OLD FAITHFUL—Tom Wadsworth read straight from the 154-year-old treaty that displaced his ancestors from their land as he made a case that Shoshone and Bannock tribal members should be allowed to hunt, fish and gather inside Yellowstone National Park. 

Signed at Fort Bridger on July 3, 1868 in what’s now southern Wyoming, the treaty granted the Shoshone and Bannock native people the right to “hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States” in perpetuity, so long as game was found and peace with white people maintained. 

Yet, today, with a few exceptions, hunting isn’t allowed by tribal members or anyone else in Yellowstone or the rest of the National Park Service’s 400-plus units in the Lower 48. Wadsworth, the captain game warden for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, suggested the federal government didn’t uphold its end of the deal. 

“This is what gives us the right to keep hunting,” Wadsworth, with treaty text in hand, told a crowd of his tribal members inside a Yellowstone gymnasium. “And … I want y’all to realize that hunting doesn’t just mean going out and hunting animals. It also means fishing, it also means gathering — we did not have a word in our language to differentiate between those things.” 

Chad Colter, the fish and wildlife director for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, speaks at an Old Faithful tribal gathering in August 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Wadsworth is not alone in calling for change. Tribal leaders, Park Service administrators, legal scholars and others are reconsidering the past and reimagining a Park Service future in which Native American tribes play a much larger role. Amid Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary, there’s a growing sense that it’s time to reverse historical wrongs, honor treaty promises, recognize Yellowstone and other parks as traditional Indigenous lands and incorporate tribes into National Park Service decision-making. 

Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone, a 94-page article recently published in the Wyoming Law Review, outlines several paths that could reverse course on a century and a half of ignoring, erasing and marginalizing the history of Indigenous exclusion, absence and disconnection from Yellowstone. 

“Yellowstone can once again change the world,” authors Kekek Jason Stark, Autumn Bernhardt, Monte Mills and Jason Robison wrote. “Ultimately, re-indigenizing Yellowstone can restore the shine to the nation’s original crown jewel and help ensure that all Americans can look forward to the park’s next 150 years and beyond.” 

Pivot point

The National Park Service has embraced Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary as a historical pivot point and an opportunity to mend tribal relations and bolster Native American involvement. Much of the effort has been ceremonial: There have been roundtable discussions, teepee villages erected, a rematriation performance and artwork showcase and other activities and gatherings celebrating Yellowstone’s tribal heritage. At the Shoshone-Bannock gathering where Wadsworth spoke, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly presented the tribe’s chairman, Nathan Small, with a medallion adorned with 23 bison to symbolize all that remained of the species before bison were brought back from the brink at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch more than a century ago. 

Shoshone-Bannock Chairman Nathan Small and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly converse at an Old Faithful tribal gathering in August 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Now there’s over 6,000 [bison]. I call that a start,” Sholly told Small. “It’s extremely inspiring to have you here. The 150th anniversary of Yellowstone, it’s something that’s important to not only Americans, but people around the world — it’s America’s first national park — but we realize that it has a different meaning for many of you.” 

Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Nathan Small examines a medallion gifted to him by Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Twenty minutes earlier, Shoshone-Bannock Land Use Policy Commissioner Darrell Shay said as much. “It’s not really a celebration,” Shay said. “Because this is ours, we never gave it up. We were the last group of Indians that were here, and we got shipped out — forced out by the cavalry.” 

Pawnee Nation tribal member and attorney Brett Chapman called the park’s recent tribal outreach a “complete PR stunt,” in an interview with E&E News

Amid such criticism, Sholly has maintained that he is making an earnest effort to bring about a new era of tribal-park relations. 

Darrell Shay, a land-use policy commissioner for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, speaks at an August 2022 Old Faithful gathering that honored his peoples’ ancestral connection to Yellowstone National Park. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Maybe people don’t believe it, maybe we need more time [and] trust to build, but that is a two-way street,” Sholly told a panel during a discussion about sovereign relations in Yellowstone at a sesquicentennial symposium in Cody. 

‘Give us access’

“I think what we’re asking for is to allow us to tell our story, but also allow us to have access,” Eastern Shoshone Business Council Member and historian John Washakie said during a panel discussion on Native people’s historical and cultural connections to the park. “Give us access. We won’t disturb things, we won’t bother things. We’ll just take what we need.” 

In 2016, the National Park Service modified its regulations to allow federally recognized tribes to gather and remove plants or plant parts for traditional, non-commercial purposes, but the result isn’t a blanket entitlement. Tribes must strike agreements with the federal agency specifying what plants may be gathered, what quantities and which tribal members are permitted. That hasn’t happened in Yellowstone, but Sholly told WyoFile that those discussions are underway.

