Yellowstone and Native American History

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo by George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner and Lee Whittlesey

Smithsonian Magazine recently published an article titled, “The Lost History of Yellowstone,” which features the work and opinions of archeologist Doug MacDonald. MacDonald is the author of Before Yellowstone: Native American Archaeology in the National Park.

You can find the original article here.

MacDonald may be capable archeologist, but his scholarship on Yellowstone’s more recent, human history is seriously flawed.

The article perpetuates the myth that Indians were driven from Yellowstone to create a national park. This is a widespread myth promoted by some academics that view parks and preserves as socially unjust. These advocates include those espousing the “Anthropocene” claim that America’s landscape was “managed” by Indigenous people for” thousands” of years and that “unmanaged” parks and preserves are culturally and ecologically undesirable.  The park was established in 1872, before there were more than a very few visitors and before Euro-American people were in place in good enough numbers to do any “forcing out” of Indians.

In his article, MacDonald repeats the tired myth that early park advocates thought Yellowstone was a “pristine” wilderness, and there was no human presence. In general, that was not true; the few (Montana) territorial residents who were visiting or settling in the general region knew that Indians lived in the area—in fact areas in all directions from the north entrance to the park, to which the mass of the original visitation occurred. “Mass” in kind of misleading word, because estimates are that there were only 300 visitors in 1872 and 500 or less during each summer 1873-1876.

He further asserts that the history of human use of the Yellowstone landscape has been “erased,” and he, MacDonald, purports to correct that notion.

His assessment is seriously flawed. No such erasing ever occurred. To understand why, one must know the backstory that underlines this article and other similar efforts.  The article is emblematic of the attempts of many academics and social justice advocates to delegitimize parks, and other preserves that they feel have harmed indigenous communities.

There is good reason to feel empathy for the plight of tribal people. The advance of White settlers was disastrous to Native Americans in many ways.

As the social justice movement has taken off in recent years due to causes like Black Lives Matter, there has also been a corollary effort to demonize conservation and preservation efforts as socially unjust to indigenous communities worldwide, but particularly in the United States. This has included a concerted effort by many in the social sciences to promote the idea that conservation designations such as parks are a form of “colonialism,” “imperialism,” and social injustice.

The basic narrative is that the designation of parks, wilderness, national wildlife refuges, and other federal and state lands designed to protect Nature, comes at Indigenous peoples’ expense. While it may resonate with present-day social justice movement, this revisionist history is not historically accurate. If this were historically true, we would be among the first to support such a movement.

Although it may have occurred in some instances in other parts of the world, with regards to national parks in the United States, none were created by the removal of Indigenous people. In every instance, tribal people were relegated to reservations to advance settlement, not to create parks. In this case of Yellowstone, this is particularly accurate. Yellowstone was initially too remote (no railroad within 400 miles of the place) and too little-visited to have been the seat of such a removal.

Does anyone seriously believe that if there were no Yellowstone or any other national parks, Native Americans would have been treated any differently?

As for the assertion that all parks were established on lands once controlled by Indigenious people, so were every other city, town, farm and ranch in the country. And these places, particularly our cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Tucson, Denver, and other major cities occupy the lands that were far more productive.


In the case of Yellowstone, social justice advocates critical of the park take two unrelated events that occurred within a period of a couple of years — the creation of reservations and the establishment of the park —and suggest, based on little evidence, that the first was done to enable the second. Briefly, all tribes associated with the Yellowstone region except for the in-park Sheepeaters (Mountain Shoshones) signed treaties and were relegated to reservations before the park was created. That tribe was very small in number. A few of them elected to leave to Shoshone or Lemhi; others remained in the park, some until the late 1880s.

There is plenty of room to criticize the treaties and reservations they created during the 1800s. However, none were physically placed on a reservation to make Yellowstone or other national parks.

Instead, most treaties were designed to reduce intertribal warfare, promote peace mostly among the tribes, and lead to the “civilization” of Native Americans.  Later treaties were also intended to make the West safe for eventual white settlement and transportation corridors like railroads and the Oregon Trail. Although many tribes were leery of being left vulnerable to their enemies, some were willing, perhaps reluctantly, to accept the government annuities in exchange for restricting their movements.

