Indigenous artists stake their claim at Yellowstone National Park

A public project aims to elevate the presence of Indigenous tribes who claim ancestral association with the Yellowstone region

A Yellowstone Revealed summit organised by Mountain Time Arts at the Roosevelt Arch, at the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, drew attention to the history of Indigenous culture in the region Courtesy of Mountain Time Arts

A Yellowstone Revealed summit organised by Mountain Time Arts at the Roosevelt Arch, at the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, drew attention to the history of Indigenous culture in the region Courtesy of Mountain Time Arts

Yellowstone National Park will invite Indigenous artists with cultural ties to the region to create a series of public art installations as part of the Yellowstone Revealed initiative, a project being overseen by the non-profit organisation Mountain Time Arts (MTA). It is expected that the works will be unveiled next summer, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the park.

“There are so many histories that have been erased since Yellowstone was founded and so much missing from the historical narrative,” says MaryBeth Morand, the co-director of the organisation.“We are now working toward understanding what the first lines of importance should be in these projects.”

The group, based in Bozeman, Montana, envisions that Yellowstone Revealed will involve three to five artists, who will each create a new work for the park. The scope of the project will, however, depend on the financial support MTA is able to gather, Morand adds. “In broad strokes, we’re aiming to raise $250,000 in the coming months,” she says. “We have sent three requests to the National Endowment for the Arts, and will be approaching other foundations and private donors, and are looking into tourism tax as a possible funding avenue.”

Mountain Time Arts, which was founded in 2016 by the artist Mary Ellen Strom, the architect Jim Madden and the art historian Dede Taylor, received a $100,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in June this year, some of which will be allocated toward the art installations and related public programmes.

The organisation focuses on supporting works centred on environmental and social justice. “In Montana, that often means conversations around land and water rights, and around acknowledging Indigenous people as the original stewards of the land,” Morand says.

Several advisors—including artists, anthropologists, archaeologists, conservationists and scholars from tribal universities—will collaborate during a summit this month to select the commissions and identify potential sites in the park that are of historical significance to house the future installations. An initial summit was held in June this year, during which a teepee was erected next to the Roosevelt Arch in the northern entrance of the park.

The initiative comes as the Land Back campaign—a movement by Indigenous tribes to reclaim ancestral territories, especially those in national parks—gains momentum. For example, last year, ahead of a controversial event organised by former US president Donald Trump on Independence Day, protests were held blocking the highway to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, which was built on Black Hills land held sacred by many Sioux tribes.

Reclaiming Yellowstone

Yellowstone was the first national park to be federally protected in 1872, by US president Ulysses S. Grant, as mining and tourism in the area increased. The legislation creating the park overturned previous treaties stating that the area belonged to several Indigenous tribes, restricting their rights to use the area, which spans more than two million acres across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Although 27 tribes claim ancestral association with the Yellowstone region, and archaeological evidence shows that Indigenous people have inhabited the area for at least 11,000 years, Indigenous activities within the park, such as hunting and traditional ceremonies, must be federally approved and are the subject of ongoing legal disputes between affiliated tribes and the government. And there remains a dismal representation of Indigenous history there.

“We would like this project to raise awareness and correction of Indigenous histories in the Yellowstone region, while also connecting the narrative to contemporary Indigenous culture,” says the co-director of the MTA, Francesca Pine Rodriguez (Apsáalooke/Crow and Tsitsistas/Northern Cheyenne). Like the Black Hills, “Yellowstone has been an intrinsic gathering place and common hunting ground for Indigenous people since time immemorial.”

“Some people have not learned about Native American history and correcting that is the natural progression of how things are going now amid all these protests, name changes and statues coming down,” Rodriguez adds. “The ultimate goal is to transfer knowledge.”

The organisers hope that the works will also provide visitors to Yellowstone with a visually rich and unique experience. “The park is a scripted place, designed for tourists to drive to these specific locations through what is called the Grand Loop, and most people don’t ever explore more than 10 feet from their vehicles,” Mary Ellen Strom says.

“Yellowstone’s visual politics are traditionally Western and ranch-like, and don’t reflect any of the incredibly important markers of Indigenous art and culture of the last hundreds of years or more; that is a significant and necessary shift,” she adds.