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Eastern Shoshone Culture Center wants more Indigenous people to visit Yellowstone as it celebrates 150 Years

A geographic formation known as Sheep Eater Cliff with a grassy area and a brown NPS informational sign in front of it.
Joe Shlabotnik
Flickr via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Yellowstone National Park turned 150 years old on March 1st. Park officials say they are taking this anniversary to work toward including more tribal perspectives and involvement within the park, Robyn Rofkar is the Assistant Director at the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center in Fort Washakie told Wyoming Public Radio's Taylar Stagner about her many trips to the park over the years and what she would like to see changed to support more Indigenous visitation.

Robyn Rofkar: I feel very fortunate that my family has always visited Yellowstone. My grandpa's, actually from the Flathead Reservation. And I have pictures where my mom was a teenager, and they drove through the park on the way up to visit his family. And she always loved going to the park, and drug his kids along. And so, I do the same with my kids and grandkids too.

And there's a place called Sheep Eater cliff that we saw on the map. And it was kind of out of the way of our usual loop that we do. But I said, we kind of go there and check it out and see what the sheep eaters did at this place. So we went up there, and it was a big disappointment. The area you pull off, there's potholes, you pull into the parking lot, all you see is about 30 trash cans, recycling bins. And then there's a little sign where it says, 'Oh, yeah, this interesting looking cliff was named after the Sheep Eaters who lived in Yellowstone Park, over the years, a branch of the Shoshone.' And that's all it said, and I was really disappointed.

But I'm glad that now Yellowstone Park is reaching out to Native people for the 150th anniversary. They're trying to get the native voice and they're open to suggestions. So, I'm hoping they can build that up. Because what is a big disappointment, there could be a great opportunity for Yellowstone, to expand it to bring in native peoples for talks, demonstrations and even just have more information.

I think there's only a couple other places in the park where they mentioned natives. Once we stopped at a roadside display close to West Yellowstone, and it talked about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe and his band, when they were running away from the army and came to Yellowstone Park on the way trying to get up to Canada. And that was interesting. And I think there's one feature called the Dragon's Mouth. And it's a little fumarole, steam vent kind of thing. And there's a sign there that talks about how the Kiowa creation story is actually based there. Other than that, throughout the whole of Yellowstone Park, there's very little mention of Natives. Nothing really, that I've seen, and I've been there 50 times.

I think it's very sad because a lot of our community members here have never been to Yellowstone, or maybe once, and are kind of not feeling welcomed up there.

I know about 20 years ago when we heard 'Oh, you can get in for free with your tribal ID.' And we try that and we'd get these questions. And if we said the wrong thing, 'Oh, you got to get special permission from the park superintendent.' And sometimes we just give up, it's okay. Well, we just basically couldn't get on our way, though. Now, if you just show your tribal ID, they don't question you at all. It just asks you if you want the brochures and maps and send you on your way.

And you can just feel the power of the place when you're out. Of course, the mountains and the woods were always special. But Yellowstone, just you can feel that power course there's all that power rumbling, that you can't help but pick up but it feels like a very spiritual and powerful place. And I'm sure over the millennia, all the natives that visited there felt the same way.

They're [Yellowstone Park officials] figuring the Sheep Eaters were the only tribes that actually live there year-round. But there's ties to 29 other tribes that, you know, probably visited the area, they apparently found some big, earthen Camas ovens where these Camas roots that were an important part of the Shoshone diet back in the day are inedible unless you roast them for three days. So they found these big Camas ovens they call them. Not to mention all the other resources that are up there from pine nuts to bitterroot, lilies, biscuit-root, all the berries and the different animal resources that the tribes used to live off.

sheep eater picnic area
Robyn Rofkar, Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center Assistant Director

Taylar Stagner: There's so much history and culinary knowledge there that if there's no signage all these millions of people every year, can just drive by and they wouldn't even know. Like, why at the 150th, are our park officials kind of reflecting and being alright, well, maybe we should be more critical of the creation of this park. Like, why do you think so now?

RR: Well, I think Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland has a lot to do with this, which is awesome. So that now they're looking at the history.

During the previous administration, when National Park budgets were getting slashed, there was a push, wow, why don't we put them back in the hands of the native people to manage these places? And it's still that idea still floating around out there, which would be awesome. Then we would get a real, you know, can incorporate the real perspective and be out what this land meant to the people, what it still means, how they could make it better. Because yeah, we want people to see not only the history of the natives, but yeah, we're still here. We're still, you know, trying our best to survive and flourish. And the native culture has kind of been scrubbed from the park.

TS: Are there any other aspects about the anniversary that you'd like to talk about?

RR: Well, I just hope that more people from the tribes here go up, more people from Wyoming go up. Yeah, the crowds and the traffic might be crazy, but it's so beautiful. But it's really something that I think everybody in the area should experience, especially all the Native people. Go see where the ancestors used to live. There's a lot of history there. A lot of spiritual feelings. You can feel the power of Mother Earth there.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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