National Parks and American Indians ~ Public Places and Sacred ...

National Parks and American Indians ~ Public Places and Sacred ...


National Parks and American Indians ~ Public Places and Sacred Spaces

Abstract: This academic paper was written for Seminar in Social Science Research, SOSC 2395.

In this paper, I discuss the fact that Native Americans arrived on the continent of North America

over 11,000 years ago, and that they had resided in areas now set aside as National Parks and

Wilderness areas for centuries. I show that attempts by Euro-Americans to civilize, Christianize,

assimilate, exterminate, and subsequently remove the remaining Native Americans from their

lands, continued for over 250 years. I explain the spiritual significance of these lands to the

Native Americans, and examine methods used to remove them from their sacred lands in order to

make way for civilization and wilderness preservation. I reveal how National Park Service

managers in Yellowstone and other National Parks perpetrated the myth that Native Americans

feared and avoided these lands. I point out that although many of these lands had been

guaranteed Native Americans through treaties, these treaties were not honored and Native

Americans continue to experience restricted access to these sacred lands today. Finally, I reveal

how Native American groups and the National Park Service are attempting to accommodate each

other’s cultural differences, build trust, and reach common goals through communication and


Course: Seminar in Social Science Research, SOSC 2395

Semester/Year: SP/2011

Instructor: Professor David Erickson



Before Euro-Americans took possession of this continent, with the intent of building a

new life for themselves, Indians had already been roaming here freely for centuries. These new

citizens, rapidly growing in strength and numbers, demanded the complete destruction, removal,

or assimilation, of this land’s indigenous people. Those natives who endured, valiantly clinging

to their mores, were viewed as “exotic, cultural artifacts from the past, the stereotypical

Vanishing Americans … backward savages on their way out, and soon to be no more” (Riley,

1993, p. 23). Beliefs such as these helped to justify the shameless taking of Indian homelands,

lands which in many instances eventually became our National Parks and wilderness areas.

Contrary to predictions, Indians did not become “Vanishing Americans”, yet they did

lose the majority of their lands, lands they considered sacred and vital to their very existence. As

Oswalt & Neely (1999) point out, “although virtually all inhabitable country in North America

was occupied by Indians when Europeans arrived, Indians now possess only a very small

portion” (p. 37). Tribes who formerly dwelled upon lands now set aside as our nation’s parks,

forests, and wilderness regions, experience restricted access to many of their most revered sites.

Federal land preservation efforts have positioned many of our national parks in the center of

cultural debates and lawsuits with Native American tribes who were unjustly displaced from

their lands in order to make way for the establishment of public use sites. An examination of

American Indian use of these areas will illustrate the historic presence of tribes on these sacred

grounds and the cultural and spiritual significance of these lands to the Indian way of life. This

paper will show how the movement to create wilderness preservation areas, national parks, and

national monuments, in an effort to promote tourism and provide a pleasant experience for

vacationing Americans, necessitated the complete removal of Indians from these regions.


Additionally, possible alternatives are suggested which could serve to accommodate the

individual rights and contrasting viewpoints of the groups involved in disputes over these lands.


A Brief History of the Native American

There are many theories about the origins of Native Americans but most anthropologists

would agree that Indians evolved elsewhere and migrated to the New World at least 11,000 years

ago, perhaps across a land bridge called Beringia which connected Siberia and Alaska. These

people relied mainly on large game animals for survival and may have followed the animals

across Beringia into Alaska. An important discovery site called Folsom, located in New Mexico,

found flint projectile points embedded in the bones of bison dating 10,500 years ago. As time

went on and the people learned to adapt to new environments, hunting was no longer their sole

means of subsistence. Groups moved about in search of edible plants and devised technology

such as grinding stones, nets, baskets, and spears. Some of these groups learned agriculture,

some remained hunter gatherers, and some became fishermen or pastoralists, depending upon the

local resources. Ultimately, many different Indian cultures developed, with distinct languages,

political organizations, and belief systems. These various groups can be classified in terms of

bands, tribes, and chiefdoms, but for ease of reference throughout this paper they will be referred

to as tribes.

Contact with Europeans and Euro-Americans

Josephy (1991) reports that, according to Norse history, the oldest known contact among

people of the Old and New Worlds occurred on the Northeastern coast of North America in 1006

A.D., where eight Indians were captured and killed by Thorwald Eriksson, Leif Eriksson’s

brother (p. 295). Subsequent to that encounter, an exact point of first contact with the Indians of


North America is impossible to establish as contact varied among regions. Some tribes in the

East were already destroyed or severely reduced in number due to disease, displacement or

massacre, before tribes in the West had even learned of white men (Oswalt & Neely, 1999, p.

20). However, most estimates place the date of first European contact somewhere around 1500,

A.D. When the first explorers arrived on the continent of North America they found it inhabited

by a dark-skinned people who spoke a language foreign to their own. They called these people

the Indigenes, which later became the Indians, based on a flawed interpretation of the geography

of the world. Claiming a new land for their own was a central reason that European immigrants

arrived on the Atlantic seacoast, and the fact that the land was already occupied must have been

quite disconcerting to them. The logical explanation was that these Indigenes came from

somewhere else and did not belong here. The population of the Indians at the time of this contact

was thought to be between two and four million people, but within four hundred years those

numbers had dropped dramatically, to a low of two hundred and twenty thousand (Josephy,

1991, p. 53).