For instance, the Eastern Shoshone attended the Fort Laramie treaty meeting in 1851, hoping to obtain a treaty-defined territory. While the Sioux and other tribes signed treaties, the Shoshone were excluded from the 1851 treaty for bureaucratic reasons—they resided in a different government district. The Shoshone signed their first treaty in 1863 and the second one in 1868. Similarly, other tribes like the Crow signed their first treaty in 1825 and later 1869 (with a ceding of their northern strip in 1880) and the Blackfeet in 1855, Nez Perce in 1855, and so on.

Many of these original treaties were revised in later years, typically reducing the reservation boundaries. However, these reservations were established long before there any significant white presence in the region and before there was any discussion about creating a national park.

Except for a few traders and itinerant fur trappers, there were few Whites in the region. Only after gold was discovered in the Northern Rockies in the 1860s was there a significant movement of miners and ranchers into the future states of Montana and Wyoming, and even those populations were very small. For example, Bozeman, Montana, the nearest town to Yellowstone had only 579 residents present for the US Census of 1870 and most other Montana Territory places even fewer In 1880, Bozeman had only 915 residents. Moreover, Livingston, Montana, and Jackson, Wyoming did not really exist until 1883; Cody, Wyoming not until 1895-96; and West Yellowstone, Montana not until 1907. In general, towns around Yellowstone National Park did not exist in any significant numbers until the 1880s, and most came along after that.

And despite conventional wisdom, many of these treaties and reservations were created with the intention of “saving” the Indians. Intertribal warfare was common, and one purpose of reservations was to promote peace between tribes by creating recognized boundaries for each tribal group. Except for the 1880 cession by the Crows, the last major treaty revisions occurred in 1868. No additional treaties with Native Americans were made anywhere in the West after 1871.

In terms of the larger American population, Yellowstone was terra incognita. Though some fur trappers like Jim Bridger, John Colter, Johnson Gardner, and Osborn Russell, among others, did traverse the Yellowstone region, most American citizens did not have a clue there was anything like the Yellowstone geologic wonders. It wasn’t until the first expeditions penetrated the region, beginning with the Cook-Folsom Expedition in 1869, the Washburn Expedition in 1870, and the Hayden Expedition of 1872, that Americans became aware of Yellowstone’s attributes.

There is debate among historians about who should get credit for proposing a national park, but at least one of the claims is made by members of the Washburn Expedition, which traversed the future park in 1870. But no Native Americans had to be removed from the park because by 1870 they were already living on reservations.

In the post-Civil War era of Manifest Destiny, it’s remarkable that any lands were purposely withdrawn from resource exploitation.


  1. The assertion that Yellowstone was “pristine” so conservationists could have the illusion of a human-free “wilderness” is a strawman invented by social justice advocates. You would have to live in a cave to be unaware of the long historical presence of Native Americans in North America. Here is a spear point found in the Park. Photo by George Wuerthner 

MacDonald and many other advocates of the Anthropocene movement assert that somehow conservationists are so naïve that they believe wilderness and parks were free of human presence or “pristine” as they like to suggest. Residents and even many of the few visitors to YNP in the 1870s certainly knew that Indians had historically lived in the park and its GYE.

His suggestion in the article that there is a “lost history” of Indigenous people, begs credibility. Numerous archeological studies document human presence throughout North America since the close of the Ice Age. Someone would have to be extremely ignorant of history to be unaware that humans migrated into North America and spread to every corner and ecosystem.

Given the numerous archeological studies around the region, the idea that humans somehow never ventured into what is now Yellowstone National Park is absurd and, of course, does not even align with past archeological evidence.

The interesting thing is that the only people I know that suggest landscapes like Yellowstone were “pristine” and were devoid of humans are those trying to discredit conservation.

The idea that wilderness equates with the absence of human presence also demonstrates a lack of scholarship on the part of critics.  Conservationists do not assert that “wilderness” must be “untouched” or “pristine,” but rather that it is “self-willed.” Self-willed means they are influenced mainly by natural abiotic and biotic processes, not necessarily the absence of human presence.

Beyond this problem of setting up a strawman to knock down, there is an abundance of research and publications that detail the presence in the Yellowstone region of pre-historic and historic humans. These sources refute the assertion by MacDonald that the National Park Service and others have tried to “erase” the Indigenous history.

For instance, Larry Lahren, a Livingston archaeologist, published Homeland: An Archaeologist’s View of Yellowstone Country, detailing the many archeological sites in the area near Yellowstone.