“The difficulty with Yellowstone is you have 27 different affiliated tribes, and it’s important to understand what the cumulative gathering request is by all those tribes,” he said. “What do the tribes want to collect? How much? Where? We’ll assess that and make determinations from there.” 

In conjunction with Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary, the organization Mountain Time Arts put on Yellowstone Revealed, a series of place-based projects by an inter-tribal group of Indigenous artists and scholars that included this teepee village. (NPS/Ashton Hooker)

Hunting in the park is a different beast. 

The Lacey Act — established decades after the 1868 Fort Bridger Treaty promised the Shoshone and Bannock they could “hunt on the unoccupied lands” — prohibited unauthorized hunting, killing and capturing any bird or wild animal in Yellowstone and, later, other federal lands. According to the Wyoming Law Review article, near the turn of the 20th century a Bannock leader from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation named Race Horse agreed to kill seven elk in Uinta County and be taken into custody to test the tribe’s treaty rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state game laws still applied, even when they conflicted with treaty rights. That ruling held precedent for over 120 years until 2019 when the court ruled in Herrera v. Wyoming that a Crow Tribe member’s off-reservation treaty hunting rights remained intact.

“The Supreme Court reaffirmed those continuing rights in the national forest,” Mills, a Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone co-author who directs the University of Washington’s Native American Law Center, told WyoFile. “Conceivably, although it hasn’t been tested yet, ShoBan have those rights too, because their treaty language is essentially the same [as the Crow’s].” 

National Park Service administrators have historically argued that Yellowstone was “occupied” — and thus exempt from the right to hunt “unoccupied lands” — when it became a national park in 1872. 

Scholars see two ways to “test” tribal rights and settle the question about access to hunting in places like Yellowstone. One, a Shoshone-Bannock member could follow Race Horse’s example and force the courts to decide directly in the post-Herrera world by hunting in the park. Another way forward, Mills said, is through collaboration and co-management. That’s been the formula for tribal bison hunting outside of national park boundaries. 

Wadsworth, the Shoshone-Bannock captain game warden, told WyoFile he favors the collaborative approach. 

“That step would be a government-to-government meeting, between the tribes and the Park Service, to move forward and see what can be done,” Wadsworth said. 

Chad Colter, the fish and wildlife director for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, listens to presentations at a tribal gathering at Old Faithful in August 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Those are complex conversations because of the number of Yellowstone-affiliated tribes involved: The Park Service recognizes 27, though Mills and others argue there are more. They are also sure to be contentious. 

“Even bison hunting outside of the park, it’s been at least 25 years of litigation,” Mills said. “The development of the [Interagency Bison Management Program], it’s just been a long process and that doesn’t even get into the treaty rights issues.”

Nevertheless, the movement to increase Indigenous access and influence over management of Yellowstone and all national parks continues to gain steam. 

Wes Martel, a former longtime Eastern Shoshone Business Council member, said that Native American National Park Service Director Chuck Sam’s two-day visit to the Wind River Indian Reservation to discuss tribal involvement and inclusion in the parks this summer was significant. Still, he does not expect change to come easy. 

“We have made progress, but today’s political climate is just so toxic,” said Martel, who now works for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — all three of those states — are very opposed to tribal issues. They’re anti-Indian, they’re anti-buffalo, they’re anti-wolf, anti-grizzly, they’re anti-conservation.”

‘Re-Indigenizing’ 

Yellowstone has made headway on improving its relations with tribes. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were attempts to use Native people essentially as props to bolster tourism. One infamous example is that of an “aboriginal exhibit” at Yellowstone Lake’s Dot Island. Businessman E.C. Waters tried but “had no luck convincing any Crow to camp in the middle of Yellowstone Lake” alongside bison for the viewing pleasure of summer tourists, according to the Wyoming Law Review article. 

In the last 30 years, federal-tribal relations in Yellowstone have changed “drastically.” “The Park Service and Yellowstone-associated tribes have sought connection,” the legal scholars write. 

There’s still a long way to go, the authors say. They don’t make specific recommendations for how the NPS and tribes should move forward in their paper, but provide “a range of options.” 

“Regardless of whatever’s the most efficient and what avenues are available,” Mills said, “really it’s as much about the process of engagement and collaboration and the relationship that’s being built between the Park Service and the tribes.” 