Assimilation and Christianization

The Reverend Samuel Purchas wrote in his 1625 narrative, Purchas His Pilgrimes, that

“Christian Englishmen … originally had not the right to despoil heathen Indians of their lands;

for ownership of the land is a right in nature, not in God” (Pearce, 1953, p. 7). As Indians lived,

not according to God’s laws but according to the laws of nature, Christians felt an obligation to

remove the Indians from this state of nature and convert them into civilized Christians. When

those efforts failed, Indians were seen as standing in the way of progress and civilization.

Edward Winslow, a Mayflower passenger and one of the founders of Plymouth colony, who later

became governor of Plymouth, wrote, “God had sent a wonderful plague among the savages to


destroy them and to leave most of their lands free for civilized occupation” (Pearce, 1953, p. 19).

Pearce (1953) notes that the prevailing attitude toward Indians could be summed up in the

writings of Daniel Gookin, author of Historical Collections of the Indians of New England, who

stated that Indians are:

brutish and barbarous; they indulge in polygamy; they are revengeful; the men only hunt

and fish and fight while the women cook and do a little planting; they are all thieves and

liars and by now they have virtually all become drunkards....Yet their heathen worship

and their submitting to powwows, who are nothing but witches and wizards holding

familiarity with Satan, damn them forever. (p. 26)

Despite the Puritans’ best efforts to save the Indians from eternal damnation, the plain truth was

that contact with whites did not save the Indians but instead severely diminished their condition.

Pearce (1953) argued that the “savage heathen was lowered, not raised, by his contact with the

civilized Christian” (p. 30). As efforts to assimilate the Indian into white culture continually

proved unsuccessful, Americans became convinced that Indians were “radically different from

their proper selves … bound inextricably in a primitive past, a primitive society, and a primitive

environment, [and destined] to be destroyed by God, Nature, and Progress to make way for

Civilized Man” (Pearce, 1953, p. 4).

After the American Revolution the fate of the Indian was sealed, and as Pearce (1953)

emphasized, he had “no right to exist independently and to live as and where he pleased … as

Indian land was to be considered as conquered territory” (p. 54). Whatever rights had previously

been guaranteed the Indians were ignored by the white settlers who streamed onto their lands,

with the full support of the military if faced with Indian opposition. Yet many Indians held on to

their conviction that the land belonged to them, and some felt it should not be forfeited without


outright purchase by their subjugators. Attempts to convince Indians to surrender their lands

continued, and in so doing, whites established treaties and broke them, settled upon borders and

ignored them; Indians, for the most part, held fast to laws and agreements while whites were

completely free to disregard them without consequence. Realizing the impossibility of

preventing white expansion into Indian territories, the government sought to resolve the problem

with the negotiation of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. This territory was thought to be land which

Indians could safely occupy as no respectable white man would wish to lay claim there.

According to Pearce (1953), the Government’s Removal Policy forced Indians to trade lands east

of the Mississippi for “western lands more suited to savage use” (p. 56). Pearce (1953) further

points out that President Jackson, in his 1830 Second Annual Message, stated:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few

thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous

farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute,

occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of

liberty, civilization, and religion? (p. 57)

These blessings, however, were not sufficient to stop the ubiquitous seeds of discontent from

being sowed, and by 1840 America came to the realization that the West, although already

consigned to the savages, was now in need of civilization too.

Relegation to Reservations

Since there was no further place west that the Indians could be pushed, a new scheme had

to be devised, one which required the Indians to relinquish lands which they had only recently

been issued. Demands mounted for the removal of Indians to the American Desert, to lands

Josephy (1991) termed “unsuitable for farming or for habitation by whites” (p. 319). Nabokov &


Loendorf (2004) contend that as plans were underway for the preservation of wilderness areas in

America, “another sort of preserve with a different agenda was being created for the American

Indians … [one] devoted to transforming cultural species and putting their traditional habits

behind them” (p. xiii). Hence, the Reservation System was devised and carried out, first through

treaties and later through Congressional Acts.

In the Southeast, white/Indian conflict continued, culminating in the infamous Trail of

Tears, and creating what Josephy (1991) called “one of the blackest chapters in American

history” (p. 323). This tragic walk marched “tens of thousands of helpless Indians,” at least four

thousand of whom died along the way from starvation, exposure, and disease, from their lands in

the Southeast to the reservations of Oklahoma (Josephy, 1991, p.324). In California, an

onslaught of whites brought on by the gold rush caused the destruction of Indian villages and

hunting grounds, and the death of “as many as seventy thousand Indians” in a ten year span

(Josephy, 1991 p. 332). Those who survived were dispatched to reservations where even further

deaths ensued from poverty and disease. According to Pearce (1953), these reservations “were to

be savage islands in the midst of civilized seas” (p. 239). Only sixty years had passed since the

founding principles of the U.S. were established. Two of these principles - all mankind are

created equal, and, constitutional provisions must protect the rights of the minority, were

flagrantly disregarded by the American government and its civilized people in their treatment of

Native Americans. Further, Oswalt & Neely (1999) state:

