Yellowstone Is Turning 150 — Here's How You Can Celebrate the Park and Learn More About Its Indigenous Roots
On Mar. 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, creating the first national park in North America.
As the act declares, "...the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the park's creation, which is indeed cause for celebration. However, officials aren't letting the moment pass without also reflecting on the area's much longer Native American history.
"Yellowstone's 150th anniversary is an important moment in time for the world," Cam Sholly, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, shared in a statement released to Travel + Leisure. "It's an opportunity for us to reflect on the lessons of the past while focusing our efforts to strengthen Yellowstone and our many partnerships for the future."
During this milestone year for Yellowstone National Park, Sholly shared his intent to fiercely protect the park's ecosystem and "more fully engage with Tribal Nations to honor and learn from their ancestral and modern connections to Yellowstone."
On a press call in January, Sholly added this blunt note about the early days of Yellowstone: "We arguably failed miserably."
In the 1870s, he noted, park officials were tasked with ridding the area of predators, including wolves and bears, to make it a more inviting place for travelers. "We tinkered with the ecosystem and took it completely out of balance," he said.
During the same timeframe, park officials nearly erased Native American history from a region that Indigenous communities had used as hunting and gathering grounds for nearly 11,000 years.
"We've also not always gotten the stories right here in Yellowstone and so we are focused on really making sure we're telling these stories right as stewards of these parks," Sholly said.
As Doug MacDonald, author of "Before Yellowstone: Native American Archeology in the National Park," explained to Smithsonian Magazine in 2021, Native Americans living in the area around Yellowstone were systematically pushed out by the government and kept out by the U.S. Army. Additionally, the public was told that Indigenous communities were "never here in the first place because they were afraid of the geysers," a marketing claim that capitalizes on the fact that Yellowstone is home to more than 10,000 hydrothermal sites and half the world's active geysers.
Park officials are committed to righting past mistakes, both for the people and the animals whose collective history far preceded the creation of Yellowstone National Park.
"We're working with tribal nations to ask questions around, 'what are we getting right? What are we getting wrong?'" Sholly said on the press call. "We're working on telling these stories right."
To start, officials are creating a Tribal Heritage Center, which will be stationed at Old Faithful, one of the most popular areas in the park, throughout the summer. Park officials are collaborating with several Indigenous nations as the plans for the center take shape.
"This is something we would like to make permanent," Sholly said. "We want to do a good job as stewards telling the stories of American Indian tribal nations, but no one can do it better than them."
Additionally, Indigenous nations are working with Yellowstone to install a large village in the park near the Roosevelt Arch, which should be finished by August.
"We see the land as our mother," Crow nation member Scott Frazier, who leads Yellowstone student tours and ceremonial blessings on park wildlife, shared on the press call. "We see the land as sacred."
"In this time of struggle between human beings, these places are very important. Yellowstone is a wonderful place," Frazier said as his eyes welled with tears. "I'm 72. It's a struggle to make it even here. Yellowstone deserves recognition on its 150th."
Beyond the Tribal Heritage Center, national park officials are also working with Indigenous leaders across the United States on the Bison Conservation Transfer Program, which aims to deliver a small number of bison back to Native American lands across the U.S. as an alternative to slaughter. According to Jackson Hole Radio, the program has diverted 182 bison since 2019, including sending 82 animals that were transferred to the Intertribal Buffalo Council, who then distributed them to 18 Indigenous nations in 10 states. It's particularly impressive considering how close the buffalo came to extinction, dropping from about 30 million to less than 500 by the end of the 19th century.
"As they grew back at Yellowstone, so did we," Frazier said in reference to the conservation efforts to revive the area's bison herd.
As Yellowstone officials do their part to preserve the park's history and ecosystem, it's up to travelers to carry this work — the recognition of Indigenous history and the protection of this land for future generations — forward. Yellowstone's tourism numbers have surged in recent years; in 2021, the park saw just shy of 5 million visitors between January and October, a 20 percent increase in tourism from 2019, according to Jackson Hole News & Guide. In the name of ecosystem conservation, tourism entities and park officials continue to urge travelers to minimize their impact. The National Park Service encourages visitors to take the #YellowstonePledge to leave no trace in the park, while Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism recently launched their Tread on the Trail campaign to remind hikers not to stray from marked trails. And of course, visiting the new resources spotlighting Indigenous heritage, like the Tribal Heritage Center, is just as crucial for conservation.
As for taking part in the 150th-anniversary celebration, there will be a variety of virtual and in-person activities to enjoy both at Yellowstone National Park and in surrounding gateway communities throughout 2022. Events are listed on the park calendar as well as on park partner and nearby community websites. Announcements will also be made at go.nps.gov/Yellowstone150 and on social media under the hashtag #Yellowstone150.
There's one more easy thing you can do, according to Frazier: Give thanks for the nature and show your appreciation for the park. In doing so, you can help preserve Yellowstone National Park for the next 150 years.