeland and crossroads for at least 27 indigenous tribes, Yellowstone as a place has an ancient human history—one seldom acknowledged in its first 150 years as a park

Yellowstone as homeland. As represented by the symbolic installation of a tipi this year, differing values converge upon the doorstep of Yellowstone. As the first national park in the world moves toward its 150th anniversary in 2022, indigenous tribes, artists and the National Park Service are working together to highlight the ancient—and still ongoing—cultural connections that exist with lands in and around Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Yellowstone as homeland. As represented by the symbolic installation of a tipi this year, differing values converge upon the doorstep of Yellowstone. As the first national park in the world moves toward its 150th anniversary in 2022, indigenous tribes, artists and the National Park Service are working together to highlight the ancient—and still ongoing—cultural connections that exist with lands in and around Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS

By Todd Wilkinson

No living person knows, for sure, when the last wickiup or other form of impermanent lodge—in what is today the geography known as Yellowstone National Park—provided shelter for members of the Tukudeka.

In the latter decades of the 19th century, undocumented observations circulated that in the years following Yellowstone’s creation on March 1, 1872, exiled Tukudeka (better known as the Shoshonean Sheepeaters) would break their forced exile, leave their forced confinement on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho, and return to their homeland in and around the Yellowstone Plateau.
 
Discretely, and though doing so was forbidden by federal regulation, their return was certainly based on the fact that it was the ground they had ever called home, to live as they always had, carrying on daily existence in the environs of their ancestors and using skills and wayfinding handed down across generations.

This may be why a word like “tourist”—a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure—had never entered into their vocabulary.

“Everyone knows this. When connections to a place are deeply ingrained, and your whole way of thinking about the world comes from understanding everything that’s happening there, the connection doesn’t go away. The instinct remains, especially if it was instilled over a long time. You don’t stop wanting to be there. You don’t stop dreaming about it, just because a switch is flipped and you’re told you’re no longer welcome there,” says Shane Doyle, enrolled member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation.

Doyle is academically trained as an ethno-paleo-archaeologist and he has written about his own tribe’s connection to Yellowstone—and, for the record, it should be noted, he is on the board of directors of Mountain Journal.

This past summer, a tipi was assembled at Yellowstone’s north entrance right next to the Roosevelt Arch at Gardiner, Montana to symbolize what park superintendent Cam Sholly, indigenous leaders like Doyle, conservationists, Mountain Time Arts, and others who carry the hope it represents the dawn for a new way of thinking about Yellowstone as the first national park in the world approaches its 150th anniversary next year.
Some of the tribal representatives, artists and Park Service leaders who gathered for the tipi installation at Yellowstone's front entrance. The event was marked by an honoring song from Shane Doyle pictured in blue shirt, center and Sholly to his right. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Some of the tribal representatives, artists and Park Service leaders who gathered for the tipi installation at Yellowstone's front entrance. The event was marked by an honoring song from Shane Doyle pictured in blue shirt, center and Sholly to his right. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
The Tukudeka, Apsáalooke and at least 25 indigenous other nations share cultural ties with Yellowstone and the terrain around it. A deep record of habitation resides on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, along the Yellowstone River and other bodies of water.  Arrowheads made of obsidian quarried in the center of Yellowstone illustrate how the coveted rock was part of a large indigenous trade network, reaching tribes in the Ohio River Basin to the east, the Southwestern deserts, and Pacific Northwest.  Well into the 20th century, one could find the skeletal structures of wickiups—tree limbs configured into the triangular shapes of tipis that were covered with tanned animal hides in differing locations around the national park.
 
Yellowstone, of course, was a game-changer in thinking about how to protect and preserve wildlife and natural wonders, an idea that has been embraced around the globe.  In profound ways, the park also has come to represent twin poles of a contradiction. 

On the one hand, some critics have labeled it an enduring reference point for the atrocities of colonialism and the federally-sanctioned policies of genocide, land theft and forced assimilation into the melting pot of the US for indigenous people. On the other, Yellowstone in its own way also stands as a fluid, evolving, radical counterpoint to Manifest Destiny that did—and still does in a 21st century way—seek to exploit, monetize, appropriate, privatize, tame and develop as much of nature as possible.

Yellowstone would not exist as a rich uncommon bastion for native wildlife species today had it not been set aside as a nature preserve which, in turn, has anchored the cause of habitat protection on public and private lands around it in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  
 
Prior to the installation of the tipi, MaryBeth Morand, executive director of Mountain Time Arts, invited Sholly and his team, including Christina White, who oversees the park’s external affairs and partnerships, to join a retreat with members of different tribes held at the B-Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin. It has served as a spark for broader thinking about insuring that not only are indigenous perspectives highlighted during high-profile events that will mark the park’s 150th anniversary but that indigenous voices be prominent and permanently heard going forward. Morand says that her organization wants public art to play a role in making visible what for millions of visitors often goes unseen or considered.
 