The personal and cultural trauma wrought by purposely displacing a tribe from its home

is tragic in itself. But the federal policy of moving all the Indian tribes from one vast area

into another violates the very principles on which the United States was founded. (p. 37)


Presidents Jefferson through Jackson were confronted with the task of creating methods to

dispossess tribes whenever white men desired their lands. Treaties for the exchange of these

lands were typically arranged by calling together tribal representatives who were presented with

terms without the potential for negotiation. Often times these agreements were made with

Indians who had no authority to speak for the tribes, or were entered into with Indians who had

intentionally been provided intoxicants beforehand. Interpreters for the Indians commonly left

out, or incorrectly translated, crucial points in the agreements. More importantly, the practice of

buying and selling the earth was a totally foreign idea to the Indians, one beyond their

comprehension. Oswalt & Neely (1999) suggest, “most Indians had no concept of the permanent

alienation of land. Since they had never bought and sold land, their concept was that they were

granting whites the rights to its use” (p. 41). While Indians lost their lands, their freedoms, and

their very means of subsistence, there was one thing the white man could not take from them,

their spirituality.


Native American Spirituality and Religious Use of Public Lands

Native Americans have always had a strong, spiritual connection to their physical

surroundings. Lewis (1995) contends that “[t]hey defined themselves by the land, by the sacred

places that bounded and shaped their world. Their origin cycles, oral traditions, and cosmologies

connected them with all animate and inanimate beings, past and present” (p. 423). The Native

Americans’ very cultural identity seems rooted in their connection to the land. Over one hundred

years ago, the famous wilderness preservationist and author, John Muir, conveyed that Indians

possessed “a kind of devotional attitude toward nature,” and he wrote in his journal that “[t]o the

Indian mind all nature is instinct with deity” (Catton, 1979, p. 9). Before their lives were forever


changed by forces outside their control, Native Americans sought balance and harmony between

their physical and supernatural worlds. The following words, spoken by an Indian leader

addressing a National Congress of American Indians convention, highlight the fact that, although

in a different way than their forefathers, they still seek that balance yet today:

In the early days we were close to nature. We judged time, weather conditions, and many

things by the elements – the good earth, the blue sky, the flying of geese, and the

changing winds. We looked to these for guidance and answers. Our prayers and

thanksgiving were said to the four winds….We lived by God’s hand through nature and

evaluated the changing winds to tell us or warn us of what was ahead. Today we are

again evaluating the changing winds. May we be strong in spirit and equal to our Fathers

of another day in reading the signs accurately and interpreting them wisely. (Josephy,

1991, p. 345)

Beliefs and Ceremonies

By the late 1800s, just prior to the completion of the Indian conquest by whites, most

Indians had all but given up their fruitless rebellion against the insufferable state of reservation

life, and instead, petitioned the Spirits for relief. The Indians of the West were now confined to

reservations, chiefs no longer possessed power, warriors were dead, buffalo and antelope could

not be seen roaming the plains in vast numbers as they once had, rituals held no meaning, and all

that was left to do, according to Brown (1991), was drink “the white man’s crazy-water” and

dream of better days (p. 364). This was a time when the medicine men, great dreamers and

visionaries, gained respect as leaders of their people. One prominent medicine man was Wovoka,

who claimed that in a vision, the Great Spirit had given him a special dance for his people. By

practicing this dance, known as the Ghost Dance, the faithful were promised the return of the


buffalo, a reunion with deceased relatives, a return to former lifeways, and the disappearance of

white men (Ostler, 2010, and Josephy, 1991). The philosophy of the Ghost Dance doctrine, as

explained by Tedlock & Tedlock (1992), preached that there would be a day when all Indians,

both living and dead, would join together on a renewed earth, “to live a life of aboriginal

happiness, forever free from death, disease, and misery” (p. 75). After fasting, purification, and

dancing, some dancers would experience visions of being transported to the beautiful and

peaceful world where spirits reside. Revealing these visions to the people allowed for a renewed

sense of hope and the dance quickly spread throughout many tribes of the Plains and the West.

According to Ostler (2010), Wyoming’s Devils Tower was a site where various tribes would

gather to perform the Ghost Dance (p. 17). Believers were urged to make themselves worthy by

rejecting their warring ways, and instead, “practicing honesty, peace, and good will, not only

among themselves, but also toward the whites” (Tedlock & Tedlock, 1992, p. 76). The dance

generated hope among the Indians for what Ostler (2010) called the “renewal of the world”, and

for the return of their sacred lands (p. 119). But misunderstood, feared, and banned by the army,

the Ghost Dance was ultimately crushed by the murder of Sitting Bull and the massacre at

Wounded Knee. Some tribes, however, have breathed new life into the dance and continue

carrying on the songs and dance steps of the Ghost Dance today.

Supernatural visions were commonly sought by both Indian men and women and were

experienced through dreams and through vision quests (Josephy, 1991, p. 121). The vision quest

was typically embarked upon by a native in his teens. After being sent off alone to fast in a

secluded place, a youth would ultimately encounter a visit from a supernatural being. This being

would become a personal guardian throughout the life of the Indian. This spirit protector would

teach songs and prayers to the initiate, and instruct him in rituals and behaviors that would assist


him throughout his life. Those who experienced particularly powerful visions might become

trained as shaman, or medicine men, because they were believed to possess special powers,

including the power to cure illness and disease.

