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Appreciating the many nuances of Yellowstone’s legacy

The oldest national park in the world, Yellowstone, is rightly hailed as the birthplace of conservation. But in recent years, some have reappraised its human legacy. Our feeling on the matter? Listening to diverse voices will enhance your visit to Yellowstone, which is both the largest intact ecosystem (i.e. unaltered by humans) in the lower 48, and an important place in Native American history.

According to the conventional narrative, the park that was established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 (subsequently hailed as "America’s greatest idea") comprised a pristine tract of remote wilderness that was largely avoided by Native Americans who were afraid of the geysers. Recent archeological finds debunk this myth utterly: humans have lived in the Yellowstone area for at least 11,000 years.

But even in the1870s people knew it wasn't true. Way back in 1832, the landscape artist George Catlin made this abyndantly clear when he first suggested the idea of a national parks system:

And what a splendid contemplation too, when one (who has traveled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in future be seen (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A Nations Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!

Paintings like this one by Thomas Moran directly contributed to Yellowstone’s creation. (Photo: New York Public Library)

The evolution of ‘wilderness’

Since Catlin’s time, our understanding of what conservation means has undergone many changes. For a long time, the very word “wilderness” referred to a landscape that contained no trace of human influence – and Yellowstone became its standard bearer. To this day, a brochure given to every visitor proudly proclaims: “When you watch animals in Yellowstone, you glimpse the world as it was before humans.”

The park’s marketing department clearly didn’t notice the publication, in 1999, of Mark David Spence’s book Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks which pointed out that the uninhabited wilderness which is Yellowstone actually had to be created by humans. Since then, many have demanded a rethink of the park’s legacy. Shane Doyle, a research associate at Montana State University and a member of the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation, was quoted in a recent Smithsonian Magazine article saying, “The park is a slap in the face to Native people … There is almost no mention of the dispossession and violence that happened. We have essentially been erased from the park, and that leads to a lot of hard feelings, although we do love to go to Yellowstone and reminisce about our ancestors living there in a good way.”

Yellowstone was established partly due to backlash against desctruction from white settlers.

The devil is in the details

But it gets more complicated. While there is no denying that some Native Americans were forcibly removed from the Yellowstone area in the years immediately before and after the park’s founding, most of the really bad stuff took place before 1872 (President Ulysses S. Grant actually brought an end to “the policy of warring with natives and instead implemented peaceful assimilation by replacing military officers on reservations with religious representatives”) and was done in the name of facilitating westward expansion for white settlers, not of freeing up land for conservation. In fact, the establishment of the park was part of the backlash against the environmental destruction wrought by these same settlers.

As George Wuerthner rather provocatively points out:

Does anyone seriously believe that if there were no Yellowstone or any other national parks, Native Americans would have been treated any differently?

As for the assertion that all parks were established on lands once controlled by indigenous people, so were every other city, town, farm and ranch in the country. And these places, particularly our cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Tucson, Denver, and other major cities occupy the lands that were far more productive.

It seems that Yellowstone was too remote and economically unimportant to have ever been the site of a widespread military campaign against indigenous people. But there is likewise “no truth to the idea that Native Americans were afraid of the geysers and thermal features,” writes Richard Grant in the same Smithsonian Magazine article referenced above. In fact, he continues, “the Shoshone would soak the horns of bighorn sheep in the bubbling hot springs before reshaping them into beautiful and deadly bows. In general, Yellowstone’s geysers, mud pots, hot springs and fumaroles were regarded as places of great spiritual power.”

A small sample of the geothermal activity in Yellowstone.

By 1872, many of the indigenous people who moved through the park (the harsh winters made it much more attractive in summer) had already signed treaties which saw them removed to reservations which were designed to “control the Indians,” writes Spence, and teach them “civilized pursuits and occupations.” And these were the lucky ones. Much of white society at the time believed that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

And even if the park had been teeming with indigenous activity, there weren’t that many Westerners around to interfere with them in the early days – the Northern Pacific Railroad only reached the northern extremity of the park in 1883.

According to the traditional narrative, the one group of people who were around a lot at the park’s inception were the Tukudeka (or Sheepeater) people who had not yet been relocated to a reservation in 1872, and who apparently spent much of the year within park limits hunting (and eating) bighorn sheep. Yellowstone’s second superintendent, Philetus Norris, wrote in 1880, that “The only real occupants of the park were the pygmy tribe of three or four hundred timid and harmless Sheepeater Indians.” While there’s absolutely no truth to the fact that the Sheepeaters were ‘pygmies’, some of Norris’s other assertions have also been brought into doubt recently. At least one contemporary academic contends that “a permanent band of Sheepeaters in Yellowstone National Park may never have existed,” and there seems to be general academic consensus that there weren’t any Sheepeaters in the park in or after 1872.

Which is not to say that the park did not play host to conflict between settlers and indigenous people. In 1879, some 800 Nez Perce (or Nimiipu) people who had refused to sign a treaty fled their homeland in present-day Oregon and Idaho, hotly pursued by the US Army. While they were only in the park for a brief segment of their 1,200-mile flight, the 13 days they spent in Yellowstone were both eventful and traumatic. “During the time they crossed the park, the Nez Perce encountered about 25 visitors in the park, some more than once. Warriors took hostage or attacked several of these tourists, killing two.”

Map of the Flight of the Nez Perce in 1879. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

What does it all mean?

If this journal entry has left you mulling over both the incredible achievements of the conservation movement and the widespread maltreatment of indigenous people across the United States, then it has served its purpose. History – indeed life itself – very seldom fits into the neat little boxes we want it to… And we at SA Expeditions think that these contradictions are what make traveling to new places and cultures worthwhile.

Before you head out to Yellowstone, why not take a tip from contemporary anthropologist Doug MacDonald? “When people look at Yellowstone, they should see a landscape rich with Native American history, not a pristine wilderness. They’re driving on roads that were Native American trails. They’re camping where people camped for thousands of years.”

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