To make an uninhabited wilderness park required depeopling the land in actuality and in myth. When Congress established Yellowstone in 1872, several different tribal groups were within its borders. Indigenous peoples had lived in and moved through the region over thousands of years. Consider the oral traditions that speak to a rich intimacy with, and deep regard for, this land. Consider the hundreds of site remains by hot springs, geysers, lakes, and rivers—or the scores of quarries around Obsidian Cliff. But Crow, Shoshone, the Tukudika band of Mountain Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and other tribal peoples would find themselves expelled and dispossessed. Many would be removed to reservations. One superintendent, General S.B.M. Young, directed a report to the president and Congress in 1909 stating that the park’s story was “a sequential link in the chain of epochal events” that included “conquest of the savages, and all the epic deeds which achieved at last the winning of the west.”
And there are still further omissions from Yellowstone’s popular history, such as the presence of people of African descent. Mountain men of color like James Beckwourth, who also lived among the Crow, traversed the region decades before the park’s formation—and African Americans worked in the park from its early years on, as army soldiers, hotel waiters, servants, and in other roles. Like the history of the land itself, Yellowstone’s human history is long and complex.
National Park Service holdings are among this country’s most prominent sites of public memory. Whether iconic “wilderness” parks or national monuments, memorials, battlefields, or historic sites, their making—and the elements preserved within them, and told about them—are important pieces of the nation’s history, pieces tied to often unspoken or unexamined narratives about what and who we the people are.
Yellowstone set visitor records in 2021, welcoming about 4.8 million tourists with the lifting of many pandemic travel restrictions. Crowding and congestion centered around geysers, the canyon rim, the lake—and wherever bison, bears, and elk caused traffic jams. Although the Park Service has tried to add broader perspectives to public stories over the last few decades, Yellowstone’s deep human history remains largely obscured behind natural wonders, charismatic animals, and the park’s celebratory preservation.
Public history that doesn’t acknowledge complexity and erasure continues to reinforce what old stories had long privileged—and silenced or ignored. But now, for the first time, the highest officials responsible for national parklands are Native Americans: Debra Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna), as Secretary of the Interior, and Charles Sams III (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation), as Director of the National Park Service. Both envision a park system that protects for future generations not only the nation’s scenic treasures but also the many cultural and historical threads defining our larger American experience.
To support their work, I believe a question of personal responsibility needs to be answered: What is my relationship with history, told and untold, on this land? I plan to honor Yellowstone National Park on its 150th anniversary by re-membering: putting together the pieces, and acknowledging what was eroded, to see a greater whole.
This article appeared in the March 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.