My book, Yellowstone, A Visitor’s Companion, mentions the early archeological record and the more recent historical record of Indigenous people in the Yellowstone region. Forefront books on the subject include Peter Nabokov and Larry Loendorf’s Restoring a Presence and their Indians and Yellowstone National Park. Many other books on Yellowstone also discuss the prehistoric human use of the area, including Janetski’s Indians in Yellowstone National Park, Haines’s The Yellowstone Story and both Yellowstone Place Names by Whittlesey and Aubrey Haines’s Yellowstone Place Names: Mirrors of History, along with Hiram Chittenden’s The Yellowstone National Park contain many other reviews that discuss the Indigenous presence. The presence of indigenous people is not “lost history,” nor has it been “erased,” as suggested in the Smithsonian article.

Some of the most famous archeological sites in the West are found near Yellowstone. The Anzick Site near Livingston was the burial site of a child dated to 13,000 years ago. A Clovis point was located near Gardiner at the entrance to Yellowstone. The 5,000-year-old hearth found at Rigler Cliff site 5 miles north of Gardiner is well known. There is a big bison jump near Dailey Lake by Dome Mountain, 10 miles north of Gardiner. Archeological remains within the park are located by Yellowstone Lake, in the Upper Yellowstone River, and in Lamar Cave near Tower Junction. Mummy Cave along the North Fork of the Shoshone River to the east records human presence dating back 9,000 years, including a 4,000-year-old mummy.


Obsidian Cliff has long been recognized as an important Native American mining site within Yellowstone NP. Photo George Wuerthner 

Plus, Obsidian Cliff in the park was a favorite mining site for obtaining volcanic glass or obsidian for arrowheads and knives. Indeed, as noted in the article, the Yellowstone obsidian was found as far away as Ohio. And Sheepeater Cliff in YNP has long been known as an Indian vision-quest site or celebration site.

MacDonald proposes the far-fetched idea that the Hopewell people walked 4,000 miles to and from Yellowstone through the territories of numerous hostile tribes to get obsidian. The more logical explanation is that obsidian was traded widely from tribe to tribe. Additionally, tribes that lived in the immediate region—Shoshones, Crows, Blackfeet, and Bannock—had no problems riding their horses into YNP in order to obtain obsidian.

I mention all those examples because it is well known that Indians were living in and around Yellowstone. Their history is not lost. But MacDonald acts like his “finds” of human use of the park are somehow remarkable and newsworthy.


Beyond the archeological record, we have many historical references to Native Americans in the Yellowstone region. The earliest explorers, trappers, and traders recognized that Native Americans traveled through Yellowstone and surrounding lands. Failure to acknowledge this fact could result in the loss of your scalp or your life.

Where the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled on an “Indian Road” now known as Trail Creek into Yellowstone River Valley near Livingston, Montana. 

From the early trappers to the first expeditions to explore the park, everyone made note of Indians or signs of Indian activity. William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, traveled across the Gallatin Valley and down the Yellowstone River and noted signs of Indians the entire way. Indeed, the expedition used Trail Creek, an “Indian Road” to cross from the Gallatin Valley to Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River.

While Clark did not go south to Yellowstone, it would beg the credibility of anyone to think that Indians were absent from what is now Yellowstone Park given the heavy use of the Upper Yellowstone Valley by Native Americans.

John Colter, one of the expedition members, was released from the homeward journey to join a trapping venture. He traveled through the winter of 1807-08 and encountered Indians on his trek around the Yellowstone region, though none while he was crossing the high, snowy Yellowstone Plateau.

Bison in Lamar Valley where trapper Osborne Russell encountered a band of Sheepeaster Indians in 1834. Certainly, the mountain men traveling through the Yellowstone area were fully aware that Native Americans inhabited the region. Photo George Wuerthner 

Other trappers followed, including Osborne Russell, who kept a detailed journal of his travels. Not only did he talk about trading with Indians in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in 1834, but he was also attacked by Indians on Yellowstone Lake and had to walk to Fort Hall (Pocatello) with an arrow in his leg. Osborne Russell had no illusions that Yellowstone was a “pristine” wilderness without humans.

The first expeditions like the Cook-Folsom, Washburn, Hayden, etc., all reported signs of Indians within the future the park. And in 1877, the Nez Perce shot a few tourists while attempting to evade the U.S. Army on their way through from Idaho to Canada. No one of that era would have suggested Yellowstone was a land absent from Native American presence.

Both F.V. Hayden and Supt. P.W. Norris ASKED the Sheepeaters and their kin, the Shoshones, to go to one or both of the Reservations (Lemhi at West and Shoshone at South). Some went, but some did not, but what is important is that no one forced them to go.

