Yellowstone National Park:
A Glimpse Behind The Myth
Cheyenne Creation by the great Cheyenne artist Dick West (author's collection)
The foundation of Yellowstone National Park was nothing more than an act of imperialism inspired by Manifest Destiny...
There was never a John Muir “the mountains are calling and I must go” moment so craved by modern conservationists, it was more about Nathaniel Langford, destined to be Yellowstone’s first superintendent, intriguing Jay Cooke, the financier of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the economic boon Yellowstone could be to the railroad.
At the time, Jay Cooke & Co. was the nation’s most influential banking institution, and Cooke considered himself divinely selected to meet the challenge of delivering the nation’s second transcontinental railroad. He was, he said, “God’s chosen instrument” in opening the Northern Plains to settlement. It was not what he might do for its geothermal wonders, but what they might do toward the fulfillment of the Northern Pacific when the moneyed clamored for tickets to gaze upon them. A new wave of investors would be attracted to Cooke’s railroad, the government would dole out more land to the company that wasn’t theirs to give for the track – and right beside it, the customary trail of itinerant opportunists would snake.
General-in-Chief of the Army, William Tecumseh Sherman, described the construction of the Northern Pacific as “a national enterprise” and his subordinate, Lieutenant General Phil Sheridan, assured the Northern Pacific that the mission of his Military Division of the Missouri was “to meet the wants of the company.” Cooke’s influence secured Sheridan’s support for the 1870 Langford-Washburn-Doane Yellowstone Expedition that was instrumental to the establishment of the world’s first national park. Cooke not only provided the financial, but also the political impetus for the exploration, just as he did for the subsequent 1871 Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone. Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane, 2nd Cavalry, who guided the 1870 Yellowstone Expedition, became known as “the man who discovered Wonderland.” Seven months prior, on January 23, 1870, Doane had led the massacre of Chief Heavy Runner’s Piegan Blackfeet village on the Marias River. “I was the first and last man in [the] Piegan camp January 23, 1870,” Doane wrote in his 1889 application to become superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. “Greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. Troops,” he continued. Of the 173 victims, only 15 were men of fighting age; the rest were elders, women and children, “none older than twelve years and many of them in their mother’s arms,” reported Indian Agent W.A. Pease.
Where Doane, the so-called discoverer of Yellowstone’s “Wonderland,” participated in genocide, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden advocated it. “Unless they are localized and made to enter upon agricultural and pastoral pursuits they must ultimately be exterminated,” Hayden said of the tribal peoples who were about to be dispossessed by the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. “If extermination is the result of non-compliance, then compulsion is an act of mercy,” he concluded. Shamefully, one of the main features of Yellowstone National Park, Hayden Valley, still carries his name. Hayden’s expedition was pivotal in the foundation of Yellowstone National Park, but it was Jay Cooke’s dollars that aided its facilitation. Cooke’s assistant, A.B. Nettleton, suggested to Hayden, “Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever.” Jay Cooke’s influence over President Grant then secured the objective Nathaniel Langford had first presented to him in 1869 – Yellowstone National Park. Unsurprisingly, Langford, Cooke’s agent for the Northern Pacific, was appointed as Yellowstone National Park’s first superintendent.
Langford was another who rallied for the extermination of Native people, having endorsed the Marias River Massacre of the Blackfeet, and previously celebrated General Patrick E. Connor’s January 29, 1863 massacre of the Northwestern Shoshone on Bear River, which he called “salutary.” Langford was an enabler of the rank propaganda that the National Park Service still perpetuates about tribal people being afraid of Yellowstone’s thermal features. His successor, Superintendent Philetus W. Norris, propagated this myth and articulated what became the position of the Park Service that the “primitive savages feared the geysers” and therefore avoided the area, purportedly having no ancestral connection to the landscape. Norris would only acknowledge the presence of the Sheepeater band of Shoshone, who he dehumanized as “pygmies,” and then used them to enjoin another stereotype by stating “and even they now vanished.” It was the policy of the National Park Service to make Yellowstone “Indian free,” which can be read in Norris’s annual reports of which the administrators of Yellowstone National Park are well aware. For Yellowstone National Park, the “vanishing Indian” myth still prevails.
In reality, twenty-six tribal nations have an ancestral connection to what is now called Yellowstone National Park, from the Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Arapaho, to the Shoshonean peoples, to the Nez Perce, Crow and Kiowa - a fact that even the Park Service recently acknowledged in a report it commissioned. Yellowstone is a sacred landscape; and there is a world of difference between recognizing the sacred, the mystery and power of a place, and being afraid of it. Tribal people did not fear Yellowstone: they respected and revered it, and were they given the opportunity to be reintroduced to it, would embrace the land once more. Yellowstone National Park is, in reality, a matrix of sacred sites, but generations of tribal people have been severed from it and denied that connection due to stereotypes promoted by the Park Service. For example, the Cheyenne are rarely spoken of in connection to Yellowstone; but the venerated Cheyenne ceremonial woman, Mary Little Bear Inkanish, preserved much of the tribe’s ancient knowledge of the region and was able to identify areas relevant to the ancestral origin narrative, and specific sites where particular paints and herbs were traditionally harvested. The Cheyenne also retain an explanation for how Obsidian Cliff was created, one of the most important cultural sites on the continent. A Clovis point fashioned from black obsidian harvested at Obsidian Cliff has been dated to 10,900 BC, another to 9,000 BC; and a knife found at Lake Village was placed in the range of 9,350 BC. Yellowstone existed for tribal people thousands of years before it became a national park.
Many tribal narratives relating to Yellowstone involve the grizzly bear. It is undeniable that the grizzly holds a unique position in the traditional cultures and ceremonial life-ways of the traditional spiritual practitioners of tribes identified by the federal government as possessing centuries old, and in some instances, millennia-long connections to Greater Yellowstone – one of only two regions in the lower-48 where the grizzly now survives. However, Yellowstone National Park officials support removing the grizzly from Endangered Species Act protection. The federal government’s position is that the future conservation and preservation of the grizzly should be transferred to state game agencies, all of which advocate and encourage trophy hunting of the Great Bear.
Throughout the federal government’s push to satiate the state governments of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, there have been no discussions relating to the impact that delisting the grizzly and subsequent trophy hunting will have on American Indian spirituality, namely the religious practices of traditional tribal people supposedly protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (PL-95-341). It is GOAL’s belief that the federal government’s push to remove the grizzly bear from Endangered Species Act protection contravenes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The grizzly is the first two-legged, the very spirit of our Grandmother the Earth in physical form. Let her not be taken from the land just for a “great white hunter” to use her skin as a rug or to mount her head on a wall with a fake taxidermist’s snarl.
The National Park Service’s continuing distortion and lack of historical and cultural interpretation in Yellowstone National Park is simply a continuation of the narcissism inherent in colonialism. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the name “Yellowstone” was derived from a Native term for the area. If tribal people feared Yellowstone, maybe the Park Service could explain how, to date, they have been able to document 1,600 tribal cultural sites within the park and where all of the tribal artifacts have come from that are presently stored under lock and key in a repository at park headquarters in Mammoth?
Guardians of Our Ancestors’ Legacy (GOAL), is committed to reconnecting tribal people to the ancestral landscape that is Yellowstone, reclaiming that heritage, and preserving the grizzly bear – the most powerful symbol of spiritual regeneration and renewal.
Copyright © 2010 by R Bear Stands Last, all rights reserved.