Peyote, a cactus containing the psychotropic drug mescaline, is frequently used by

Indians to heal the sick and is either taken directly by the sick person or by supplicants in

attendance at a curing ceremony. The practice of using peyote as a sacrament in sacred

ceremonies is common among members of the Native American Church. According to Tedlock

& Tedlock (1992), “[t]he Peyote Religion, or Peyote Way … is the most widespread

contemporary religion among the Indians” (p. 96). Participants in the ceremony consume peyote

in hopes of obtaining physical and spiritual power, and knowledge. According to J. S. Slotkin,

anthropologist, author, officer and member of the Native American Church, members believe

that God created peyote and placed His special powers into it for Indian use. It is used in much

the same way as Christians who consume sacramental bread and wine (Tedlock & Tedlock,

1992, p. 99). An important symbol of the Native American Church is the peyote waterbird,

which represents life, vision, and wisdom. Nabokov & Loendorf’s (2004) research reveals that

red obsidian, a volcanic glass “used by peyote people in making the head of the waterbirds,”

could be found in abundance in Yellowstone National Park (p. 161). Obsidian flakes discovered

on the ground was considered a sign that the powerful spirit, Water Ghost Woman, had been

present in the area. These flakes, according to Nabokov & Loendorf, (2004) “represented broken

fragments of her body” (p. 159). In addition to its spiritual significance, Yellowstone obsidian

was used by the Indians in making tools such as arrow points and hide scrapers. One Sheep Eater

revealed that when her ancestors extracted the highly prized obsidian from a sacred site, a

sacrificial offering would be left behind in its place.


The Sheep Eater tribe, whose presence in Yellowstone was extensively researched by

Nabokov & Loendorf (2004), believed that the “wooded mountain areas of the Yellowstone

Park” was an important place where spirits dwelled and intermingled with medicine men (p.

194). Their study also revealed that one particularly strong spirit, known as “mountain-

medicine,” left signs of its power in rock-drawings under the Teton peak and around certain hot

springs in Yellowstone, places where the Sheep Eaters would hold vision-seeking rituals

(Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 195). Many supernatural spirits that the Sheep Eaters interacted

with were believed to reside in areas near the waters, geysers, thermal pools and mountain tops

of Yellowstone.

A Native American ceremony still performed today by Sioux, Ute, Shoshone and other

tribes of the Plains, and which has significant spiritual meaning, is the Sun Dance. The Sheep

Eater and Bannock tribes were known to hold Sun Dances in the mountainous areas of Jackson

Hole country, now known as Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. Participants would dance

and fast for several days in order to help restore or sustain their connection to the community and

according to Burton (2002), the Sun Dance is “an instrument for the expression of intertribal

unity” (p. 43). Occasionally dancers might perform various forms of self-torture, sometimes as

part of a pre-hunting ritual, in hopes of being granted supernatural powers, or of being cured of

disease (Josephy, 1991, Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004 and Burton, 2002). A clay buildup, formed

by minerals from Yellowstone’s hot springs, would be mixed with water and drank during the

ceremony in order to prevent the indigestion and cramps that would accompany the fasting.

Today, Indians must go through a tedious process in order to get Park Service permission for the

collection of this important and ritualistic clay (Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 278).


Weixelman’s (2001) research revealed that “many tribes regarded the lands that became

Yellowstone National Park as sacred. American Indians understood the area to be linked to the

powers of their Creator … [and] such a place had to be properly respected” (p. 8 and p. 2). The

famous photographer and author, Edward Curtis, wrote of the Crow tribe’s belief in

Yellowstone’s supernatural guardians, benevolent spirits who inhabited the geysers, but feared

most human beings. These guardians would come to the aid of the Crow when needed, as long as

the Crow presented themselves as “poor and pitiful vision seekers” (Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004,

p. 57). Obliging the spirits in this manner, state Nabokov & Loendorf (2004), enabled the Crow

people to be adopted by their supernatural guardians, thereby “harness[ing] the inner powers of

Yellowstone” (p. 57). One Nez Perce historian disclosed the religious significance of trips her

grandparents made to Yellowstone in order to “pray, bathe, and sweat” (Weixelman, 2001, p. 8).

Her people believed the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone to be a “place where the Great

Spirit existed,” and in this place, they “could bathe the body and spirit directly … purifying their

bodies and souls” (Weixelman, 2001, p. 8). The Indians revered this sacred area and implored

the spirits to help them in their vision quests. Arrowheads would sometimes be left in, or near, a

thermal area in the hope they might obtain some value the thermal feature had to offer. The

Blackfeet, who felt a similar reverence for the Glacier National Park area, also respected

Yellowstone, offering prayers and gifts to the spirits when traveling through the area. According

to Weixelman (2001), “the belief that intertribal warfare was not supposed to be brought to

regions containing hot springs supports the idea that Yellowstone was sacred land to the Native

Americans” (p. 9). The Yellowstone region was considered neutral territory, a spiritual place

where tribes could co-exist and exhibit their cultural diversity without fears of hostility or