A trailer marked with “Land Back” — a movement to return land to Native American tribes — was parked near Patti Baldes’ ReMatriate performance at Old Faithful in August 2022. (National Park Service/Jacob Frank)

One of those paths forward they lay out is “radical realignment,” like the approach espoused by the #Landback movement. That could mean the “undoing of the large-scale displacement of tribes” and returning of the title to Yellowstone National Park. 

In their review, the law professors also offer up federal-tribal government partnership models. Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell empowered the Park Service to develop such partnerships with a 2016 secretarial order. The Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone document lists a slate of partnership templates, like co-management of the Bears Ears National Monument, which is governed in part by an inter-tribal commission.

The paper also contemplates ways to improve consultation and engagement with Indigenous people. Sholly, speaking at the Cody symposium, described the consultation status quo — which entails the NPS sending tribes formal letters about projects — as “artificial” and “bureaucratic.” Yellowstone will keep doing it to meet its statutory obligations and it’s “important,” he said, but “the real progress” is going to be made through relationship building with tribal councils and members. 

Last, the Native law scholars suggest in their Wyoming Law Review paper the Park Service could build tribal capacity through business. For example, at Grand Portage National Monument — which Sholly used to oversee as the Park Service’s Midwest Region director — the maintenance program is contracted out to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, or Ojibwe.

Ultimately, the Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone authors argue that Yellowstone and the tribes must hash out a tailor-made arrangement. 

“[E]nvisioning a new management paradigm for the world’s first national park,” they write, “must go beyond the potential of existing collaborative frameworks to ensure it functions effectively in practice.” 

In Martel’s view, Yellowstone bringing the tribes to the literal table will be key to making the nation-to-nation relationship work. The tangible actions might come along piecemeal, he said.

Wes Martel, senior Wind River conservation associate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, smiles as Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly presents him with an anniversary pin at the Wind River Inter-Tribal Gathering in Riverton June 1, 2022. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“Let’s designate areas where there could be ceremonies,” Martel said. “Let’s establish traditional use areas … We’re also talking about creating an Indigenous advisory board for Yellowstone.”  

Sholly, addressing the Shoshone-Bannock people at Old Faithful, said the ceremonies and spotlight on Indigenous issues during Yellowstone’s sesquicentennial are just the start. 

“We’ve made progress, but we have got a long way to go,” Yellowstone’s superintendent told the tribes. “We look forward to the rest of this ceremony and, most importantly, further dialogue, together in the future, about what is possible.” 

Correction: Photo captions have been updated to correctly identify Shoshone-Bannock Fish and Wildlife Director Chad Colter. -Ed.

Mike Koshmrl

Mike Koshmrl reports from Jackson on state politics and Wyoming's natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures...

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  1. Yesss!
    I would be proud to live in a nation that could re examine its past and forge a more enlightened path forward!

  2. Not that it is comparable, however since Denmark recognized the people of Greenland their right to deside all Interior matters the Inuit people now feel the joy of self government over a country that have been theirs for 1000 of years. Thats only right and natural.

  3. I live in Cherokee NC which is next to Smokey mountain national park. The administration is going to charge to Park. In his plan he was going to charge eastern band Cherokee to park. They objected and he quickly changed his rules. I wish the Cherokee could also use the Park which is historic hunting grounds for hunting and gathering , I will mention that to the council. Signed the red white man

  4. The perceived and actual problems with tribal hunting is that bison are still kept on an artificial “reservation” (YNP) that only comprises about 15% of their historic range (according to USFWS). Since MT has now decided not to base it’s game management on science, we need the federal government to step in for the purpose of protecting wild bison AS WILDLIFE in MT, must like Elk. The Gallatin & Custer National Forests already are planning to accommodate wild bison, as is the CM Russell Wildlife Preserve. Montana is big enough for wild bison on public lands, and just this summer a bull was killed while trying to re-colonize Paradise Valley. Buffalo Field Campaign is an Indigenous-founded and Indigenous-led organization advocating for sensible solutions to this conflict, and we will not rest until wild bison are treated as wildlife by the state Montana.

  5. Ironic that the article (well written by the way) is accompanied with photographs of the government (NPS Supe Sholly) giving shiny medallions to the Natives (Mr. Small). Seems that didn’t work out so well last time for the Natives.

