Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park
By Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004; xvii+381 pp., illustrations, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $39.95.
Most resource managers today acknowledge the great extent to which people have shaped and otherwise changed the natural environment over time. However, this awareness has not necessarily percolated into the popular consciousness. Many people still believe, for instance, that national parks represent some primeval state of nature. In their 2004 book, Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park, historian Peter Nabokov and anthropologist Lawrence Loendorf observe that—
whether scientific fact or popular impression, in the American imagination Yellowstone National Park is a place in the country where one seems to be able to find the full Ark of the West's faunal history, supposedly living in the natural wilderness habitat, in situ, 'as it was' before any humans—Indian or white—took control.
While the physical presence of American Indians in the park ended with their removal to reservations, the physical evidence of their presence nevertheless remains.
In Restoring a Presence, Nabokov and Loendorf refute the notion that American Indians historically avoided the area that now includes the park. They present a series of case studies involving the native groups whose activities brought them into contact with the greater Yellowstone ecosystem—that is, the Yellowstone plateau, adjacent mountain systems, and waterways that flow both into and out of the boundaries of the park. The authors' vast range of source materials includes the works of late 19th-century ethnographers, modern ethnohistory, and archeological studies. Recognizing the importance of the native voice, the authors relied heavily on Indian folklore and oral histories to dispel ghost stories and popular myths about why Indians avoided the Yellowstone area. Scholars often debate the historical accuracy of oral history, and Nabokov and Loendorf are well aware of the potential pitfalls; however, they assure the reader that they have appropriately sorted the accurate from stories distorted over time.
The authors have arranged the case studies according to location. Moving from east to west, they discuss how the Crow, Blackfeet, Flathead, Kootenai, Bannock, Nez Perce, and multiple groups of Shoshonean peoples affected the environment. Although the Shoshonean Sheep Eaters were the park's only permanent inhabitants during this period, these other groups influenced the Yellowstone ecosystem in some form or another.
Nabokov and Loendorf offer a particularly interesting interpretation of the Kiowa's transition from a Northern Plains tribe to a southern one, suggesting that tribal migration prior to forced removal brought Indians into contact with the park's ecosystem. Such connections to the park are not readily apparent in the historical record. In the end, they make a strong case for the reinterpretation of Yellowstone as a "multi-cultural habitat that has been visited, inhabited, shaped, and instilled with meaning by American Indians for millennia and Euro-Americans for centuries."
Restoring a Presence deserves credit as a historical study alone; and yet, its merits do not end there. Because of the style of presentation, this book is a good fit for any course on historical methodology. More than a dry recitation of the facts, the book offers a guided, behind-the-scenes tour of their research. Writing in a personal and conversational manner, Nabokov and Loendorf discuss their methodology, sharing moments of success and identifying pitfalls that other investigators may encounter themselves.
While Restoring a Presence is immensely informative and educational, its most important contribution is the conclusion. The authors issue a "call to arms," challenging historians and cultural resource management professionals—Native and non-Native—to continue where the authors have left off. With respect to Yellowstone National Park, Nabokov and Loendorf have merely proven the point. It is up to the entire heritage preservation community to integrate the concepts presented into the park's larger educational and preservation mission.
University of Oklahoma