Eastern Shoshone Culture Center wants more Natives to visit Yellowstone as it celebrates 150 years

Yellowstone National Park turned 150 on March 1. Park officials say they are using the anniversary to work towards including more tribal perspectives and involvement in the park, Robyn Rofkar is the assistant manager of the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center at Fort Washakie told Taylar Stagner from Wyoming Public Radio about her many trips to the park over the years and what she would like to see changed to support more Indigenous visits.

Robyn Rofkar: I feel very lucky that my family has always visited Yellowstone. My grandfather’s, actually from the Flathead reservation. And I have pictures where my mom was a teenager, and they walked up through the park to visit her family. And she always loved going to the park and drugging her kids. And so, I do the same with my children and grandchildren as well.

And there’s a place called Sheep Eater cliff that we saw on the map. And it was a bit off our usual loop that we do. But I said, we’ll kind of go there and check and see what the sheep eaters have done to this place. So we went there, and it was a big disappointment. The area you exit there are potholes, you park in the parking lot, all you see is about 30 trash cans, recycling bins. And then there’s a little sign that 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 he said, and I was really disappointed.

But I’m glad that now Yellowstone Park is reaching out to natives for the 150th anniversary. They try to get the native voice and they are open to suggestions. So hopefully they can build that. Because what is a big disappointment, there could be a big opportunity for Yellowstone to expand to bring in indigenous people for talks, protests and even just to get more information.

I think there are only a few other places in the park where they mentioned the natives. We once stopped at a roadside exhibit near West Yellowstone, and it was about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe and his band, when they fled the army and came to Yellowstone Park in road in an attempt to get to Canada. And it was interesting. And I think there’s a feature called Dragon’s Mouth. And it’s kind of a little fumarole, a steam vent. And there’s a sign there that explains how Kiowa’s creation story is actually based there. Other than that, throughout Yellowstone Park, there is very little mention of native people. Nothing really, that I saw, and I went 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 don’t feel welcome there.

I know about 20 years ago we heard “Oh you can get in for free with your tribal ID”. And we try that and we get these questions. And if we said the wrong thing, “Oh, you have to get special permission from the park manager.” And sometimes we give up, it’s okay. Well, we just couldn’t go on our way, though. Now if you just show your tribal ID, they don’t interrogate you at all. He just asks if you want the brochures and maps and sends you on your way.

And you can just feel the power of the place when you’re out. Of course, mountains and woods have always been special. But Yellowstone, you can just feel this power surge, there’s all this power rumbling, which you can’t help but pick up on, but it feels like a very spiritual and powerful place. And I’m sure over the millennia every native who’s been there has felt the same way.

They are [Yellowstone Park officials] thinking that the Sheep Eaters were the only tribes that actually live there year-round. But there are ties to 29 other tribes who, you know, probably visited the area, they apparently found large earthen Camas kilns where those Camas roots that were a major part of the Shoshone diet at the time are inedible unless you roast them for three days. So they found these big Camas ovens they call. Not to mention all the other resources that are up there, bitter root pine nuts, lilies, biscuit root, all the berries and the different animal resources that the tribes lived on.

Robyn Rofkar, Deputy Director of the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center

Taylor Stagner: There is so much history and culinary knowledge there that if there is no signage, all those millions of people every year can just drive by and they wouldn’t even know it. For example, why on the 150th are our park officials thinking and doing well, well, maybe we should be more critical of the creation of this park. Like, why do you think so now?

RR: Well, I think Home Secretary Deb Haaland has a lot to do with it, which is great. Whereas now they look at history.

During the previous administration, when national park budgets were cut, there was a push, wow, why not put it back in the hands of the natives to run these places? And it’s still that idea that’s still floating around there, which would be awesome. Then we would have a real, you know, we could incorporate the real perspective and know what this land meant to people, what it still means, how they could improve it. Because yes, we want people to not only see the history of the natives, but yes, we are still here. We always try, you know, to do our best to survive and thrive. And the aboriginal culture was kind of wiped out of the park.

TS: Are there any other aspects of the birthday that you would like to talk about?

RR: Well, I just hope more tribal people come up here, more Wyoming people come up. Yeah, the crowds and traffic may be crazy, but it’s so beautiful. But it’s really something that I think everyone in the area should experience, especially all the natives. Go see where the ancestors lived. There is a lot of history there. Lots of spiritual feelings. You can feel the power of Mother Earth there.

Helen D. Jessen