Different sides of the story incorporated
CODY, Wyo. -- Depending on who tells the story, visitors to many national
and state parks across the country may get the impression that American
Indians never inhabited a particular region that in fact holds religious or
cultural significance to local indigenous peoples.
Most likely, for example, a Park Service employee will provide information
about the depth of a certain lake, its surface size, its age and other
geological information. But the story of the same area, told by an American
Indian, may include such human details as the story of a major event that
took place -- and according to many Native interpreters, that is the story
that people really want to hear.
There is more to a story about a specific site or park than just facts and
details about the geography and the wildlife.
To provide visitors with a more accurate picture of a region's history,
many national and state parks are working to include cultural information
provided by the area's indigenous inhabitants.
Donal Carbaugh, professor of communications at the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst, followed National Park Service guides at Glacier
National Park and the Blackfeet guides who interpret the same area to
record the different versions of the same area.
Here's how Park Service guides tell Glacier's story: "Glacier National Park
was established in 1910 as part of the National Park system and famous for
its glaciers and scenery. It is home to many wild animals including grizzly
bears, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats."
Sun Tours, owned by a Blackfeet company that uses Blackfeet tour guides,
describes the park this way: "Right out here on this flat there is a famous
camping area of our ancestors. From here we have vision quests, or just
camp and gather berries and roots. The federal government didn't understand
our relationship with the land: we were the first stewards of the park."
Carbaugh, a featured speaker at a recent Plains Indian Museum Seminar at
the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, was contacted by the National Park
Service to help improve tours. That project presented challenges: "What do
you call a site when it has two names?" he asked.
"The National Park Service contacted me about constructing better tours,
tours that would be affecting to people, that people would want to sign up
for. How do you train tour guides to tell stories that are fair to history?
"We need to educate people from the vantage point of different
Monuments placed at Glacier National Park honor Teddy Roosevelt; "Slippery"
Bill Morrison, a mountain man who sold some of the land to the government;
and John Stevens, an engineer who planned the railroad route through the
region. Those monuments are located at a site on the Continental Divide
called Maria's Pass, named for a cousin of Meriwether Lewis who was not on
The Park Service's information about the site excludes any mention of the
Aboriginal people that may have inhabited the area. The Blackfeet, however,
refer to the pass as Bears Pass and have a story that explains the name.
Carbaugh said a Kootenai named Koonska, who showed Stevens the way through
the pass, is not mentioned.
It is often insulting to name a site after the white people who were the
first non-Natives to see or "discover" an area which for centuries had been
paramount in the culture of the indigenous people.
Glacier National Park was Carbaugh's laboratory, but other national parks
and monuments share the same problems and are looking for solutions.
Marilyn Cross, Three Affiliated Tribes, said North Dakota is doing a good
job at seeking American Indian guides.
Mount Rushmore National Monument is now presenting cultural programs to
tell the complete story of the region from pre-contact to the present.
Other cultures are invited to present programs, all under the guidance of
Gerard Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa, and superintendent at Mount Rushmore.
Sites such as Wind Cave National Park have a connection to American Indian
tribes that have been removed from their aboriginal homelands, but
nonetheless retain creation stories about the site.
Nearly 20 tribes have a connection to Wind Cave. The park, some 28,000
acres, is part of the southern Black Hills and was part of the territory of
the Lakota and other tribes that was set aside in the 1851 Fort Laramie
The Lakota consider themselves protectors of Wind Cave and believe the
natural entrance to the cave is the exit from the middle of the Earth used
by the buffalo to inhabit the prairies. The buffalo, some elders teach,
brought the people with them.
Park Service literature reflects the involvement of the Lakota with Wind
Cave and mentions other tribes' involvement. More information will be
included in the interpretive information on the cave.
To the east of Wind Cave is a gap in the ridge on the edge of the Black
Hills, called Buffalo Gap. This is where the buffalo, with their sharp
hooves, are said to have cut through the ridges on their way to the
Today, a visitor has to look at videos and search for mention of the
American Indian involvement. A sign at the natural entrance claims that Tom
Bingham discovered the cave. The wording on the sign will change within the
year, according to park officials.
The official description of the cave includes the size of the park, and the
fact that Wind Cave is one of the world's longest and most complex.
A participant at the Plains Indian Museum seminar commented that when at
Wind Cave, they were told the story of the American Indian could not be
used because Lakota people didn't want them to use the stories.
"Oftentimes there is political baggage that comes in from both sides. One
problem with Wind Cave is [park officials] are in denial that it is sacred.
They did a study to determine whether it was sacred," said Linea Sundstrom,
archaeologist with familiarity of Wind Cave.
"The Indians are tired of hokey, insulting or rude interpretations of their
culture; this may be why they said don't tell it."
Wind Cave has some programming that explains the American Indian side of
the cave story. Tom Farrell, chief interpreter, said signage that will
include the American Indian significance of the cave will be erected within
Wind Cave will not tell any story that is not approved by the tribal
councils. Farrell said he also wants to hire American Indian interpreters
at the site.
"We have been criticized for telling the stories, and for not telling the
stories," Farrell said. "We have no fear [about] stepping into the
religious aspect; we just want to be accurate."