In Yellowstone, Misha asks what it means to restore a place. She gets stuck in the snow, goes wolf watching and finds out that we almost lost wolves forever in the park, and how reintroducing them healed the ecosystem.
In Yellowstone, Misha asks what it means to restore a place. She gets stuck in the snow, goes wolf watching, and finds out that we almost lost wolves forever in the park, and how reintroducing them healed the ecosystem. Learning about the wolves makes her question what it would mean to restore the native connection and history of Yellowstone and the parks system.
Yellowstone is the land of the Assiniboine and Sioux, Blackfeet, Cheyenne River Sioux, Coeur d’Alene, Comanche, Colville Reservation, Crow Creek Sioux, Eastern Shoshone, Flandreau Santee Sioux, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, Kiowa, Little Shell Chippewa, Lower Brule Sioux, Nez Perce, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Salish and Kootenai, Shoshone–Bannock, Sisseton Wahpeton, Spirit Lake, Standing Rock Sioux, Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa, Umatilla Reservation and the Yankton Sioux.
More about the podcast:
Hello, Nature host, Misha Euceph, didn’t know about the National Parks until she turned 21. But after an experience in Joshua Tree and watching 12 hours of a national park documentary, she sets out on a road trip to answer the question: if the parks are public, aren’t they supposed to be for everyone? In this podcast, she goes out to see America and tell a new story of our national parks.
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One of the first things I noticed about Yellowstone National Park was just the amount of waiting. It started as soon as we entered the park.
Misha In-Car Tape: This must be something big that's coming up because there's cars everywhere on their way to something or leaving or something. Wow….
No matter what we’re doing, the thing we can count on, is we will be waiting.
Waiting while driving, cause a herd of bison decided to cross the street. And let me tell you, Bison weigh like 2000 tons and they move like that.
They look like they’re from prehistoric times.
It’s almost funny to see them next to a bunch of cars, not giving a fuck. You look at them and wonder, didn’t you die during the ice age?
Sometimes they stop, and take the biggest dump known to man-- a Misha-sized poop.
Anyway, I digress. Basically, they move like cows in slo-mo.
And so you wait for them.
And you wait for the geysers. The ones like Old Faithful, that you know go off and blow steam at a particular time.
And the less predictable ones like Jelly Geyser.
You sit with your drink and your family and you wait.
You wait in one part of the park when it unpredictably snows and all the roads close down.
Misha: In my brain I was like, it's gonna snow it’ll be cute. I didn’t think it was gonna snow, and you know…
And you wait for things you didn’t even know you were waiting for.
This is Hello, Nature from REI Co-Op Studios. I’m your host, Misha Euceph.
This episode, we’re in Yellowstone. Traditional land of the Assiniboine and Sioux, Blackfeet, Cheyenne River Sioux, Coeur d’Alene, Comanche, Colville Reservation, Crow, Crow Creek Sioux, Eastern Shoshone, Flandreau Santee Sioux, Gros Ventre and, Assiniboine, Kiowa, Little Shell Chippewa, Lower Brule Sioux, Nez Perce, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Salish and Kootenai, Shoshone–Bannock, Sisseton Wahpeton, Spirit Lake, Standing Rock Sioux, Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa, Umatilla Reservation, and the Yankton Sioux.
Jeremy Sunderraj: Hey. There’s a wolf at the den.
Misha: Oh there is?
Jeremy Sunderraj: Yep
MIsha: Oh shit.
Jeremy Sunderraj: So that is the den go ahead and take a look there.
MIsha: Oh my gosh!
Jeremy Sunderraj: So she's at the den
MIsha: Oh, I see her I see her
Jeremy Sunderraj: Yeah. Should be a black.
MIsha: Yes. She’s just kind of chillin.
Jeremy Sunderraj: Yeah
Misha: Oh my gosh.
If you can’t tell from my reaction, it’s my first time EVER seeing a wolf.
Misha: Oooh. Do we know which one that is?
Jeremy Sunderraj: Um I thought it was just a black yearling but I didn't get a great look.
And if it sounds like Jeremy is not surprised, it’s because he’s not.
