Yellowstone is not only the oldest national park anywhere in the world, it is also the most often visited, with over 900,000 visitors every July between 2012 and 2017 and over 1,709 million people wandering its wildernesses paths since 1872, the year it was founded. Only 300 hearty souls ventured into the park the year it opened, while in 2017 over 4 million Leica-toting, Goretex®️-wearing, Chevy-driving tourists wandering its trails, waterways, and gift shops in 2017. With most of its land in Wyoming, and some in Montana and Idaho, geology-inspired visitors can witness half of the planet’s hydrothermal features here: geysers, mudpots, hot springs and more. In addition, it sports astonishing waterfalls, towering, snow-capped mountains year ’round, and wildlife in populations and diversity that are unique on the planet. Its more than 2 million acres (that’s virtually 3,500 square miles for real estate buffs) hold the largest buffalo herd in the nation, as well as plenty of wolves, grizzly bears, moose, and even yellow-bellied marmots.

[This iconic image of Yellowstone National Park reveals tourists watching a regular eruption of the geyser known as Old Faithful–roughly every 35 to 120 minutes the geothermal vent shoots thousands of gallons of scalding water high into the air. ©Teton Floats, 2017]

The Sad Back-Story to America’s First “National” Park

At the same time, however, and surprisingly to most visitors, human beings just like you and me (except that many were indigenous “American” whose ancestors had occupied this land for thousands of years) had to be forcibly removed to create this first “organized” wilderness in America . [See Spence, M. D. (1999) Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Darrenkamp A (n.d.). The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears: cause, effect, and justificationNative America, discovered and conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and manifest destiny. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 108(3), 500]. Garrison T (2007).

This tragic story involves the way tens of thousands of native peoples–as well as some of their European neighbors–were first asked, and then required, to remove themselves, their families, and their belongings from their fully legal homes, once the government back in Washington, D.C., had decided the final borders of this park. These plans, it was often noted, were developed for the “good” of all the people. Contemporary Indian people have, of course, protested, fought and even died over the issue of so-called “reservations,” where tribal groups were deeded small spaces of mostly valueless land as “compensation” for millions upon millions of acres of value-laden property taken, and otherwise appropriated, during centuries of the European occupation of North America; in just the same way, the wounds inflicted by the seizure of land and subsequent removal of its earliest human occupants–from the 1600s until the modern era–have produced, and continue to produce, pain and suffering throughout an entire culture.

Yellowstone thus provide another, more unsettling, version of urbanature, one in which so-called wild spaces bear the remains of entire societies: cemeteries, sacred and ritual spaces, trails, and cultural residue. Since nomadic people leave so few permanent ruins or remains behind, it is often hard to tell which parts of today’s national, state, and local parks bear the signs of people who once lived there. Nonetheless, the wide open spaces of the vast American West contain residual traces of the human occupants who once lived and loved, fought and died, here. In recent years, archeologists have found countless sites, and occasional treasures (gold, silver, turquoise) of earlier complex societies that have since been displaced. Of course, many native American sites and ruins have been turned into preserved parks in their own right: Anasazi cave dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park, Manitou Cliff Dwellings and many more.

The Puebloans, for example, were a cultural group who inhabited the region around “Four Corners,” the spot where now modern-day Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah touch corners. These earlier people lived in cave fortifications, as well as lowland dwellings, they understood the movements of the celestial bodies, and they practiced elaborate sacred rituals in ladder-accessed dugouts known as kivas. The term “Anasazi” actually derives from a phrase meaning “ancient enemies,” since these cliff dwellers were not technically the Navaho’s ancestors. One present-day site bears a particularly poignant comment that can be found on a web-link that advertises it now as a tourist attraction: “Canyon de Chelly is unique among National Parks, as it is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land that also sustains a living community of Navajo people.” Canyon de Chelly is also a National Monument full of historical remains. []. It includes virtually a thousand years of recorded habitation–from A. D. 300 to around the year 1300–including architectural ruins, rock art, and a variety of artifacts from the times of the Anasazi to the Navaho.

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