Anarchy in Yellowstone: A people’s history of Yellowstone National Park? November 30, 2006
by Jim Macdonald In this essay, let me start by professing my ignorance. While I have read many books about Yellowstone and Grand Teton history, about the parks and area in general, I cannot say that I have made a thorough analysis of the literature that is and has been out there. In some sense, this essay is a brainstorm and a hypothesis for future research that I am strongly considering pursuing. It seems to me that there is nothing analogous to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for Greater Yellowstone, and consequently, I have been thinking that it would be worthwhile to research whether there is one and, if there is none, why such a history has never been written. If such a history exists, it certainly is not prominent. While recent books, such as Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park by Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf, have continued the work of writing indigenous peoples back into Yellowstone’s history, most of the history of the parks is written from the standpoint of the parks’ bureaucracy as well as that of the large concessions that have managed services in the parks (see for instance Selling Yellowstone: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature by Mark Daniel Barringer for a historical interpretation focused on one concessionaire in particular).
In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn looks at the history of the United States through the perspective of those who have largely been forgotten or marginalized in most other American history books. Writing American history viewed from the lens of Indians, women, African Americans, and especially the working class, Zinn writes about those struggles that often failed in American history but were deeply influential on the times in which they occurred. He also tells the story of how the upper classes used different strategies to ensure that these “people’s” movements ultimately failed.
As someone who worked five summers in Yellowstone and as a person who has been engaged in radical social movements during my six and a half years in Washington, DC, it has crossed my mind whether there is anything like a people’s history that is applicable to Greater Yellowstone. We know about grassroots social movements like those waged by Buffalo Field Campaign, we know about indigenous presence in Yellowstone and how that history had been whitewashed for so many years, and we know about protests related to the struggle to make Jackson Hole part of Grand Teton National Park. We know about the “Savages” and other workers who have worked in Yellowstone either seasonally or permanently, and some effort has been taken to write about their experiences. There are plenty of stories about the people who lived in the immediate vicinity of the parks. However, what we don’t have is a comprehensive history that looks at Yellowstone distinctly from the point of view of all of these people to see whether there are common themes of oppression, especially sexism, racism, and classism, much like we find in American history at large. To my knowledge, we have no chronicle of protest movements in Yellowstone, of worker uprisings, or of the relationship between the worker and the bureaucracy. While there are plenty of stories from the perspective of the tourist and of the rangers and bureaucrats who have managed Yellowstone, we do not seem to have much from the perspective of those who are often most affected by the management decisions that have been put in place.
For me, such a history is critical first and foremost because such stories should be told so that the rich magic that is Yellowstone is that much richer. Secondly, such a history may suggest a missing movement necessary to deal more profoundly with the issues facing Greater Yellowstone. A look at the history of Grand Teton National Park, as written in Crucible of Conservation: The Creation of Grand Teton National Park by Robert Righter, shows an alliance between the tourist industry as typified by dude ranchers, very rich men like John D. Rockefeller, the National Park Service, and large environmental organizations like the Sierra Club pitted against the National Forest Service, the livestock industry, poorer private ranchers, and those representing other private or public interests (like the hydroelectric industry). In both cases, white men of wealth and of government bureaucracies vied in a battle for control over natural resources. Ironically to some, the poorer landowners, who can hardly typify the lowest of classes, often sided against the environmentalists and waged something that looked like the shadow of a populist struggle against the almighty National Park Service and John D. Rockefeller. We see no signs of involvement from the indigenous Shoshone peoples who first inhabited the area. Anyone looking for the whole story of a people’s movement that one finds in Zinn’s book will be sorely disappointed. The great environmental wars are mostly those fought between white bureaucrats and rich white men who sometimes sided with or against each other.
If this is the case, and if the national parks and forests of the area are essentially battlegrounds whose battles are fought among those who are the stars of most of the current history books, then one must wonder seriously whether they are the same people framing the environmental and other debates that exist today in the national parks. I believe that research will show that they are the same people; and if they are the same people, who is being left out of the discussion? Should those left out be involved, and how might they be involved? What are the solutions, and how might that change the region that so many of us love?
Another way of putting this might be, “Is there a place for anarchy in Yellowstone?” That may not be a helpful way of putting it since so many associate the word “anarchy” with chaos and with the lack of rules. However, what it actually suggests is the struggle against all forms of social hierarchies and oppression. People’s movements, whether populist, anarchist, socialist, or otherwise, often garner strength from opposing a severe injustice. In opposing those injustices, many of those associated as radicals often come to the need to organize themselves differently than those responsible for the social ills they oppose, believing that the social ill is a symptom of something greater that is wrong with the way society manages itself. Might the problems that have lead to the various people’s movements in other parts of this country world suggest the need for the same movements in Greater Yellowstone? And, given the clearly hierarchical way in which those on every side of any dispute in the region organize themselves, perhaps it suggests that any people’s movement that arises might tend to be anarchist in nature – that is, seeking an abolition of the hierarchies that have created the condition and framed the terms of the debate.
Now, I could be wrong about an awful lot here, and nothing I have said should constitute anything more than the hunches that begin to develop into a well-considered argument. However, it seems to me worthwhile that no matter what one thinks about the larger ideological questions at stake that a people’s history should be written about Greater Yellowstone. When I move to the area sometime hopefully in the next year, it will be that history I begin to research and write even as I continue to work within whatever social movements exist in that region. It should also be in the interest of non-anarchists, whether they be capitalists, socialists, liberals, conservatives, or anyone of any stripe to begin such a research project so that a radical such as myself does not have the final say on the matter (and I only joke slightly when I say that). All that can be done to remember the forgotten and marginalized can then only be worthwhile as a program of study; haven’t we heard enough about former Superintendent Horace Albright from the perspectives of his friends and enemies within the bureaucracy?For more on my passion for Yellowstone, see http://www.yellowstonemagic.com.
Recently, I also wrote an essay called No Radical New Wind in Yellowstone that talks about why the new Democratic Congress is irrelevant to the issues facing Yellowstone.