Jeremy Sunderraj: So, my name is Jeremy. Jeremy Sunderraj.
Jeremy spends a lot of his time out here in Lamar Valley and Slough Creek, on the North East side of the park. Just hanging out with wolves.
Jeremy: And I'm a biological technician for the Yellowstone wolf project. My job in the park is basically research education, management and monitoring of the parks, wolves, elk, and cougars.
Misha: And how did you get into this?
Jeremy: like I was always into animals. And as a little kid, I saw my first wolves. When I was 11 coming up with my family. They killed two bear cubs right by the side of the road. And I was kind of hooked after that. I started working up here when I was 16 years old.
We’re standing in a parking lot, looking at a hillside. The wolves are about a football field away--super easy to miss.
So whenever he sees a wolf, Jeremy lets me and Jonathan use a spotting scope to get a better look. It’s sort of like a telescope. But like the fanciest kind.
Jeremy Sunderraj: So if you guys look through here now, you'll actually be able to see the puppies.
Misha: Oh my god!
Misha: This one has like a cute little white like tail situation going on
Jeremy Sunderraj: Yeah, that's a pretty typical color for a younger wolf. So they kind of turn that cocoa color in their first year and then we'll get darker. Yeah, you can take a look too for sure.
Ok. I lied. They are not actually cute. I’m looking through this telescope and the cub looks like a dirty dog with a squirrel tail. Like in a cool way! It is really cool to see a wolf irl, but not like lion-cub-adopted-by-a-warthog-and-a-meerkat-cute. You know?
Jeremy Sunderraj: You know, wolves range in color from gray to black. The black actually came from interbreeding with domestic dogs 1000s of years ago. Interestingly, wolves are also the only mammal in the world that prefer to breed with the opposite color. So that's interesting. They're like anti racist. Yeah so, that’s interesting.
Ok that part is cute.
Anyway, there are a lot of people obsessed with wolves, and they’re standing around us. There are day trippers like me and Jonathan, of course. But there are also these hardcore wolf fans.
Jeremy Sunderraj: A lot of these people will come out for a long period of time for a couple months. Rick here. He’s in the jeans. And he had a long streak of, um, I don't know, Rick, how long how many years? Were you? Did you were you out here straight without missing a day? 10? Longer than that? 15.
Yes, you heard that right: one of the people there, a guy named Rick, watched the wolves every day for 15 years. He was employed by the park at the time, but like, still. Every. Single. Day? And even though he’s retired, he keeps coming out.
Jeremy Sunderraj: This year, these guys have like 8 puppies. 5 greys and 3 blacks.
I’d never thought much about wolves before this trip. They were the stuff of fairy tales. You know, The Big Bad Wolf and all that. But when Jonathan and I were googling “things to do in Yellowstone,” wolf watching kept popping up.
Jeremy Sunderraj: What we always talk about in Yellowstone is, it's one of the few places in the world that people can actually come and see a wolf in the wild.
But that hasn’t always been the case. I’m 28 years old. When I was born, there was no wolf watching in Yellowstone.
Jeremy Sunderraj: Like all these people up here, all the wolf watchers talk about how um, they knew Yellowstone without wolves.
And that’s because...for almost 70 years...from the mid 1920s to the mid 1990s...there were no wolves in the park.
The gray wolf -- that’s the type of wolf in Yellowstone -- used to be all over North America. For thousands of years, their territory stretched from the Arctic to Mexico.
Everything the light touches... is our kingdom.
Jeremy Sunderraj: When European settlers first hit the shores of the New World, they didn't like large predators, wolves are always viewed as basically evil animals. So we went through great efforts to eliminate them, we were very successful.
In 1926, people killed Yellowstone’s last wolves by hunting them. And this was happening all over the continental US. We basically eliminated almost all of them except for like two small populations.
This completely threw Yellowstone’s ecosystem for a loop. Things went out of whack. WIthout wolves, the number of elk exploded. This was a big problem, cause these elk started grazing like crazy. Overgrazing parts of the park. They were eating things like Willows and Aspens.