Apparently, Mr. Norris was worried about Indians frightening off tourists, but we do not know as much about Hayden’s motives for asking them to leave (which happened in 1871, much earlier than Norris’s).

All through the 1870s, explorers encountered bands of Indians hunting in the Park, in part, because by that date, wildlife was rapidly being eliminated outside of Yellowstone. During the late 1880s, the US Army, which was occupying Yellowstone, and encountered bands of Indians hunting in the Park. The known encounter between Army and Native Americans occurred in 1889. That 1889 encounter was the last one known.

 Army Quarters at Fort Yellowstone. The US Army was assigned to protect Yellowstone in the years before there was a National Park Service to protect wildlife like bison from, market hunters and poachers, as well as tourists who sometimes defaced geysers, petrified trees, and other park geological features.  Photo George Wuerthner 


Another misleading statement in the article is the assertion that the Army was stationed in Yellowstone “to make tourists feel safer and discourage Native Americans from hunting and gathering in their old haunts.” The reality is that the Army was stationed in Yellowstone to prevent tourists from destroying geological features and poachers from killing wildlife, thus degrading the very values that the park was established to protect. The army was actually sent to YNP in 1886, because Congress had cut off the funding to pay the civilian superintendents and assistants, not to make tourist feel safe from Indians or discourage Indians (many of whom were still present) from hunting and gathering.

Again, in a contextual omission, the article neglects to inform readers that by the late 1800s, due to market hunting and unrestricted hunting by miners, settlers and Indians alike, even once-abundant species like bison and elk were nearly driven to extinction. Yellowstone was one of the last refuges for these species, and no one — white or Indian was permitted to hunt the park’s wildlife. And it was a good thing, because otherwise it is likely that we would not have any remaining elk or bison today.  For more on this, see Lee Whittlesey’s article in Montana the Magazine of Western History (Spring, 2020) entitled “Abundance, Slaughter, and Resilience” and his two-volume book entitled The History of Mammals of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 1796-1881: A Multi-Disciplinary Analysis of Thousands of Historical Observations (Seattle: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2020.

This gets to an important point that is ignored by Anthropocene boosters. If you care about more than humans (who, after all, have many more options than most wildlife species), but believe we have an obligation to consider the welfare of all fellow travelers on the planet then parks and wilderness areas are the Gold Standard for protecting biodiversity and functioning ecosystems.

Shoshone Lake one of many geographic features named for Native Americans in the region. Photo George Wuerthner


MacDonald asserts that the National Park Service has tried to erase Native Americans from Yellowstone’s history. Yet, place names throughout the park record the presence of Indians. There is are Shoshone Creek and Shoshone Lake, Sheepeater Cliff), Indian Creek, Nez Perce Ford, Bannock Trail, Wickiup Creek, Indian Pond, Absaroka Range, Snake River (Snake) name of Shoshone people) Shoshone River, plus Shoshone National Forest and Washakie Wilderness border the park.  At many of these sites, there are informational signs explaining the origins of the names, and as early as 1880 Superintendent Norris erected signs in YNP


In the 1860-the 1870s, the primary goal of the federal government in the West was to facilitate the settlement of the region. Indians were assigned to reservations not to create parks like Yellowstone but to make the West safe for miners, farmers, ranchers, settlers, emigrant trail travelers, and railroads.

Think of how the establishment of Yellowstone Park was the antithesis to this goal. Instead of promoting settlement and development, Yellowstone was set aside for Nature, not human exploitation.

Ironically, some of today’s progressives criticize the creation of Indian Reservations and the attempt to “civilize” and transform Native Americans into “respectable citizens” as disrespectful, and some even use the term “genocidal.”

On the contrary, the explicit goals of the 1868 Fort Bridger Treaty with the Shoshone Indians says:

“To ensure the civilization of the tribes entering into this treaty, the necessity of education is admitted, especially of such of them as are or may be settled on said agricultural reservations, and they, therefore, pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school; and it is now made the duty of the agent for said Indians to see that this stipulation is strictly complied with; and the United States agrees that for every thirty children between said ages who can be induced or compelled to attend school, a house shall be provided and a teacher competent to teach the elementary branches of an English education shall be furnished, who will reside among said Indians and faithfully discharge his or her duties as a teacher. The provisions of this article to continue for twenty years.”