The Element of Connectedness

Native Americans and National Parks

In his book, Dispossessing the Wilderness, Spence (1999) promotes the view that Native

people possess the right, through treaties and agreements, to maintain their cultural

distinctiveness through “the practice of certain skills that can take place only within a large

national park” (p. 7). Spence (1999) further points out that:

the Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfeet, and Yosemite all shared important similarities:

each utilized or lived within a national park at the time of its establishment, all were

affected by federal efforts to preserve certain western landscapes, none ever fully

relinquished their claims to these areas in a treaty with the United States, and each park

remained important to these groups because it was large enough to protect and sustain

numerous resources. (p. 6)

The Crow tribe assert, according to Nabokov & Loendorf (2004), that they still retain hunting

rights in Yellowstone according to an 1851 treaty, which was entered into twenty years before

the area became a national park (p. 59-60). It is of particular importance to the Indian that

traditions and practices be allowed to continue in their place of historic ritual significance. In this

way they maintain their connection to the past, and honor and respect their ancestry. The Native

Americans’ connection to things and places are equally important aspects in the curing of

disease, healing of ailments, and the maintenance of good health. Where a particular medicinal

herb is gathered from is believed to be a significant factor in its effectiveness. This connection is

explained by Burton (2002) when he states, “[f]or herbal medicines to retain their healing power,

so must the place where they grew … as the health of persons and the health of places is

interrelated” (p. 43).


This sense of connection to place, nature, and wilderness is by no means limited to

Native Americans. In the 1830s the famous painter, George Catlin, marveled at the scenic beauty

and serenity of the West and experienced strong feelings of enthusiasm for the landscape and the

Indians who lived so freely on it. Catlin anticipated the inevitable changes that would befall the

wilderness and proposed that portions of the regions be protected from future development.

Many have attributed the first national park idea to Catlin. His proposals did not call for the

removal of Indians from their wilderness habitat, notes Spence (1999), but instead, called on

government policies to preserve portions of the land where Indians could continue carrying out

their traditions and customs that “ the world could see for ages to come” (p. 10). Unfortunately,

Catlin’s visionary ideas where not shared by early preservationists whose image of the North

American landscape required the painting of a very different picture, one in which “wilderness

preservation went hand in hand with native dispossession” (Spence, 1999, p. 3).


Nabokov & Loendorf (2004) state, “it is no secret that banning American Indians and

appropriating their lands were deemed necessary for the initial establishment of Yellowstone” (p.

xi). They suggest that the very presence of Indians in the park was concealed and denied in order

to promote the myth of a virgin territory, totally absent of human existence. Many of the

researchers cited in this paper, however, documented that Native Americans have used the

Yellowstone region for dwelling purposes, hunting grounds, tool making, sacred ceremonies,

meeting places, and transportation routes, for at least 10,000 years. Of the nine Native American

culture areas, Nabokov & Loendorf (2004) contend that three groups congregated in

Yellowstone and ten major tribes had “cultural or historical associations to the Yellowstone

Valley ecosystem” (p. 7-9). Further, historical records indicate Blackfeet, Crow, Sheep Eater,


Shoshone, and Bannock tribes have all resided close to Yellowstone, that the Nez Perce,

Flathead, Kalispel, Pend d’Oreille, Assiniboine, and Coeur d’Alene tribes travelled the region

regularly, and the Arapaho and Lakota were found there as well (Weixelman, 2001, p. 3).

According to Spence (1999), the Eastern and Northern Shoshone were tribes with the longest

connection to the Yellowstone area (p. 45). This group existed on hunting buffalo and other

game animals, on fishing, and on gathering. The seasonal migrations of the Shoshone followed

the game animals, salmon runs, and the harvest times of plants which were vital to their diet or

for use in medicines. Tribes in the area would often come together for buffalo hunts, fur-trade

rendezvous, and camas harvests. Yellowstone was also a seasonal abode to the Mountain Crow

who considered the area and important place to “hunt, gather plants, pasture horses, seek

assistance from spiritual helpers, take the waters and look for signs of the First Maker” (Spence,

1999, p. 47). Another group of Shoshone, the Sheep Eater, lived quite comfortably among the

higher elevations of Yellowstone throughout most of the year. Although some accounts allege

the Sheep Eaters were an impoverished lot, Russell (1955), a fur trapper who traded regularly

with the Sheep Eater tribe, described in his journals that they were well-armed, clothed in top

quality deer and sheep skins, in possession of as many as thirty pack dogs to carry their supplies,

and seemed “perfectly contended and happy” (p. 26-27). Theodore Roosevelt spoke of an

encounter with a mountain man, Beaver Dick, who lived among the Shoshone Indians in Teton

country. A legendary outdoorsman, Dick told of parties of Sioux and Bannock/Shoshone Indians

hunting in the Teton Range (Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 110). Recently, archaeologists have

located evidence of more than 400 “aboriginal campsites throughout Yellowstone”, with over 40

of them “near areas of thermal activity” (Weixelman, 2001, p. 5).