And those willows and aspens? Those are homes for songbirds and beavers. Without them, we started losing songbirds and beavers.
I know: who would have thought that wolves and beavers need each other?
So, environmentalists and scientists are like, hey guys, this is not good. Losing wolves in Yellowstone is really hurting the whole ecosystem. It’s not just the animals and birds that are dying, the water levels are out of whack.
In the 1970’s, the government finally starts to listen, and becomes more involved in protecting native species.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is signed into law.
And it mandates that species that have been eliminated need to be restored where it’s possible.
Jeremy Sunderraj: So yeah, in 1995 the park made the controversial decision to reintroduce wolves.
“Controversial” because lots of people weren’t into the idea of reintroducing a predator to Yellowstone. The ranchers said wolves would leave the park and kill off a lot of their cattle. And big game hunters worried about competition from the wolves.
Cause you know, wolves would hunt the same stuff hunters would want to hunt.
But, the government moves forward with the plan.
Jeremy Sunderraj: Yellowstone National Park after you know, oh, kind of a lot of drama really was able to bring in about 14 wolves from Canada, we kept them in pens for about 10 weeks to get the news to the place, let them go. And then they were, you know, freed, kind of to run around the park and survive as they would. We be brought in 17, more and ‘96. And then a lot of people don't know we did put in an additional 10, from Montana, in ‘97. And that is our source population.
And the wolves-- they LOVE Yellowstone. They have babies and take up some space-- spread out across the park.
Jeremy: Yeah, immensely successful reintroduction, like the most successful carnivore recovery program, probably in the history of the planet.
Jeremy: So there’s another wolf up here too. Now it’s in the grass, one sec.
Since their reintroduction to the park, the wolves have been continuously studied.
There’s a lot of evidence that they’ve reversed some of the damage to Yellowstone’s ecosystem. Some, not all.
Jeremy: Oh yeah so here’s a black yearling. You can look through here right now, see it walking around.
A lot of biologists say that the environmental impact can never fully be reversed.
We can never really make up for what we did.
You know, park employees collect data on the wolves all the time. And Jeremy is one of those park employees-- keeping tabs on the wolves.
And there are also a ton of volunteers, like remember Rick? The guy who has a 15-year-record of wolf watching? So, Rick doesn’t just watch them… he and other volunteers also help by submitting field observations to Yellowstone National Park.
Like 907 wolf and 980 wolf spotted fighting over food.
Misha: Oh, my God! Which one is that, Jeremy?
Jeremy Sunderraj: It's a black yearling. So one of the 18 pups that were born last year to this pack.
All of this data means that Jeremy knows a lot about what the wolves are up to.
It’s kind of like reality TV.
People have documented these wolves’ WHOLE lives. Their quirks, their drama. And the public can access a lot of this stuff. You can see what a particular wolf is up to-- if she’s fallen in love, if she and her sister got in a fight.
These wolves are like celebrities. With their own fandoms.
Taylor Bland: I feel like I have this soulful connection with her, because I have watched her for so long.
Taylor Bland is talking about her favorite wolf.
Taylor Bland: Yes, my girl 1229F.
I've been watching her since she was, you know, a couple months old
Taylor Bland: She's a two year old black female, long and lanky, super pointy ears. Super bright yellow eyes. She's kind of ugly, actually, if you really look at her. She's super spunky and charismatic. If there's a bison laying on the ground, she has no business going over to it, but she will and she will bite it butt for no reason. Just to cause trouble. She’s just super fun to watch.
I remember the first time I saw her. Parents were feeding and the adults were lounging, the puppies were enjoying their time on the river.
They have the attention span of a squirrel. So you know, they see a salamander, they want to play with it. Or you know, they're hopping all over each other, biting each other's legs and pulling each other's tails.
I'm actually in the process of getting a tattoo of her. Yeah, we're soulmates.
Taylor volunteers with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, and she works as a guide on wolf watching tours.
But loving the wolves also means having to watch them get hurt.
There was this one wolf, for example. She was super famous-- born in 2006. And she was given the nickname ‘06.