Indeed, it was arguably the progressives of the 1800s who felt that the best way to protect Indian people from extermination was to place them on reservations, teach them to read, write, and learn how to farm or learn other trades.

They argued for reservations based on humanitarian goals. Father Pierre Jean De Smet labored among many tribes of the Northern Rockies between the 1840s-60s. He lamented that “I have seen enough of Indians to convince me of this fact, that they can never exist in contact with the whites, and their only salvation is to be removed far, far, from their presence.”

Similarly, progressive groups like the Indian Rights Association, Women’s National Indian Association, and Indian Citizenship Committee were formed to “civilize” tribe by supporting Indian schools and reservations.

George Bird Grinnell, a staunch advocate of Indian tribes, felt that reservations were necessary to protect Native Americans from extinction and bring them up to civilized standards.

Today, many progressives generally consider efforts to educate school-age children as “genocide” and “disrespectful” of their culture. However, in contrast to the more common “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” opinion that dominated many Western settlers, these progressive folks, however, misguided we might consider them today, were doing their best to preserve Indian people from extinction. After all in America, public education has always been considered the best way for integrating people into the American culture.

It would be ironic if because of their attempts to denigrate conservation efforts, future generations will judge judged today’s progressives to be as misguided as the progressives of the 1800s.

Elk were systemically hunted out across the West. Yellowstone was one of the few areas closed to hunting by all people, including Native Americans. Subsequently, nearly all the elk herds that now are found in Arizona, Alberta, Colorado, and other states originated from the animals that were protected by the park’s establishment. Photo by George WuerthnerYell


MacDonald is concerned about the general mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. Yet, most social justice advocates direct their criticism at public lands and protected landscapes. They seldom make the same criticisms of cities and other human development, which had a far greater impact in displacing Indigenous peoples from the most productive and valuable landscapes.

Indeed, the University of Montana where MacDonald works, and Missoula, where he lives, were once within the Flathead tribal homeland. Still, I do not hear him discussing the social injustice of the Flathead Indians’ displacement to a reservation, to make the Missoula valley was safe for white settlement.

And what if there had been no Yellowstone? Does anyone seriously think that tribes would have been treated any differently?

Without the park, much of what we know as Yellowstone would almost assuredly have been converted into private ranches, private tourist spas, and timber grants. MacDonald’s ability to find undisturbed archeological sites is partly due to the protection of the landscape that the Park’s establishment created. Without the park, I can assure you that tribes would have been relegated to reservations regardless.

While we can lament the treatment of tribal people, we should celebrate that Yellowstone’s establishment has led to the creation of the world’s greatest national parks, which is are now part of humanity’s global heritage.

Yellowstone has served to protect many species, including the bison, elk, and grizzly, that were nearly extirpated from the rest of the West.  Yellowstone National Park is the foundation for the last functioning temperate ecosystem in the world. We have come to recognize the vital importance of the intact forests and wetlands of Yellowstone to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere that would otherwise fuel climate change. And recent science shows what Native Americans no doubt knew intuitively — that access to natural, beautiful, unspoiled nature is good for human health and well-being. This is the timeless legacy of Yellowstone National Park.


George Wuerthner been studying Yellowstone for nearly 50 years. He has published 38 books on national parks and other environmental issues, including Yellowstone—A Visitor’s Companion, Yellowstone and the Fires of Change, Yellowstone in Photographs, and most recently Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth and Protecting the Wild: Parks and Wilderness the Foundation for Conservation.  He recently worked as Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology and Tompkins Conservation, promoting parks in Patagonia and elsewhere. Wuerthner taught as visiting lecturer Alaskan Environmental Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, various field ecology classes for San Francisco State University, University of California Santa Barbara,  Prescott College, and environmental writing at the University of Vermont.

Wuerthner was a commercial guide in Yellowstone, a ranger at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and river ranger on the Fortymile Wild and Scenic River both in Alaska, and a botanist for the BLM.

He has served on the boards and/or as advisor of numerous conservation organizations including RESTORE the North Woods, a group advocating a 3.2-million-acre national park, New National Park Campaign, The Wildlands Project, Western Watersheds Project, the Ecological Citizen, Predator Defense, Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, Montana River Action Network, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Friends of Douglas Fir National Monument, Rewilding Institute, and others.