“We spent hours together around dinner and the next day at the tipi ceremony discussing ways to develop actions for the future...in ways beyond words,” Sholly said. “Engaging in formal government to government relations is essential as part of our Trust responsibilities. It’s also extremely important that we develop relationships and friendships through informal regular contact and dialogue.”
There are few, if any, photographs of the Eastern Shoshone inhabitants of Yellowstone known as the Sheepeaters (Tukudeka) that were there before it became a national park. Archeological evidence and oral stories speak to a long-lasting connection with lands that exist inside current park boundaries. This photo of a Tukudeka family was taken by William Henry Jackson in Idaho.
There are few, if any, photographs of the Eastern Shoshone inhabitants of Yellowstone known as the Sheepeaters (Tukudeka) that were there before it became a national park. Archeological evidence and oral stories speak to a long-lasting connection with lands that exist inside current park boundaries. This photo of a Tukudeka family was taken by William Henry Jackson in Idaho.
Doyle and Sholly agree that it is impossible to go back in time and alter the course of history playing out since 1872 and even before, but there is an opportunity to change the trajectory of what Yellowstone represents to a diverse country going forward. “There is much I—and we together— can learn from indigenous wisdom and the relationship that tribes had with the lands of Yellowstone before it was a park,” Sholly says. “I don’t need to point out the fact that when it comes to listening to indigenous voices and respecting the perspectives they bring forward, there is considerable room for improvement.”
 
While a century and a half of Yellowstone as a park seems like a long time—maybe six or seven human generations—Doyle says the lands in and around Yellowstone were part of an ancient roadmap of navigation. And while higher elevations of the park interior were certainly not inhabited by large numbers of people in winter, the lands of present day Yellowstone were a seasonal destination and crossroads.
 
Doyle and others have been pondering how Yellowstone’s 150th year could be used as a springboard for bringing a broader conceptualization of the park and ecosystem. The fact that a tipi was erected right next to Roosevelt Arch on Yellowstone’s own doorstep was not a coincidence, he notes. 

“The Crow would come into the park right through the Lamar Valley in warmer seasons because it had wildlife and plants. We would stop at the place where Mammoth is as we moved west toward the Gallatins or north into the Yellowstone River valley because it held a lot of bison,” Doyle says. “Just as people visit the travertine terraces and hot springs at Mammoth today, the Crow would spend time there. The springs were a place of power and soaking in them was therapeutic. White people weren’t the first to understand that the body feels good when you bath at Boiling River.”
 
Having inclusive, respectful conversations with the tribes that result in action is long overdue, Sholly says. “I think the build-up to the park’s 150th anniversary is serving as a catalyst for significantly improving and increasing our engagement with Native American voices who have much to offer. They have a context for thinking about and understanding the landscape of Yellowstone that is much deeper than a century and a half. Together, it’s a knowledge base that goes back many millennia.”
 
When Yellowstone is pondered as a place emanating from time immemorial with people of ancient roots bringing their own perceptions of wonderland, it makes for a richer understanding of what the park is beyond the modern stereotype.
Of keen interest to mountain and plains tribes is the recovery of bison and the role that Yellowstone has played in helping to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.  Here, a park bison is released at Fort Peck in northeastern Montana. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Of keen interest to mountain and plains tribes is the recovery of bison and the role that Yellowstone has played in helping to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Here, a park bison is released at Fort Peck in northeastern Montana. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
In April, Yellowstone hosted a Zoom listening session (because of fears about Covid) with more than two dozen invited tribes. Sholly also has assigned park resource personnel to work with tribal historians and cultural specialists to assemble an inventory of locations that show up in oral traditions. 

Sholly has a track record of accomplishment when it comes to working closely with tribes. In 2011, as the superintendent of the Natchez Trace Parkway, he supported the Choctaw Nation in completing the largest Native American repatriation in Choctaw history, returning 124 Choctaw remains to their native burial sites. He later worked closely with the Chickasaw Nation to establish a better direct tribal connection to the parkway’s corridor, part of the Chickasaw’s original homelands. As regional director for the Park Service’s Midwest Region, Sholly established the region’s first Office of American Indian Affairs to assist in improving NPS tribal relations across 13 states. 
 
Did you know: Yellowstone bison have been transferred to 17 tribes in nine states since 2020. Fort Peck has been the recipient.
Did you know: Yellowstone bison have been transferred to 17 tribes in nine states since 2020. Fort Peck has been the recipient.
Since his arrival in Yellowstone three years ago, Sholly has worked with partners such as Yellowstone Forever and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to expand the bison quarantine facilities just north of the park. The intent is to increase the flow of live, disease-free bison being made available for bolstering existing herds and allowing new herds to become established in Indian Country. Sholly has made a few trips to northeastern Montana and visited tribal leaders at Fort Peck where upwards of 200 Yellowstone bison have been released. He calls tribal chairman Fred Azure “a great partner.”  By the end of the year, the Park Service will have transferred nearly 200 bison to Ft. Peck. Over 160 have been transferred since mid-2019. Many of those have already been transferred to tribes across the country. 

This summer, Sholly had conversations with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American ever to host that presidential cabinet post, while Haaland visited Yellowstone. And he is eager to host Chuck Sams, the first Native American nominated to oversee the Park Service. 