Normally wolves hunt in packs, but the ‘06 wolf, she was the kind of wolf who could hunt a bison or deer all on her own. She would do this really unusual thing and go straight for another animal’s neck, and bring them down in basically one go.
So, being the badass she was, she had a lot of fans. And her daughter did too.
For 6 years, ‘06 lived in Yellowstone.
But in December 2012, a hunter shot her and killed her. Her daughter was also killed by a hunter. People all over the world mourned them. They were heartbroken.
Harming wolves within park boundaries is illegal. But outside, states make their own rules.
And that means that some level of hunting and extermination is allowed. Which makes Taylor nervous for her wolf soulmate.
Taylor: There is no fence around Yellowstone, right. And so, when she leaves the park, if she leaves the park, you know, it's almost certainly a death sentence. So I do fear for her in that sense, for sure.
Jeremy: This is 907.
Misha: Okay. Oh my god I gotta see 907!
Jeremy: Yeah. So she’s kind of an older gray wolf.
Misha: Oh my god, yeah she’s like kind of white.
Standing in the parking lot with Jeremy and Jonathan, watching wolves come and go from their den-- I start thinking about what I’ve learned so far on this trip-- our history.
The parks’ history. The country’s history.
How we’ve eliminated animals like wolves, how it rippled out and destroyed the whole ecosystem. How we’ve tried to repent. And make amends.
How we’ve waited to see if it worked.
Did it work? If it’s never been quite the same?
I try to make sense of all of it. The wolf do-over.
I can’t put it into words just yet, but it sticks with me for the rest of the day.
Jeremy: So a lot of us out here have been watching her since she was a small little puppy.
Misha: The roads are super icy. Great. It’s really windy and icy. Fucking a.
After wolf watching, Jonathan and I decide to leave the park for a bit... or, we try to. It turns out the exits are closed because of a snow storm.
Misha: Damn, I can’t believe it’s 30 degrees in May!
We’re basically trapped. So we decide to check out Mammoth Hot Springs.
Misha: I can’t believe I'm doing this walk in flip flops.
For the record, I would like to point out that where I live in LA, flip flops in May are totally weather appropriate. Anyway, we start walking down this path. And I’m trying to APPRECIATE nature.
Misha: Look at these trees.
But if I’m being honest, it’s so cold that all I can think about is finding a warm hotel and doing some yoga. Yes, I am very LA. Still, we keep walking. And then...
Misha: Wow, look at that pool. It's like a, it's like a pool that has like bubbles and like, smoke coming up. It looks like it's a set design like it doesn't look real. Like it doesn't look real, like there's like these white old dead trees. The same color as the ground. And then there's just like orangish mud close to the geyser. So pretty.
Mara Reed: So first, it starts out with water, maybe coming down as rain on the surface, and solely that water than enters the ground and makes its way down pretty deep into the crust. That's where it encounters the heat from the magma below. And finally, when it gets that water gets hotter, it becomes less dense. So it starts rising. And then it rises up through all these fractures in the rock; it dissolved silica and some other elements and molecules from the rock surrounding rocks. And then it comes up towards the surface.
Typically, you're going to use the term hotspring for something that actually has a pool at the surface and is not an erupting feature. A geyser would be used for any thermal feature that could erupt.
Misha: Jet geyser. This little guy to our left is a jet geyser. It's like volcanoes coming out from under the ground. With blueish green gorgeous water.
Mara Reed: Yeah, so the spectrum of colors usually actually has to do with what type of life is living there. So they're really, Blue Springs are the hottest. And then you get the springs that are kind of yellow and orange and red. And that means the temperature is a little bit lower, and that is supporting more of those organisms. I think I've seen almost every color in Yellowstone thermal area, probably, maybe purple is the one that would be hard to come by.
Mara Reed: My name is Mara Reed. I am studying geysers and hydrothermal systems broadly defined.
Misha: This one's particularly weird. It's like pink sand dunes surrounding a bubbling geyser where like, bubbles are going in like odd patterns and rhythms.