Lee Whittlesey’s forty-five-year studies in the history of the Yellowstone region have made him an expert on Yellowstone’s vast literature and have resulted in numerous publications. He is the author, co-author, or editor of sixteen books and more than fifty journal articles. Coming in 2021 is his This Modern Saratoga of the Wilderness: A History of Mammoth Hot Springs (National Park Service). He and NPS Interpreter Sarah Bone have completed their two-volume, thirty-year book The History of Mammals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 1796-1881: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Thousands of Historical Observations, and it was published in late 2020 by Kindle Direct Publishing of Seattle. Forthcoming in 2022 is volume one of his book Stagecoaching Through Yellowstone. In 2015, Lee published a new edition of Truman Everts’s Lost in the Yellowstone, a new edition of his well-known book Death in Yellowstone, and his book Gateway to Yellowstone: The Raucous Town of Cinnabar on the Montana Frontier (Rowman and Littlefield with Two Dot Books).

Whittlesey served as Park Historian


  1. Not Indian Avatar
    Not Indian

    Calling Native folks “Indians”, says a lot of what mindset your trying to create with this article. No understanding or cultural capacity by the authors. They aren’t tribal historians. The removal of tribal subsistence, religious, and cultural access is an ongoing management scheme, and travesty, solidifying the absence of regional tribes. The authors seem to always find a way to miminize Indigenous contributions to environmental health and stewardship. Why is that? Bottom line, the Yellowstone Ecosystem has suffered since the tribes were removed. Why are tribes the enemies anyway? Modern Day Indian Fighter? Colonizer Fatigue? Expand your mindsets and become inclusive, you’ll be better for it.

  2. Jeff Reed Avatar

    Thanks for the detailed history provided in this post. I have learned so much from both of you and your writings over the year. But, wow, it felt like you woke up on the wrong side of the bed with an axe to grind. Having read most of what MacDonald has published academically as well as most of what you both have published, I’m surprised by your choice of words like “tired” and “seriously flawed”. And this seems a little ad hominem “But MacDonald acts like his “finds” of human use of the park are somehow remarkable and newsworthy” as you go one to list all the places you know and others you know know. We all know many of the same sites, and we each know of sites each other doesn’t know about (even Larry). I’m just a little surprised by the polemic since you know that this was a journalistic piece tailored by others for the sitz im leben funded by advertising dollars. I have never surmised those motives from MacDonald’s publications. While I don’t know him, he has been more than gracious with email questions I and others have sent his way. If your mere point is that some are using social justice as a means to undermine protection of national parks from hominids, I agree. As one of those hominids, I’m happy to drive a ‘spear into the ground’ or even better ‘a bullet in the chamber’ to protect wild places from us. Your article is hardly a spear in the ground. We get it: cancel culture shouldn’t be used to manage Yellowstone. But that is hardly what I think people like Doug MacDonald or Shane Doyle are proposing. Your response feels a little like a late night Facebook tirade that got a little personal…and didn’t stick to the academic rigor you both have manifested in your careers and thoughtful defense of wild places. Anyway, thanks again for the historical information provided in this article.

    1. Scott MacButch Avatar

      I agree 100% and for the life of me I can’t see the logic of this scathing review of anthropology professor MacDonald. Has Wuerthner even read “Before Yellowstone”? MacDonald along with his research students do a great job of documenting the presence of Native Americans in the park which occurred soon after the half-mile high glaciers melted and formed Yellowstone Lake some 11,000 years ago. Also Wuerthner is a bit off on his date regarding the two year old Anzick boy, as his remains were radiocarbon dated to approximately 10,700 years ago, not 13,000.

      Wuerthner needs to turn his attention toward the many militia groups and the Bundy’s and quit wasting your time hassling someone like MacDonald .

      1. Jeff Reed Avatar

        Hi Scott. The Anzick child is 13k before present, so roughly 11k BC. I used to get confused on this as well because people don’t always requote the BP or BC correctly. Like you, nonetheless, I just didn’t see the point of picking this battle. We all agree that the war is a different one — protecting Yellowstone while still wrestling with the issues atrocities directed towards Native Americans by westward encroachment. Anyway, have a great week! Take care.

        1. Scott macbutch Avatar
          Scott macbutch

          Looks like I was wrong on the date – Thanks for the help on understanding the BP (Before Present) and BC

  3. MAD Avatar

    Oh my lord, where do I start? No, Indians were not removed from Yellowstone, or the the Yellowstone Valley in order to create the Park. But therein lies the extent of the truth and value of this screed.

    I live in Billings, I work with Native Americans in their present day struggles with our modern life and I’m surprised at the misinformation here. For example, the Crow, or Apsáalooke, have lived in the Yellowstone region for thousands of years before they were preyed upon by the Sioux and Cheyenne from the East and the Blackfeet from the north.

