YELLOWSTONE, Wyo. — On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law and the nation’s first national park was born.
For nearly 150 years, Yellowstone National Park (YNP) has stood as a global icon of natural splendor and conservation. But such perceptions of the land are influenced by only recent American history.
A new report produced by the U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) explains how Indigenous people once thrived and survived on the land long before its birth as America’s first National Park.
In the report, the U.S.F.S. bore weight on the history and traditions of Indigenous people in the Yellowstone Region that are as rich as they are forgotten.
“We sometimes think of Yellowstone as an untouched landscape, but humans have been present in the area for over ten thousand years! The history and traditions of Indigenous people in Yellowstone are as rich as the landscape itself,” said the U.S.G.S report.
For several centuries, multiple tribes passed in and out of Yellowstone on a seasonal basis. Kiowa, Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone, Nez Perce and other tribes are all believed to have explored and utilized the park for it’s abundant resources.
Indigenous tribes each referred to the land by different names. To the Crow, it was ‘the land of the burning ground’ or ‘land of vapors’; to the Blackfeet, it was known as ‘many smoke’; to the Flatheads, it was ‘smoke from the ground’; to the Kiowa it was called ‘the place of hot water.’
U.S.F.S. explained how modern-day hikers likely frequent trails in Yellowstone that are believed to be relics of Indigenous corridors dating back to roughly 12,000 years ago. This was around the time of the last ice age when archeological records of human presence first appear in North America.
While several tribes passed through Yellowstone on a seasonal basis only some of the Tukudika, or Sheepeater, named for the bighorn sheep whose migrations they closely followed, were considered permanent residents in Yellowstone as they remained on the land through the winter season.
As the only known year-round residents, the Sheepeaters made bighorn sheep a significant staple of their diet and livelihood. Bighorn sheep not only supplied sustenance but was also a useful resource of trade. They strived to incorporate every part of the animal into their lives by shaping their horns into bows by soaking them in hot springs. From time to time with these bows, Sheepeaters would trade with other tribes who did not reside in the Yellowstone region, by in large making bighorn sheep their most valuable resource.
“Further, for the Sheepeaters, and many other tribes, the hydrothermal splendor of Yellowstone served not only economical purposes but also ceremonial and medicinal purposes. Ancient tales hold that Dragon’s Mouth, located in the Mud Volcano area, was where the creator of the Kiowa people provided Yellowstone as a place to live.”
When Indigenous tribes populated Yellowstone, it served as an epicenter of Indigenous oral tradition and cross-country commerce. It is evident in today’s shoreline at Yellowstone Lake that the region had been utilized by these Indigenous groups since the end of the last glaciation—arrowheads, spearpoints and preserved teepee rings from Indigenous tribes remain scattered on the land today, challenging the notion of a pristine wilderness untouched by human influence.
While the U.S. government agreed that the Yellowstone region belonged to the various local Indigenous tribes in the treaties of Fort Laramie, the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 by President Grant determined the end of Indigenous occupation within the park’s boundaries.
“Although the Sheepeaters remained for seven years following the park’s establishment, Park Superintendent Colonel P. W. Norris was determined to remove Indigenous people from the newly-established park, believing them to be a deterrent to tourism efforts. Rumors were spread that Indigenous tribes feared the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, many died of smallpox, and the remaining few eventually made their way to the Wind River Reservation established southeast of the park,” said the report.
The U.S.F.S. emphasized that recognition of Indigenous people’s presence in Yellowstone is important for understanding this region’s full and storied history. To view more information on the history of Indigenous people in Yellowstone click here.