Mara Reed: Other than the water that you can see there's a lot of different sounds and I think that's actually my favorite part about geysers is that they can just make so many sounds and you say well, how I mean it's just water. Well, you've got trickling of water down a runoff channel, you have little spurts and gerbils and splashes. You have these powerful geysers that reach great heights. They sound like roaring jet engines. And my personal favorite, there are some geysers that have little pools. And if sometimes they'll drain very suddenly. And it just sounds like a toilet flushing.
Misha: It smells so gross.
Mara Reed: My favorite smell is rotten eggs, because that's what some of the especially acidic areas in Yellowstone smell like because they've got hydrogen sulfide gas being emitted. You know, it's like it's like Stockholm Syndrome for smells. You spend so much time around it. You're like, Oh, you know, actually this is okay. I like this.
Misha: this is good for your skin Do you know? I hope so. These gases are whatever's coming out. Are they? Do you know? Are they good for your skin?
Mara Reed: the gases that are coming out that the gases that are coming out of these thermal features, it's mostly carbon dioxide and steam. So water, there are some smaller proportions of hydrogen sulfide that gets you that rotten egg smell. There's some helium gas and some other gases as well. But primarily there is no health risk to humans or it doesn't really have any effects on your breathing or your skin.
Misha: Danger. Everywhere it says ‘danger danger.’ Keep out. Okay, we’re keeping out.
Mara Reed: You would have a bad time if you tried to go inside a geyser mostly because you know this temperature, the water when it's erupting, it's at the boiling temperature.
Misha: I love the earth. It's so cool. Because it's like, you realize like, Oh yeah, this is all like a process of like creation because. It's like so active, you know?
Mara Reed: Geysers can go dormant or extinct and sometimes just due to natural causes, like landslides or just kind of the natural life cycle of geysers. But humans can also alter and, and a geysers eruptions.
Mara Reed: A lot of geysers in Yellowstone that went extinct because of humans, it's because people kept throwing trash and just random stuff in there.
Misha: Wow. Damn. Wow.
Jonathan and I keep reading signs that explain that Yellowstone National Park is one of the world’s largest active volcanic systems. All that steam and boiling water? That’s a result of the ginormous magma chamber beneath our feet.
And not to get all symbolic, but it’s a bit symbolic, no?
I mean, I’ve been learning about the National Parks and their histories...about how they’re not just “America’s Best Idea.” That they have ugly pasts.
And I don’t just mean the wolves.
You know, I was having a hard time putting it into words earlier. But the government, the National Parks service, and all these American citizens realized that we messed up in getting rid of the wolves.
When we killed them, we didn’t kill them in isolation. It affected other plants and animals and streams-- it inadvertently affected us.
And when we understood that, we, Americans and our government, tried to fix our mistake.
We had to wait for it. It took 70 years. And even then, it wasn’t a super popular decision.
But we did it, because it was the right thing to do.
Because if we didn’t, it wouldn’t just go away. The mistakes of our past-- how we treated wolves and our environment would keep bubbling up in different ways.
And it would keep affecting us-- our ability to survive and live happy, healthy lives.
The thing is that our past is still bubbling up. It’s like we’re literally on top of an active volcano, and the painful history will not just go away if we ignore it. It WILL erupt. It WILL affect us.
The land is holding trauma.
And it’ll take courage to deal with it.
But, there are courageous people who are ready to lead the way.
Yellowstone is technically America’s very first national park. And for decades, the story we told about its formation went something like this.
PSA: If I'd come out here in 1807, I might have found it myself. But John Kohler saw it first. He came out here all by himself looking for beaver. He saw the gray mud bubbling in the steam hissing out of the rocks, and went back all excited and told the folks about it.
This is a park advertisement from the 1950s. And boy, does it sound 1950s.
PSA: ….was made into the first national park called Yellowstone. Dedicated and set apart as a pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.
That ad pretty much follows the same script as most other stories about our parks’ founding: there was this beautiful place that no one knew about. But then a white guy with a science bucket discovered it. And now, because of American ingenuity, the rest of the world can visit and enjoy it.
Tom Rodgers: There’s a lot of myth making in America. And the creation of, of America and the parks is all of that myth making.