    Reservations and treaties were not designed “to reduce intertribal warfare, promote peace mostly among the tribes, and lead to the “civilization” of Native Americans”. They were designed to remove Natives from their land to satisfy the insatiable manifest destiny, to destroy the local cultures and to replace the original inhabitants with the new occupiers.

    Read the disgusting Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868 that condemned the Crow, who had enjoyed tens of millions of acres of land to live and prosper, and pigeon-holed them onto a stamp-sized reservation rendering their tribe unable to sustain a traditional way of life.

    If you want to understand the true history of this region watch a PBS special called “Before their were Parks” narrated by Scott Momaday. Listen to the stories of the tribes that lived, hunted and enjoyed the bounty of this land before it was taken from them. Listen to how one Crow Elder says that the connection with the land of Yellowstone Park is important because the blood and bones of their ancestors are mixed with the earth.

    I am grateful for Yellowstone being set aside and preserved, despite the commercialization. But look at the true history and displacement of Native people in this region and recognize the inequities that have transpired.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      “ But look at the true history and displacement of Native people in this region and recognize the inequities that have transpired.”

      Well said Sir.

    2. JEFF E. Avatar
      JEFF E.

      “But look at the true history”
      which is different on about any subject one wants to bring up.
      But the ongoing genocide of indigenous populations in North America up until around the 1950s, (I would argue that the forced, and/or the unknown, secret sterilizations of Indigenous women constitutes a continuation)
      is surely one of the most reprehensible, inexcusable legacies of this country. To maintain that reservations were created by some sort of polices to promote peace and prosperity of indigenous people is ludicrous and disgusting at the same time.

      1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
        Mareks Vilkins

        I think one must distinguish between the meek United States (since early post-Columbus) and the current nuclear superpower US: that’s not the same ballpark

        as I mentioned before the difference between the Reps and Dems is like the one between Pepsi and Coke

        Russiagate proves this point tenfold:

        Robert Mueller Did Not Merely Reject the Trump-Russia Conspiracy Theories. He Obliterated Them.

        what matters to the poor wildlife will be decided in Big Cities in every state of the US

        1. Ed Loosli Avatar
          Ed Loosli

          Just like “Pepsi and Coke” are the Republicans and Democrats?? I assume you are NOT talking about where the Environment and Wildlife Conservation are concerned – or the protections of Public Lands from the great harm of destructive industries like oil drilling, mining and industrial logging.
          Joe Biden and his DEMOCRATIC PARTY colleagues are spending much of the first weeks of the Biden administration undoing much of the disastrous rule making and executive orders that Trump and the Republicans inflicted on our natural lands and wildlife. Please do not paint with such a broad brush especially in a forum devoted to educating readers about the protection and conservation of our natural lands and wildlife.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Over the decades there have been a lot of people who have not liked the idea of National Parks. I worry that there are those who will take advantage and use the perfectly legitimate and reasonable concerns about this country’s past treatment of Native Americans, in order to exploit the Parks and/or remove them.

    We are all going to have to work together now to protect what is left of our natural places. It’s too late for blame, and we can try to make amends (which we can never do entirely), but we can do the best we can.

  5. Patrick Avatar

    The problem we have now is that large areas rich in game and resources have become scarce. At this point it doesn’t matter whose history is to be believed. Yellowstone needs to be protected for all people and for all the life that lives there. Human utilitarian needs, culture, and custom are irrelevant and intrinsically selfish. Humans are the most adaptable species. We can live on and use the degraded landscapes we’ve created for now. Justice to the earth needs to be considered now. What little truly wild land we have left needs to be managed to be self-sustaining for wildlife first, with human needs subjugated to this priority. Once that is achieved, connecting and rewilding federal land and tribal areas would provide sufficient land area to support more traditional management and use of the resources.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I agree.

      Our overuse of resources has threatened the future existence of our natural lands and wildlife for even ourselves.

      “We can live on and use the degraded landscapes we’ve created for now.”

      Rooftop solar! But can we do it? I don’t know.

  6. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    George: I would like to comment and correct a couple of the erroneous statements you made in the article on Yellowstone’s history.