  6. These are complicated times and extremely complicated issues, that warrant much conversation. Tribal leaders and community stakeholders all should be included in these conversations. While it is true that these lands, such as the lands in YNP, were taken by our federal government, at the same time, by the grace of what is sacred, they were preserved into perpetuity through the creation of a National Park. It was acknowledged then, and should continue to be acknowledged now, that these are unique and rare jewels, these public lands. The way these lands came to be protected is important, but more important yet, is how they remain protected! There are many things that can be done to honor the sacred and acknowledge historical violations. Opening up lands, to hunting and fishing access, that were set aside to protect and remain wild, seems counter intuitive. I wonder if there is not debate even within the tribes themselves about these things? Good, lengthy and deeply thoughtful conversations are in order. Perhaps even ceremony. We all need to step back, take a breath and ask for guidance in these matters and trust that it will be given. If you listen to the land, it can be heard! Politicizing an issue such as this would be disaster for all involved, including the land and all non human species!

  7. Just go to any reservation, even those where they are raking in obscene amounts of money from casinos, oil and gas leases, and tourism, and look at the way they take care of their land, homes and animals. That will tell you this is not a good idea.

  8. First of all – I like the idea, but also go back 150 years and only use the “‘hunting and gatgering” resources that were used back then. No modern means, and in the true sense, only take and use what is needed as back then. Nothing commercial

  9. My name is Linda Kay Harrell Branch , my family is of the Creek and Cherokee Nation. My Great Grandmother’s name was Dollar on my Mother’s side 100 percent Creek the Cherokee Nation on my Father’s side . I believe the white man stole our country and tried to eradicate us from our country, our land’s. Now the wrong must be made right. Every Tribe should have their land’s returned . As we the Natives to our country only took what we needed to survive. White man came and destroyed our country, our way of respecting our land’s and the animals as well as the land . We didn’t have the need to stripe the land and build buildings and highways. I say ” Give is our land’s back ” before it’s too late and white man has destroyed all of our land’s . We were here first . They say Black lives matter , well what about us don’t Native lives matter ?

  10. This is ludacris. If you give back Yellowstone then why don’t you give back all the lands west of the Appalachians. Wasn’t there a treaty that said that was to be Indian Land at one point. How far back do we go. Do we go back and look at the Indian take over of other Indian land and sort the tribal boundaries out that way. Oh let’s go to Europe and straighten out all those countries… let’s say we’ll go back 10,000 years why don’t we…. and give the land back to whoever occupied it at that point. This is absolute idiocy. Better yet let’s find out which tribes occupied Washington DC before Columbus and throw all those scumbags out on their heads and let the Indians take over.

    1. Yup the Fort Stanwix Contract …. It appears that I must support this notion. I feel the King James Bible was no excuse to MURDER so many Men Women and Children and steal all that land .

  11. To this day and age our government still cannot hold it’s promise to the indigenous people of our land that it has made in a treaty.Why is our government still cheating the indigenous people presently?This dishonesty has to stop and give the tribes the land that was promised to them.

  12. I have always held a heavy heart for every Indian Tribe in this country. It’s a National Disgrace what and How this Country was Brutally Stolen and there were so many Lies and promises told to Indigenous people to get this country from them. Whole nations of Indian people wiped out because they didn’t want to leave their land. Wouldn’t conform to WHITE man’s Religion. And so we just moved right in and took everything. I would Love to see them get back what is theirs. And Starr honoring every treaty that was wrote.

  13. Wokeness run amok. The history of land stealing, murder, slavery and torture between the many tribes throughout the land equals or surpasses any white man guilt.
    In our modern world, Indian people are full citizens and have every right owned by all of us. Quit whining and jump in to follow the existing laws for game management that hunters helped establish. If you want to see a mess, just go to the northern border of Yellowstone Park each fall and observe what the “indigenous” people do. Shoot, kill and let rot. Take a look at how much wildlife is still present within existing reservations. Virtually none. nuff said.

    1. If you really care about the messy hunts on YNP’s borders, you should advocate for wild bison to be treated like wildlife in Montana, beginning with the Gallatin and Custer NFs, which have amended their plans to allow same. But those “hunter laws” you tout treat bison as diseased animals, not wildlife, while treating elk as sacred even though they carry the same (cattle-originated) disease.

      1. And by “messy hunts” you mean the murderous firing squads killing pregnant females and leaving the fetuses in the gut piles. Pull the race card if you want to kill all conversation. All that does is emphasize your human-centric objectives. It is the buffalo that need their homeland back. I remember when Buffalo Field Campaign actually worked to help the buffalo. It’s too bad those days are over.

  14. While the native tribes may have a theoretical legal argument, the vast majority of Americans would not allow thus to happen. One only has to drive thru Cherokee NC, or better, try to fish the reservation streams littered with tires and old washing machines to see what would be in store for our park land.