The idea that Indians were afraid of Yellowstone and avoided the area completely is a

long-standing fallacy, and Weixelman (2001) warned that this false belief “must be dispelled to

understand the true nature of Yellowstone’s Indian past. First and foremost, many Native

Americans treated Yellowstone as a special region, a sacred land” (p. 10). Both Weixelman’s

(2001), and Nabokov & Loendorf’s (2004) research led to consultations with many Shoshone

tribal members who revealed that the thermal waters, mud, and minerals were used extensively

by their people for their healing properties (p. 8 and p. 278). Other native consultants disclosed

that many Bannock/Shoshone Indians, especially prominent chiefs, had been buried along with

their horses and possessions in the hot springs, while a Nez Perce tribesman stated that the hot

springs had been used for cooking food (Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 278 and p. 282). The

Kiowa people’s origin story is situated in the Yellowstone plateau and the events depicting the

story are displayed in a massive mural at the Kiowa Tribal Museum (Nabokov & Loendorf,

2004, p. 72). Many Indian narratives involve Yellowstone’s topographical features in their

legends and one Crow tale related how the first Crow Indian was created by the Sun, on the

Yellowstone River (Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 82).

In 2001, the National Geographic Society published an illustrated history of America’s

National Parks. Nabokov & Loendorf (2004) found this book to erroneously state, “while most

national parks would come into existence already impacted by American Indians, Yellowstone

was an exception” (p. xv). Contradicting this claim, Wayne Repnogle, a naturalist who has

extensively explored trails throughout Yellowstone, calls the Bannock Trail the “great aboriginal

highway” whose routes were used by various groups of Native Americans for diverse purposes

(Weixelman, 2001, p. 7). The NPS proclaimed Yellowstone as a 20 th century model of the

wilderness preservation concept, however, Spence (1999) would argue that “Yellowstone also


provides the first example of removing a native population in order to preserve nature” (p. 70).

Yellowstone remains a place of controversy as Native Americans continue their century-long

challenge against removal from the area.

The “Bad Lands” – the Black Hills, Devils Tower, Bear Butte, and Mount Rushmore

The U. S. Government Treaty of 1868 forever promised the Black Hills territory to the

Lakota/Sioux tribe. But once gold was discovered there, the promise of forever became short

lived and tribes were forced to give up their sacred Black Hills. There has been a decades-long

movement underway for the return of the Black Hills to the Lakota/Sioux people. While the

tribes were awarded monetary compensation for the Black Hills, Ostler (2010) states that they

have refused to accept it, believing that acceptance would legitimize “the government’s original

taking of the Hills” (p. 188). The Lakota/Sioux believe that if they continue their spiritual ways

the Hills will be returned to them in time, and they are prepared to wait for that day’s arrival.

Gerald Clifford, a Lakota man of the Pine Ridge Reservation, believes, “[w]e are going to have

spiritual possession of them. Time is not important.” (Ostler, 2010, p. 189). In the interim, the

Lakota/Sioux people continue to work for “greater access to the Black Hills and to protect them

from further damage,” such as logging in the Black Hills National Forest, and radioactive waste

from the old uranium mine which has been found in the Cheyenne River (Ostler, 2010, p. 189-

190). A 2008 Minot Daily News article reported that changes are being considered by the NPS

which could return control of a 208 square-mile portion of the Badlands National Park, known as

the South Unit, to the Oglala Sioux Tribe (p.1). According to the article, several options for the

Badlands National Park are under consideration, one of which would allow for shared

management of the area with more management duties being handled by the tribe, another would

turn management of the area over to the tribe allowing for technical help from the NPS, a third


option would give complete control of the South Unit to the tribe with the possibility of the area

becoming a tribal national park, and a final option being looked at would continue current NPS

management practices (Minot Daily News, 2008, p.1). The article further reports that “this is the

only national park in the United States where an Indian tribe owns the land and the NPS manages

it and the resources” (Minot Daily News, 2008, p.1). The period for public comment on the

options ended in October, 2010.

Another site of long-held Native religious significance in the Black Hills region is Devils

Tower National Monument, known as Bear’s Lodge to the Indians. According to the NPS

website for Devils Tower, over twenty tribes have potential cultural affiliation with the site, and

among them are the Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone. Ceremonial

activities which reflect the sacredness of the site have included prayer offerings, the Sun Dance,

origin and culture hero legends, and in the past, funerals. The Tower’s spectacular cracks,

however, make it a world renowned destination for climbers. The NPS acknowledges the

controversy this has created and state on their website that:

American Indians have regarded the Tower as a sacred site long before climbers found

their way to the area. Recently, American Indian people have expressed concerns over

recreational climbing at Devils Tower. Some perceive climbing on the Tower as a

desecration to their sacred site. It appears to many American Indians that climbers and

hikers do not respect their culture by the very act of climbing on or near the Tower.

In an attempt to encourage understanding and respect for cultural differences, the NPS proposed

a voluntary climbing closure during the month of June, a time when many traditional Native

American ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, take place. According to information provided on

the NPS Devils Tower website, this effort has reduced June climbing on the Tower by 80%.


Burton (2002) notes that, what started out as a workgroup composed of NPS planners,

representatives from local and national climbing organizations and environmental organizations,

local government, and members of the Indian community, ended with an Appeals Court decision

upholding the NPS voluntary proposal. While some still climb the tower in direct defiance of the

voluntary climbing closure, “most climbers respect the cultural history and spiritual meaning of

the sites they climb to the same extent that they respect the rock itself” (Burton, 2002, p. 143).