You’ve heard from Tom Rodgers before, last episode. But if you’re just randomly skipping around, which you shouldn’t, he’s an activist for Native American issues, and a Blackfeet Nation member.
Tom Rodgers: An abortion of truth and justice is how those parks were created. And that story needs to be told because this country is a country of stories from our founding fathers to Sacajawea up to the Mayflower to manifest destiny to the Doctrine of Discovery.
Remember how when I came to this country, I didn’t learn anything about the national parks? Well, if you’re like me, here’s the story we missed out on hearing.
Before Yellowstone National Park became Yellowstone National Park, it was home to many different Native American tribes. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that indigenous people inhabited the land as far back as 11,000 years ago.
Tom Rodgers: Just visualize that. Before the pyramids of Giza. Before Babylon ever existed.
These various tribes had their own names for the region, like “Land of the Burning Ground” and “Many Smoke.” And they had their own ways of interacting with the land. Tom descends from one of those tribes, the Blackfeet.
Tom Rodgers: At one time, the Blackfeet had dominion over 28 million acres. From Alberta, to Manitoba, to Saskatchewan, to Wyoming, to Montana, to Idaho, and into the Dakotas. We never sought to master the land. We never sought to partition it up. We never sought dominion over it. We existed with it. We didn't seek to dominate the grizzly. Or the wolf. We didn't feel the need to kill them. It was such a utilitarian European view. Let me Master the environment. Let me control it. And anything like some weird apex predator that gets in my way, I will kill.
When white settlers move into the Yellowstone region, they’re like this is our land now. We want it. So, naturally, they clash with the indigenous groups who have been here for like, THOUSANDS of years.
David Treuer: On every side of what became Yellowstone Park and on it there was war.
You’ve also heard from David Treuer before. He’s a writer and academic of Ojibwe heritage.
So, because these white settlers keep clashing with indigenous tribes, the U.S. government is like we have to stop the fighting. And to stop the fighting they officially acknowledge that the region belongs to the local indigenous groups. And they don’t just do this once. They do it TWICE.
They sign a treaty in 1851, and another in 1868.
But these treaties are basically meaningless.
David Treuer: In every corner of this country, the United States government has broken, what it refers to in its own founding documents as the supreme law of the land, which are treaties, has broken those treaties over and over and over again.
So the fighting doesn’t stop. And then, in 1872, just four years after America tells tribes, “Yes, this land is yours”.... our government creates Yellowstone National Park on that land.
David Treuer: Creating Yellowstone National Park during the plains wars is like, pausing mid murder to plant a tree in someone's backyard.
Tom Rodgers: I think the metaphor that you would use is you're at home. You're living a good life. In your beautiful home with your parents and your brothers and sisters and perhaps your cousins. And then you're told to leave. Leave your home. Someone else is coming. And they're going to take your home. And every once in a while when you live in another place that has much more poverty. There's nothing like where you used to live, perhaps you can walk by. And if you're lucky and fortunate and no one sees you, perhaps press your nose against the window pane. And see those people who took your home, took your memories and took your happiness. And that is Native Americans.
And then they moved us to their islands of poverty. And they named land that they stole from us. That they erased us from.
Once the government forces native people onto reservations, and they have control of the land, they do things like killing off all the wolves. Giving places in the park white names. Basically like who cares about the native names that existed here before.
They name monuments like Hayden Valley, after a geologist. And not just any geologist. A geologist who validated the fucked up way in which we treated the Natives.
And Mount Doane, which they named after a racist army leader who helped massacre the Blackfeet people.
Tom Rodgers: They killed over 200 women, and were instructed by a man, a Lieutenant Doane, “use the pickaxes on them.” Women and children.
And the really horrible thing is that these tribes were a group that the U.S. government had promised to protect. They had said, “We got you. Do your thing.”
So the tribes are unprepared to fight back. The men have gone off to hunt. People were suffering from smallpox. And then, the U.S. army comes in and massacres whoever they can find. And Doane brags about it. He’s really proud of himself.