    First, you wrote; “No Native Americans had to be removed from the park (Yellowstone) because by 1870 they were already living on reservations.” Even high school students know that still in the 1870s many Native American tribes were still living outside the reservation system, including the the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes who crushed the 7th Cavalry in the Summer of 1776, four years after Yellowstone NP was created. A year later in 1877, the Nez Perce still living free under Chief Joseph led three US Generals on an epic escape attempt from making them live on a reservation – their escape route took them right through the heart of the five year old Yellowstone NP.

    The Blackfeet tribe signed a “treaty” in 1855 with the US Government, however, it is important to know that the land given to the Blackfeet in this original treaty included a vast area including what is now Yellowstone Nat. Park. The US kept whittling down the size of “treaty reservations” almost as soon as the ink had dried, and the US Government kept almost none of their promises to the Blackfeet, the Sioux or any other tribe.

    One specific example of the US.Government actually taking Native American tribal land for a National Park involves Montana’s Blackfeet Nation. In 1896, what is now Glacier National Park was a legal part of the Blackfeet Reservation and that year, without the permission of the Blackfeet, the US “ceded” 1,000,000 acres of the Blackfeet Reservation to create Glacier National Park. This 20 mile wide swath of spectacular Northern Rockies Front land is now off limits to the Blackfeet, who still recognize it as major part of their homeland.

    Most of what you write is wonderfully accurate. In this case, when writing about Native American history, please be careful with your facts, or readers might assume that other things you write might also not be factual.

  7. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    1876 – Battle of the Little Bighorn – better known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.

  8. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    type correction: 1876 – Battle of the Little Bighorn, better known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.

  9. Yvette Avatar

    “Anthropocene” “managed” “erased” “colonialism” “imperialism” “civilization” “pristine” “lost history” “untouched” “self-willed”

    All of these terms in quotations and I wasn’t yet to the first picture in your diatribe, or should I say dia-Tribe. It would take a bit of research to appropriately rebut your opinion piece.

    Certainly, not everything is wrong in your opinion, but the degree of superiority that drips and drools from your opinion is nauseating. At least, to me it is nauseating, but certainly, not an attitude I’ve not previously experienced. (imagine that. An educated White man Whitesplaining what happened to all of us dumb Indians. In this case, the Indigenous effected by the creation of YNP).

    I found the following comment particularly condescending.

    “Ironically, some of today’s progressives criticize the creation of Indian Reservations and the attempt to “civilize” and transform Native Americans into “respectable citizens” as disrespectful, and some even use the term “genocidal.”

    Literally, there are many books written on about this topic. I recommend if you are to continue expressing opinions on the Indigenous people of N. America you should read some Native writers, and Native historians. Since you have commented on the ‘civilization’, ‘respectable citizens” and even ‘genocidal’ acts then I believe you are talking about the Christian boarding schools where languages died. Oh, and thousands of children died, too. Others were raped, impregnated, murdered, most were severely beaten and all were Christianized in that forced civilization process. Others died while trying to escape those boarding schools. In fact, at the beginning of this month I was on tribal land that had remnants of the old Concho Boarding School. There were small concrete pads that I asked about and they were there to cover the tunnels that had been dug as escape routes. Little Native children from various tribes digging their way out to run. Run where? They were hundreds if not thousands of miles from their homes. There was another wooded area I asked about and it was a fenced off area where there were unmarked graves of children who had died while at that boarding school. This was 3 weeks ago that I saw this. But I wasn’t there for the history of the boarding school. It was just a small part of our day.

    I think you need to step down off of your academic and White superior high horse. You do not have the right to explain this history.

    I recommend you start reading with the groundbreaking historian, Angie Debot. Two books for your reading list from Angie Debot: “And Still the Waters Run” and “The Road to Disappearance”. Follow those with Vine Deloria’s “We Talk, You Listen” and “God is Red”.

    I plan to re-read your opinion piece but it would be easier to take more seriously if you didn’t use quotation marks around each word you find offensive to your stance. That belongs to newspaper comment posts. With your higher education you should be better than that.

  10. TJ Avatar

    A summary of this article: a white guy explains why “Indians” shouldn’t be so offended.

    Yikes. You sound grumpy and vindictive in your writing. The sarcastic quotations you use to belittle the work of your peers are juvenile and condescending. I was really hoping to learn something valuable here because you seem to know a lot of historical facts, but your tone was so off-putting that it kind of discredited everything else you said, in my opinion.

    You act like social justice advocates are being too sensitive and defensive about this issue, but you are coming off the very same.

    I guess all the credentials and formal education in the world can’t teach a person humility, compassion, or grace.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner