Yellowstone: Wild Bison, Prismatic Pools, and Historical Erasure
Midway through the my tour north, just as I had planned, I took the opportunity to spend a few days amongst the profoundly scenic park we call Yellowstone. As many know, Yellowstone is famous for many things - the vast spectrum of colors in mineral pools, geysers that shoot superheated water high into the air, wild bison, wild wolves, and for being the first national park to exist. All of these things would be extraordinary on their own, but the fact that they are all together makes it a real force of nature and a powerful place to be. However, for all that it is endowed with, the lack of Indigenous perspective in the park was something that I could not go without noticing.
In the museums within the park, there were no shortage of high-spirited pioneer quotes about the beauty of this land and its strange supernatural features. But nowhere could I find much on the tribes that surround it today or came across it in the past, like the Arapahoe, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Crow, Flathead, Kiowa, Bannock, Nez Perce, and Lakota, to name a few. For instance, I wonder how people regarded places like the Grand Prismatic Spring:
I wonder what things were called before settlers gave names like Mud Volcano, Black Dragon's Cauldron, and Old Faithful. I wonder what physical and spiritual significance they carried. Aside from the geological history, which museums and signs inevitably pointed to, human history seemed to start around 1872, when the park was founded. Indian Country Media Network has a piece highlighting some of the Native History and pointing to the historical erasure, and to be fair, there is a very brief article on the NPS Yellowstone website on tribal history.
After a few hours walking around and exploring the truly majestic beauty of what was there and imagining how it must have been for people for millennia, I sat in the epic lodge that overlooks Old Faithful. There was something very Disneyland about the whole thing, as older folks sipped on afternoon drinks waiting for the geyser to blow. There was something about the tameness in such a wild place, the white-washing of something so vividly colored, and a near-complete lack of historical context that made me feel out of place. Sometimes it dawns on me that too much modern comfort in the wild just makes me more uncomfortable. Sometimes I see that what we have now, through the brutal thrust of colonialism, is a weak and unworthy replacement for what once was.
For all the things I don't find admirable about the strong emphasis on colonial history, the work that is done to keep the nearly-extinct North American bison alive and thriving is admirable to say the least. Groups like Buffalo Field Campaign work year round to ensure that wild bison, once on the brink of extinction, roam again. That to me, is a beautiful sign of strength that even though Indigenous acknowledgement is not perfect, things are being done to restore a elements of a pre-colonized America, bit by bit.