“We have a lot of work to do in expanding these conversations to all of our associated tribal partners,” Sholly said. “More importantly, we need to take what we’ve heard and translate it to actions we can focus on together. We’ve heard from many tribes already and will continue conversations that not only look at what we can do together next year, but on substantive actions that will transcend this anniversary. The 150th cannot just be about Yellowstone as a park, but must be about something much deeper.”
Yellowstone Supt. Cam Sholly gave Interior Secretary Deb Haaland a tour of the park when she visited this past summer. Haaland has been to Yellowstone before and calls herself a fan of the park. Photo taken at the Brink of the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Yellowstone Supt. Cam Sholly gave Interior Secretary Deb Haaland a tour of the park when she visited this past summer. Haaland has been to Yellowstone before and calls herself a fan of the park. Photo taken at the Brink of the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Doyle and Sholly share a dream that Yellowstone again could become a model that influences the way the human culture and ecology in landscapes can be preserved. Within the last year alone, Yellowstone had 180 consultations with tribes in which advice and guidance was sought on an array of projects happening in the park. Yellowstone also initiated a multi-year partnership with Native American Studies faculty at Salish Kootenai College as they bring an unique understanding of the cultural importance of archaeological resources within the park.  

Bozeman-based Mountain Time Arts, where Doyle is on the board of directors, is poised to play an important role in Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary year. In 2021, the organization made a big leap forward by hiring a pair of co-executive directors in Francesca Pine Rodriguez, (Apsáalooke/Crow and Tsitsistas/Northern Cheyenne) and Morand.
 
“A strong rapport and mutual respect with the park team is critical to the viability of Mountain Time Arts creating art installations inside Yellowstone,” Morand said. “They are the current stewards of this landscape so, first of all, we need their permission to install the art works and also we need their knowledge and impressions of the landscape alongside the perspectives of the earlier, indigenous stewards of Yellowstone. Watching the Yellowstone National Park staff and indigenous participants in our retreat showed how deeply both groups care about the ecosystem and how profound their knowledge is of the plants, animals, artefacts and topography of the park.” 
 
Mountain Time Arts plans to use performance and visual art in the years to come to help the public re-imagine what Yellowstone was, is and what it can still be.  “I imagine the raising of the tipi in front of the Roosevelt Arch with the inscription  ‘For the benefit and enjoyment of the people’ can mean different things to different people. I would start by saying that no public space is neutral.   All public spaces, and monuments in particular, have a history or prevailing narrative attached to them.”
 
Morand didn’t say this, but it has been pointed out by many, including tribes, that Yellowstone place names, which honor the memory for example of racist Civil War officers and government officials who expressed racist sentiments and helped carry out genocide against indigenous people—and bison—are highly offensive.
 
Yellowstone Park, for example, is covered with place names given haphazardly by members of the Hayden and other expeditions pretty much on the fly by people who had no deep connection. In fact, many of Yellowstone’s place names are, if not superficial and sometimes banal, then reflecting a P.T. Barnum-like attitude of promoting amusements the public would pay to see.  
 
Doyle says such an orientation detracts from any notion of the park as sacred and, in the case of park bison, understanding them as holy animals that today are descended from survivors of one of the most notorious wildlife atrocities on the planet. Indigenous people, he notes, literally turned to landscape for sustenance not as a venue to engage in the latest funhog pursuit. Words mattered, and still do, when indigenous people think about place and “it’s a lesson that non-Indian people could learn.”
 
MaryBeth Morand, co-executive director of Mountain Time Arts
MaryBeth Morand, co-executive director of Mountain Time Arts
“Artwork may play with a location in many ways,” Morand notes. “It can expose, question, disrupt, dispute, confirm or celebrate histories and narratives.  For me, personally, the tipi juxtaposed against the arch challenges people to reconsider the story of Yellowstone that they may be familiar with. I think the stories of the 27 tribes who inhabited or migrated seasonally through Yellowstone add a lot of depth and texture to the legends of this landscape.  Also, putting the two icons [tipi and Roosevelt Arch] right next to each other meant to me that one was just as important as the other.”
 
Doyle says that groups coming together is the fulfillment of a dream that is not only personal but shared throughout Indian Country. “To have Yellowstone acknowledged as homeland gives Indian people a connection to the park many didn’t know they had,” he said. “The discussions we need to have aren’t all going to be easy. All of us belong to the land.”
 
As for the tipis, which Sholly wants to have a permanent presence meeting park visitors, Morand notes: “Culturally, we have the space to celebrate the narratives of the traditional tipi and the towering stone arch.  We are at a particular moment in time when we can celebrate both.  We don't want to erase the tipi or the arch.  We don't need to make the arch look like a tipi or vice-a-versa,” she says. “The Indigenous history of the park and National Park Service's dedication to protecting the landscape are both fascinating stories and their compilation can guide us on how to work together to address climate change, land and herd management in the face of increased park usage, and how to inform visitors and friends of the park.” 






Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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