  15. There are no primitve tribes of the late Stone Age. These tribes plan on using modern vehicles’ and modern fire arms to harvest the Yellowstone herds? The modern populations of today must follow modern hunting regulations.
    The modern regulations are used to protect the futur of wild game.

    1. The only reason regulations were placed is due to the white man killing every critter out there. The buffalo are overpopulated in Yellowstone and up to an average of 200 buffalo are killed every year when they leave Yellowstone to find food so hunting them to regulate the numbers would help.

  16. If we think further dividing an already divided nation is the answer, then by all means give tribes more privilege’s than they already have. Let them hunt wherever and whenever they want. Let them take wildlife off reservation in any amount they feel like. Better yet, let the license buying public pay to manage the wildlife for tribal members to harvest any time they feel like it. What a brilliant idea!

    1. Privileges? The ‘privilege’ to live on a reservation chosen/created by settlers? The ‘privilege’ to be alive during the 6th Great Extinction, with cows on public lands despoiling everything, while we heat up the planet? There is only one kind of ‘privilege’ that I am detecting here, sir.

  17. I and many other individuals who may or may not see this article would be ecstatically enthusiastic to the heavens about the soulful god given right that the indigenous natives freely lived upon to do as they wish and keep their way of life and have it be returned immediately or as soon as possible… they are not weaker simply because they were overpowered they just never knew that level of greed and lust or chaos until we arrived , How is it okay in anyone’s heart or mind (perhaps they have none) for us all to live around them driving cars working for an illusionary piece of paper as if the majority of people enjoy any of the lifestyles were all nearly forced into , how is it okay that we inherit such great land mass and such a poor style of living , such a poor way of life , justice, equality , freedom all of which are we’re deficient and on the verge of collapsing the ecosystem which we all thrive upon and harmony within brotherhood of men almost completely broken ! Whatever led to the cause of this success and beginning of victory I pray infinitely for more of it

  18. In the summer of 1980, give or take a year, I purchased a tribal fishing license and went to Moccasin Lake , in the Wind River Reservation, to fish. Upon arrival in the parking lot which was at the very tip of the moccasin’s toe, I found that the parking lot ended approximately 20 yards from the lake.
    There was a single wooden picnic table. The table was thoroughly marked with carved graffiti and multiple scorch marks. The ground between the parking lot down to the lake and proceeding into the water for some distance, was a litter of broken beer and liquor bottles and discarded beer cans. You could scarcely avoid stepping on the litter.
    This makes me wonder just what kind of stewardship the indigenous would practice in Yellowstone.

    1. These type of experiences must be considered as important markers that could bring negative long lasting consequences to our beloved park, if the wrong decisions come about.

  19. This defeats the whole purpose of the National park and why people visit the park to see the protected wildlife within the parks. Currently, we do not live a lifestyle based on the need for hunting and gathering but rather hunting and fishing for sport, therefore this is irrelevant.

    1. this Is not their way of life , this was not their choice , how you accept to live should not be the guide for how others must live theirs , I believe it’s important to seek understanding from not our own personal thoughts but from a multitude of the many at once

    2. I respectfully disagree. With the rise of inflation my husband and I have BOTH returned to the hunting and gathers and farming and preserving ways of the indigenous people of this country.

  20. In 7000 BC, long before the Shoshone, an ancient tribe occupied what is now Yellowstone Park. Before we re-indigenize Yellowstone, let’s find the first people who owned it, before the Shoshone, and make sure their progeny are recognized as the true owners.

    1. You do make a very great and considerate point but at the same time I feel it was always slightly more nomadic than to say and base it all off of who’s is who’s , some say the natives had no idea of possessions or ownership and that those words have no place in their native languages so also to imagine that it was free game and truly the land of the free , comm-unity not all for one but some for all access to neighboring tribes because I’m sure many tribes would visit and use the place for ceremonial purpose at any given time necessary !

    2. Sorry indigenous people. The U.S. won’t give management back hopefully. Actions speak louder than words and tribal actions across the States do not speak well for tribal management of lands, especially what could be considered the “Last Great Place”. BS

      1. What examples are you referencing? The return of the the bison range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has been a great success, so far.

        There always seems to remain a frustrating level of “no, we can’t do that” which references only a history in which we’ve never ‘done that.’ There are very few cases of federal lands being returned to the tribes, so exactly what examples are you drawing from? If the suggestion is tribes can’t manage lands because you think some reservations look poorly managed, I’d suggest learning more about reservation management policies and what systemic factors have historically been at play.