Tom: And now to this day, he has a monument in Yellowstone Park named after him. And we've had to fight to rename it. We had to fight citizens of Wyoming. Park County, Wyoming. The park service. A monument named after a mass murderer.
Change, I realize, in this country moves slowly. Crisis gives it a little bit more impetus. But we move very slowly in this country because people are very reluctant to change their ways.
For so long we have not been able to tell our story. That story needs to be told to our children. I did not learn that lessons in school.
I think that America needs to see with new eyes and be truly educated and informed of what their ancestors did.
But I never want you should to have history imprison you. And I mean this. You should have it inform you.
How do we do that?
How do we recognize that we’re settlers, learn about genocide, the murder of innocent women and children, and not let it paralyze us?
Anger and disappoint us to the point of not wanting to be a part of any of this at all?
How do we own our history?
How do we help the people that we condemned to reservations and poverty?
How do we repent and make amends? Turn THIS into a do-over?
What does it look like for history to inform and guide us-- how we treat not just Yellowstone, but all of our national parks?
David: It’s just a little thought experiment I had that the only remedy for the theft of land is land. Period. And so what better way to both acknowledge the past and to make amends? What better way to sort of make justice, this virtue of American democracy an actually lived ideal? What better way than to return the parks, to tribes, all of them to be controlled, and managed by a consortium of all the tribes in the country managed on behalf and for the benefit of all Americans? What if we manage them and control them with certain covenants in place, conservation being a key part of that.
I think my idea is, is a modest one. I don't think it's a big idea. Someone actually said to me in a, in an interview, like, well, this is a pretty radical, pretty big idea. I'm like, you know, it's a pretty radical idea is to keep enabling theft. What’s radical is not to give parks back to their original and rightful owners to manage for everybody. That's not radical, what's radical is to steal them and to pretend like you didn't, and to then mismanage them into the ground. That's radical. My idea is pretty sensible, in comparison to that.
But ideas like David’s, they’re rarely popular.
You know, if we look at slavery. It’s more recent than the Native American genocide. But the idea of reparations? That’s not popular.
And not just reparations. So many Americans freak out at the idea of teaching kids about racism, our country’s racism-- critical race theory-- in school.
The 14th amendment passed more than a hundred and fifty years ago. And America, as a country, still hasn’t given Black people the full rights that we promised. They are still fighting. Waiting for things to change.
And you know, the history of our country is undeniably dark, painful, fucked up.
But America is really good at telling a story-- telling the story of how we strive to be a more perfect union. The story of how we once enslaved Black people and then elected a Black man as president.
The story of how we destroyed this land with the industrial revolution, and now we’re saving it with blue recycling bins and green jobs.
But the stories we tell ourselves must include the fact that we’ve done real harm. That there are stories, and lands, and people we’ve attempted to erase.
There are people who are waiting on us. Our apologies. Our amends.
There’s this idea in America, that we are the one country where change actually happens. That there are things to be hopeful for, but that they come about slowly. That we must WAIT.
But there’s a difference between patience and inaction.
There’s a difference between wanting a more perfect union, and having the courage to create it.
And maybe I’m naive in even believing this, but I believe we can.
I mean, I come from a country that’s lived under a military rule for more than half of the time it’s existed. Where there is talk of democracy, but never a free or fair election.
So, I believe in an America that has courage. That can at least build the courage to tell a truer story of how it was created.
A National Parks Service that acknowledges the sacrifices, the erasure, the genocide that led to “America’s Best Idea.”
And I believe that the story isn’t over.
We get to decide how it ends.
So yes, there is a lot we haven’t done, but I do believe in the hype of hope. The more perfect union being something that WE are working towards. Not the government. Us, the people.
A more perfect union where we protect our native histories, where we change the names of monuments honoring racists, where we return the parks we stole to the natives.
Or at least-- where, the next time we go to a National Park, we do it with open eyes.
Tom Rodgers: If I could ask anything of you...in your journeys to these beautiful parks. If you have a moment, to take somebody aside and just be at one person, one person can make a difference. And tell them how this all started. And tell them how it can be healed. Tell the story. And then ask them to tell somebody else.