According to Ostler (2010), another site in the Black Hills possessing “mythical and

religious significance” for Indian tribes is Bear Butte State Park, a place “where the greatest

Indian leaders had made their vision quests” (p. 175). The official website for Bear Butte State

Park states that “many Native Americans see the mountain as a place where the creator has

chosen to communicate with them through visions and prayer.” Many Native American tribes

request permission from the park service for the use of Bear Butte for “vision quests, Sun

Dances, and other religious purposes” (Ostler, 2010, p. 189). The current park manager, Jim

Jandreau, is a Lakota man who facilitates these requests and also helps to educate the public on

the need to respect the sacredness of this area.

From 2004, and until July 3, 2010, the Superintendent of Mount Rushmore National

Memorial was Gerard Baker, a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe. Baker was the first Native

American to hold the post of Superintendent with the NPS and his goal was “to nurture

understanding, and, one day, healing” (Ostler, 2010, p. 189). Judging by the positive response

from visitors to Mount Rushmore, awareness and understanding is taking place (Kent, 2008).

However, Mount Rushmore has been the site of many NPS/Indian/non-Indian conflict and

differences of opinion, and according to a PBS article, “[t]he insult of Rushmore to some Sioux

is at least three-fold:


1. It was built on land the government took from them.

2. The Black Hills in particular are considered sacred ground.

3. The monument celebrates the European settlers who killed so many Native Americans

and appropriated their land” (People & Events, n.d.).

Largely due to Baker’s perspectives and presence at the Memorial, positive changes are

underway. In 2008 a Native American heritage village was erected and staffed with Native

cultural interpreters. NPS officials had not previously discussed the historic presence of Native

Americans at Mount Rushmore and other park sites, but Baker and other park service managers

are encouraging these educational opportunities to take place. These changes, however, have not

been well-received by all members of society and many wonder if Mount Rushmore is an

appropriate place to educate the public on the topic of Native history in the area (Soderlin, 2008).

Questioning whether Native history fits in with the theme of Mount Rushmore, one local stated

that it is only being done to appease the Indians who want to feel that they are a part of it, while

another disapprovingly remarked, “we’ve got to add something Indian into every part of what we

do” (Soderlin, 2008, p 1). Baker understands that as Americans we enjoy the freedom to speak

our minds so he invites those who are critical of his ideas to meet with him personally. He sees

Rushmore as “a place for people to come and reflect on who you are as an Americanand

stresses that his focus is not on how the government has wronged Native Americans, but rather,

on “interpret[ing] the history of Native life and faith in the Hills” (Soderlin, 2008, p. 1-2).

NPS Mission Statement

Challenges to Present and Future Use of Public Lands

The NPS must face issues concerning the disparities of preserving natural resources

versus accommodating cultural resources. To that end, the mission of the NPS is as follows:


The NPS preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the

national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future

generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural

and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the

world. To achieve this mission, the NPS adheres to the following guiding principles:

Productive Partnerships: Collaborating with federal, state, tribal, and local

governments, private organizations, and businesses to work toward common goals.

Citizen Involvement: Providing opportunities for citizens to participate in the decisions

and actions of the NPS.

Heritage Education: Educating park visitors and the general public about their history

and common heritage.

Yellowstone and other national parks are gradually recognizing the importance of working with

tribal governments in the formation of common goals. Allowing for citizen involvement in

certain of the parks’ decision making processes is an important step and is an essential element

of success. Some parks have been slow, however, to embrace the idea of heritage education

when it comes to incorporating Native American history into park information. With the

gathering and documenting of irrefutable evidence, the time has come for the NPS to update and

disclose the true history of Yellowstone’s, and other national parks’, first occupants. The myth,

presented by the NPS and “created, in part, to justify appropriation of aboriginal lands and the

genocide that befell native peoples,” claims that Yellowstone had been a pristine wilderness

completely devoid of humankind, (Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 7). This account must be

revised to allow for the inclusion of those people who hunted, dwelled, utilized, and helped form

the area for thousands of years.


Considering “Traditional Use” Areas on Park Lands

Hunting and foraging, often on lands now set aside as national parks, was the way of life

for many American Indians until their removal to reservations changed this centuries-old

practice. Native rights to Yellowstone were recognized in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851,

where sections of what would become our first national park were deemed as belonging to the

Crow nation, the Blackfeet, and the Shoshone (Spence, 1999, p. 49-50). According to Spence

(1999), when new treaties called for the removal of these tribes from their lands, the treaties

stipulated that tribal members had “the right to hunt on the unoccupied lands of the U.S. so long

as game may be found thereon” (p. 50). Many plants, animals, and minerals, which have long

been important to the Indians for medicinal purposes, subsistence use, and sacred ceremonies,

are still found on park lands, and the rights allowing Indians to collect, hunt, or use these

resources should be restored.

Catton (1997) writes that, when Alaska’s national parks were created they were inhabited

by a people whose existence depended on hunting, trapping, and fishing, activities not typically

permitted in national parks, but a subsistence right which was guaranteed to Alaskan natives by

Congress (p. 3). This traditional use of public domain extends even to the authorization of

occupying cabins within park boundaries throughout the winter while trapping in the park, and in

the establishment of fishing camps throughout the summer months. As noted by Catton (1997):

in the formation of Alaska’s national parks one important principle gradually emerged:

American democracy would not be well served if the national parks oppressed this small

minority. The process involved a search for balance and commonality between the

interests of preservationists and those of resident peoples…. [To] prohibit subsistence


hunting would not only be undemocratic, it would in fact disturb the very natural

conditions that the national parks were intended to preserve. (p. 3-4)

George Catlin’s ideas from 1832, of setting aside lands that would protect both the hunters and

the hunted, had finally found acceptance in the formation of Alaska’s national parks.

