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As it turns 150, Yellowstone highlights Indigenous connections to the park

North Entrance teepee installation event in 2021
NPS / Jacob W. Frank
North Entrance teepee installation event in 2021

Doug MacDonald is like a lot of tourists that visit Yellowstone National Park.

“When I take my family to the park our goal is to see bison and bears and wolves and Old Faithful,” he said.

But, while there's plenty known about the wildlife and natural wonders, MacDonald — an archeologist and author of the book "Before Yellowstone: Native American Archeology in the National Park" — says there’s not yet enough on the park’s human history. Specifically, its Native American history.

Crow tribal member and scholar Shane Doyle agrees.

“What I think we see now in the park when we go there when it comes to Native people is a void," he said. "There’s a blank spot on the map, and so our minds are left to kind of wander and wonder about what was here and who was here and when were they here?"

Castle Geyser circa 1898
Library of Congress
Castle Geyser circa 1898

For most of its history, Yellowstone National Park was presented as untouched by humans. But Native Americans had a presence there for thousands of years before it became the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872.

Today, 27 tribes say their heritage is intertwined with the park. As Yellowstone turns 150, park officials are strengthening partnerships withtribal nations to update the park’s story.

Doyle and MacDonald stress that Native American presence in the park goes back more than 11,000 years.

“They were in there hunting bison and bear and rabbit," MacDonald said. "Fishing a little bit on the rivers as well and collecting things like bitter root and camas during the various seasons of which they’d move in and out of Yellowstone.”

When Yellowstone became a national park in 150 years ago, Native Americans were present in and around the park. Around the time, tensions were high as the U.S. government began forcing them out of the area and onto reservations.

But that wasn't the story told to the American public. MacDonald says the park’s early marketing materials highlighted Yellowstone’s natural beauty to try and attract visitors.

“They needed to make it look safe, and so they often would tell the tale that Native Americans didn’t live there and that was because they were afraid of the hot springs and geysers,” he said.

That myth, of course, has been debunked. Going into its 150th year, the park is acknowledging what it got wrong in the past and updating its story with more Native American voices. This summer, a new Tribal Heritage Center near Old Faithful will open.

“This isn’t just about the last century and a half," Park Superintendent Cam Sholly sad about tribal partnerships at a virtual media event about the park’s 150th. "We also want to use this anniversary to do a better job of fully recognizing many American Indian nations that lived in this area for thousands of years prior to Yellowstone becoming a park."

NPS/Neal Herbert

Sholly said one ongoing way the park is strengthening tribal relations is through bison conservation.

“We have one of the highest numbers of bison in the park since 1872, since Yellowstone was created,” he said. “Remember, 100 years ago there were less than 25 bison in this park, and so the fact that we’re sitting at 5,500 by itself is a good conservation success story.”

Recent upgrades will soon allow the park to transfer around 100 bison per year to tribal nations. In the last couple of years the program has moved around 200 bison to 18 tribal nations around the country.

The National Park Service is also in the process of updating a 20-year-old document that guides management of bison in Yellowstone. The updated plan prioritizes tribal hunting and the bison transfer program. Potential changes could also mean an increase in the park’s bison population

The return of the bison has a deeper meaning for Native Americans, Scott Frazier, a Crow elder, said at the recent Yellowstone anniversary event.

“We are related to the buffalo. We are the same thing," he said. "Their mirror to us is as they grew back in strength in Yellowstone so did we, and we started to heal and we got better and stronger."

NPS / Jacob W. Frank

The park is also installing a teepee village near Roosevelt Arch, similar to the temporary teepee set up near the park's entrance last summer.

Before that, Crow tribal member Shane Doyle says, "there really hasn’t been a native presence of teepees in the park since the 19th century."

Doyle says the event in August will expand visitor’s knowledge of Native Americans' past and present connections to the park — filling in what he called that blank spot of the park’s human history.

“What did people think about this place and how did they interact with it all those years ago? What can we learn from that? How can that help inform our sensibilities today?” he said.

Doyle and Sholly hope that the teepee village and other features like it will encourage more dialogue and collaboration between the tribes and park officials.

Doyle says looking back to the past will help chart the path forward.

“It’s going to be a healing experience for everyone involved," he said, "and it’s going to pave the way for future generations to have more of an authentic and joyful experience in Yellowstone (National) Park."

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.