Heart Spring in Upper Geyser Basin
Heart Spring in Upper Geyser Basin (Photo: NPS/Diane Renkin)

As Yellowstone National Park Turns 150, Indigenous Voices Take Center Stage

To mark its 150th anniversary, America’s first national park plans to use 2022 to address past wrongdoing and work toward a more inclusive future

Heart Spring in Upper Geyser Basin

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On March 1, Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, turns 150, and the park has decided to put Indigenous voices front and center as it plans a year of historic and cultural events. The move is part of a larger effort by the National Park Service and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, announced in October, to facilitate a “regular, robust, and meaningful” dialogue between associated Indigenous groups and the Park Service.

“We’ve not always gotten the story right here in Yellowstone,” said superintendent Cam Sholly on a recent press call, “and so we are focused on really making sure we’re telling these stories right as stewards of these parks. We want to do better, together.”

For over 11,000 years, at least 27 Indigenous groups—among them the Crow, Shoshone, Blackfeet, Bannock, and Nez Perce—have called this area of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho home, a history that was deliberately covered up when Yellowstone first became a national park in 1872. At the time, the government and railroad companies wanted to market the new preserve as an untrammeled, pristine wilderness, not as land that had been taken from its first hunter-gatherer inhabitants, who saw its mountain peaks and geysers as sacred. Indigenous peoples were forced out by the U.S. Army in order to make way for the government to execute its vision for what it thought a park should entail, and the now antiquated notion of what defines public lands took hold. This process erased countless Native peoples’ narratives.

The park is working to return bison to Indigenous groups. (Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

This year the park is looking to begin righting the past by elevating Indigenous stories. From May 26 to September 30, a decommissioned building near Old Faithful will be transformed into the Yellowstone Tribal Heritage Center, a pilot project Sholly hopes to make permanent. “We envision a place where tribal nations can display their artwork and cultural items and interact with a large number of visitors directly,” he said.

In addition, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes are hosting a large, intertribal gathering at the nearby Wind River Reservation that will be open to the public from June 1 to 3, sunrise to sunset. “Indigenous people are still here,” states the event page. “Their cultural attachment to their homelands in and around Yellowstone must be honored and understood, and we must build consensus toward a future that includes more Tribal input and participation.”

Because the park will still be wrapped in winter on the official anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant signing the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act on March 1, 1872, many of this year’s festivities will be spread out across warmer months.

On May 6, Yellowstone National Park Lodges will host an event in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn, with a speech from Sholly, said Rick Hoeninghausen, a spokesperson for Xanterra, the travel company that runs the lodges. The inn will also unveil its Native American Art Exhibit and Marketplace, which will run all weekend. “We have four Native American artists who we’ve worked with for many years who we’ve invited to exhibit in the lobby,” said Hoeninghausen. The artists include Traci Rabbit and D.G. House. A portion of the proceeds will go to the American Indian College Fund. (The inn will also be offering a series of free tours of the Old Faithful area on May 6, taking place in a fleet of updated, historic yellow buses that once motored around Yellowstone in the 1930s.)

From May 19 to 20, the University of Wyoming will be hosting a symposium on Yellowstone at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody, Wyoming, one of the main gateway communities to the park. This two-day public event will feature keynote speakers and panel discussions designed to reflect on the park’s storied past and focus on how it can adapt to modern and future values to become more accessible for generations to come. From August 23 to 28, to coincide with the National Park Service’s 106th birthday in August, multiple Indigenous groups will collaborate on a tepee village near the base of the Roosevelt Arch so that visitors have an opportunity to meet and interact with Native people firsthand.

A 2021 teepee installation
A 2021 tepee installation at Roosevelt Arch (Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

Beyond these events, the park is working to address its outdated bison-management plan; in January it announced that a greater emphasis will be put on increasing the live capture and transfer of the animals through the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and the InterTribal Buffalo Council to reconnect the animals to tribes. So far 200 bison have been relocated to 18 member tribes across the country.

Throughout the year, the park will also be addressing infrastructure issues, and officials hope to use the anniversary to instigate conversations about the rapidly changing climate and the science behind what shapes this iconic region. The 15th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will be hosted by Montana State University in Bozeman from May 15 to 18, with a goal of providing a “much-needed forum for knowledge-sharing” among noted speakers, park managers, researchers, and the public.

Nothing can undo Yellowstone’s dark and often violent history, but milestone anniversaries like these can serve as reminders to look back and educate ourselves in order to clear a path forward to a more inclusive future. “It’s a time for us to reflect on the lessons of the past,” said Sholly, “so we can protect and strengthen Yellowstone for the next 150 years.”

As Crow tribal member Scott Frazier, an artist who is the director of Project Indigenous and who leads Yellowstone student tours and ceremonial blessings on park wildlife, said on the press call: “In this time of struggle between human beings, these places are very important. To be able to come out and listen to nature and not a machine, and not cars, and not your boss. To come out and just sit and listen to nature is very healing. We are missing that in our world right now. We need more time in the trees.”

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