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‘Rematriation’ in America’s oldest national park

Indigenous peoples in Yellowstone National Park.jpg
Mike Vanata
Patti Harris’s ‘Rematriate’ consisted of mother-daughter pairs inside buffalo cages made of material collected on the Wind River Reservation and inside Yellowstone National Park.

Inside a horse trailer, seven buffalo constructed out of birch, sage, and willow stir restlessly. Nestled inside are Indigenous mother-daughter pairs, waiting to be released into Yellowstone National Park.

Patti Harris is Northern Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation and with her daughter, she climbs out of the trailer.

The woody buffalo walk around to the drum beat.

Harris performed ‘Rematriate’ back in August at the park’s event called ‘Yellowstone Revealed,’ as part of the park’s 150th anniversary. It was a week celebrating tribes' historical ties to the land through art and education — a collaborative effort between an intertribal collective of artists and scholars and the park. Harris said buffalo are a part of the land, historically, and so is she.

Indigenous women and girls in front of a Rematriate sign.jpg
Mike Vanata
'Rematriate’ and ‘Land Back’ are on both sides of the horse trailer pictured here during Yellowstone Revealed 2022.

“And you feel like, ‘Holy smokes. Like I am a buffalo!’ It's kind of unbelievable thinking about Old Faithful blowing up, these old songs that I've heard since I'm a little girl, and singing. And then my dads there, it just feels like real,” she said.

She said rematriation is an Indigenous movement to restore relationships with the land – very similar to the ‘Land Back movement.’

“Land Back has nothing to do with, ‘This is mine. You're on it. Leave,’” Harris said. “It's more of a way of life and how we walk, how we talk to it, how we relate to the land, as being something that takes care of us takes care of every single thing that we can think of.”

There are 27 tribes with ancestral ties to Yellowstone National Park, and until this year, many Indigenous people felt unwelcome. As the ‘Yellowstone Revealed’ celebration came to a close many questioned what kind of recognition will follow in the next 150 years.

Franchesca Pine-Rodriguez, Crow and Northern Cheyenne, is the executive director of Mountain Time Arts in Bozeman, Montana. She helped put on Yellowstone Revealed.

She said the Indigenous history and connection of the park has been hidden for so long and it made her feel unwelcome. Many Indigenous people feel the same, unwelcome in a place that holds creation stories and good medicine. But that started to change while Pine-Rodriguez was working on this event.

“It started to feel like home. And it started to feel like home again,” she said. “It just felt more welcoming. I mean Indigenous folks are such a big part of history. And the historical story has been attempted to have been erased in the past is something you can never really shake.”

The park has made an effort to mend relationships with tribes in the last few years. They renamed Mountain Doane to First Peoples Mountain earlier this year.

Gustave Doane was involved with the massacre of 217 Piegan Blackfeet in 1870. The park was established in 1872, and the massacre made way for the park to be established.

During ‘Yellowstone Revealed,’ the first tipi camp was set up within the park since the park was established, a fact that surprised many.

Pine-Rodriguez said she is optimistic for the coming years, but there is more work to be done. She hopes the park continues to support Indigenous presence with their pocketbook.

“I would like to say that please make Indigenous presence a priority and a budget item. Because I feel like the only way to have true systematic change is by changing your budget. And so that'll show where your values really lie,” she said.

She said this year the park contributed $100,000 to put on the celebration.

Cam Sholly is the superintendent with the park and said this is a new era.

“I think it's a launching point for a lot of other new things to happen moving forward. I don't pretend to know exactly what all of those things are,” he said.

He said that he plans on hosting another ‘Yellowstone Revealed’ in 2023, adding that the park is expanding its buffalo transfer program and they are working with tribal colleges to establish internships.

The park also started bringing in Indigenous artists to the park’s Tribal Heritage Center, and Sholly said there is potential to continue that program.

“There's no playbook for this. The Park Service has a major part of its mission is telling America's history, you know, the good and the bad. No one, when it comes to American Indian tribes, can do that better than the tribal members themselves,” he said.

Sholly is also looking to include tribes in a variety of other projects, but many specifics have not been set in stone.

As Patti Harris unpacks her trailer full of tipis and buffalo, she said there is work to be done to bring together what the parks and Indigenous people want for the future of Yellowstone National Park.

She said rematriation is a return to a better relationship with the land, to put the land first. And in turn, this is what many Indigenous people would like to be a part of because they have felt unwelcome for so long.

“I think we have reached across that line to make them comfortable. And it's done like I'm tired of them being comfortable and me being uncomfortable. I think it's time for all of us to be uncomfortable,” she said.

Her dream for ‘Rematriate’ is for her birch, willow, and sage buffalo to number in the hundreds.

Patti Harris unloading her trailer of buffalo back at her home on the Wind River Reservation, next to a buffalo hide.
Taylar Stagner
Patti Harris unloading her trailer of buffalo back at her home on the Wind River Reservation, next to a buffalo hide.

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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