The Future of Public Domain

Clearly there are no easy answers or quick fixes to the concerns brought about by the

creation of protected public lands. The trust relationship that the United States holds with Native

American tribes has been, and continues to be, a complicated one. Space does not permit a

detailed review of that relationship but, as Burton (2002) reveals, since the first removal of tribes

to “Indian Country,” their confinement to reservations, and the unsuccessful attempts at forced

assimilation and obliteration of tribal culture, the courts have allowed Congress to decide how

matters should be handled in the best interest of the tribes (p. 106). When these previous efforts

proved futile, Congress consented to the conditional self-governance of tribes, and the trend of

“greater tribal self-determination and gradual restoration of sovereignty” prevailed throughout

the twentieth century (Burton, 2002, p. 107). Beginning in 1978 with the American Indian

Religious Freedom Act, and followed by the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and

Repatriation Act, Burton (2002) believes that Congress had embarked on what he calls the “era

of atonement … in recognition of past abuses of the trust responsibility” (p. 107). However, as

revealed in the outcome of legal cases such as Lyng v. Northwest Cemetery Protective

Association, and Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, when it comes to public lands the courts and Congress

have not always acted in a sympathetic manner with regard to accommodating tribal interests

(Burton, 2002, and Burnham, 2000).


Time for Change

The authors of Restoring a Presence spent more than a decade investigating Native

American presence in the Yellowstone region and concluded their research by presenting their

findings and recommendations to park managers. While these recommendations were issued for

Yellowstone National Park they could be incorporated into plans for other parks as well. One

initiative Nabokov & Loendorf (2004) suggested was that:

park interpreters might “teach the debates” about sensitive or timely Indian issues, such

as access to sacred sites, procurement of culturally important natural resources, proper

treatment of buffalo, and respect for and reburial of human remains found in

archaeological sites. (p. 301)

Other Nabokov & Loendorf (2004) proposals included, “appointing an Indian advisory

committee, hiring Indian staff and interns, and instituting cross-cultural workshops” (p. 301).

Additionally, they proposed ethnographic research and archaeological surveying and site-

sampling of Yellowstone, and employing the use of Indian elders and students in the research

(Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 300).

Recently, tribal requests have been made for the authorization to collect “buffalo skulls,

plants, and obsidian for traditional, ceremonial purposes” in Yellowstone National Park, which

are being considered “on a case-by-case basis” according to Nabokov & Loendorf (2004, p.

302). Another issue of great importance to many Native Americans is the charging of entrance

fees to the parks. As of 2001, Yellowstone has revised its policy and now allows “affiliated tribes

to enter the park for traditional purposes without paying the recreation fee” (Nabokov &

Loendorf, 2004, p. 302). Annual consultation meetings are being held between park officials and


various tribes to discuss concerns such as bison management, wolves, sacred sites, interpretation

of ethnographic resources, and other significant issues (Nabokov & Loendorf, 2004, p. 302).

The NPS is faced with the complex challenge of addressing the needs of various pluralist

perspectives which include those of tribal representatives, business interest groups, outdoor

recreation enthusiasts, preservationists, and others, with each group having their own objectives

and values. While everyone’s needs cannot be simultaneously met, the park service must at least

show that these concerns are understood and respected. While the NPS stated their commitment

in 1987 to “respect and actively promote tribal cultures”, they are known to move notoriously

slow on issues concerning the Indian (Keller & Turek, 1998, p. 234). In the last decade, relations

have improved somewhat between Native Americans and the NPS but animosity is likely to

continue to exist on both sides since Native Americans want their land returned to them, or want

the opportunity to manage or co-manage it, while the Park Service feels they are the better

stewards of the land (Burnham, 2000, p. 311). Alaska’s ideas concerning inhabited wilderness

are certainly worth studying as revisions to the lower 48 states’ current park policies are

considered. According to Catton (1997), “[t]he new Alaska parks are striving (1) to protect

native cultures; (2) to satisfy wilderness preservationists; (3) to treat resident peoples justly; and

(4) to maintain pristine environments for ecological study – all at the same time”( p. 5). While

Alaska natives did not lose their lands as did the natives of the American West, they did lose

their aboriginal title to those lands. However, the laws protected their rights to continued

subsistence use of the land. Catton (1997) believes that a balance is being achieved between the

“inhabitants’ desire for freedom and the wilderness users’ desire for the primitive” (p. 220).

While there can be a wide range of differing viewpoints between Native American and

Euro-American cultures on matters of sacred spaces and public places, it is important to look at


the similarities first. Accommodating each group’s differences can only be achieved through an

understanding of shared desires and outcomes. As Burton (2002) so wisely stated, “[i]f the only

time there is contact is when there is conflict, such circumstances make it difficult to develop the

kind of mutual trust and respect that are necessary for genuinely accommodative planning and

management to occur” (p. 288). Cross-cultural discussions can offer the opportunity for groups

to learn about one another and to discover ways of working together to reach mutual objectives.



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