Re-mythologizing Yellowstone: Part 2 - Yellowstone is not Teddy's to give
by Jim Macdonald
Essay series thesis: Many of the traditional myths about Yellowstone National Park are not only false, they are far worse: They point to ideas that are wrong about society at large, reinforcing exploitation and disempowerment. Nevertheless, Yellowstone lends itself well to myth; we should consider new ways to celebrate this magical place. Read Part 1.
Part 2 argues that the myths considered in Part 1 are harmful, often reinforcing paternalistic and hierarchical ideas that have been passed off as virtues. In some cases, the myths reinforce traditions that either should be challenged or should be made less exclusive.
In looking back at where we are, we can see what still lays on the horizon of our journey, even if we don't state things as precisely or as correctly as we could.
The background of the photo headlining this essay shows Abiathar Peak. Back in 2005, I hiked the Lamar River Trail and later scanned some photos from the journey. I believed I was looking at The Thunderer. That is how I labeled the picture until one day I had a peculiar hunch that I was wrong. In examining photos and reading about the mountains in northeastern Yellowstone, I realized that the mountain I was staring at - with Soda Butte and a couple of tiny hikers in the foreground - was in fact Abiathar Peak.
If I had continued on believing that The Thunderer was Abiathar Peak, I doubt I would have come to any harm. Perhaps, I would have been surprised one day when I was hiking on one and discovered that I was on the other. Yet, there are no mythic consequences to my belief. I have not pointed to any other truth. The Thunderer seems to be quite the mythic name - and perhaps those who named it are to blame for my mistake - but on the whole, no one is perpetuating a myth by misnaming their photographs.
That is the central point of Part 1 of the essay. Myth is distinct from falsehood. Yet, some of the historical falsehoods that we considered are in fact mythical. Their being mythical, that is the purported use of a story to illustrate some other truth, does not necessarily make them successful at their ambitious aims. While some myths are quite successful in pointing us to a rich discussion of truth - for example, consider the thousands of years people have pondered and wondered about Plato's "Parable of the Cave" in Republic - others can have the tendency to reinforce unsound judgments about the world.
In Part 2 of this essay, we are going to consider four myths about Yellowstone, and I am going to try to explain to you why I believe that all of them are harmful. To refresh your memory, we are going to consider these myths (which all happen to be literally false):
- the myth that Teddy Roosevelt created Yellowstone National Park
- the myth that the national park idea - specifically the Yellowstone National Park idea - arose during a campfire discussion among those on the 1870 Washburn Expedition
- the myth that the celebration of Christmas in Yellowstone on August 25 was started spontaneously by snow-stranded visitors of the Old Faithful Inn during the 1920s
- the myth that Jellystone - complete with Yogi Bear and friends - is synonymous with Yellowstone.
Teddy Roosevelt not only did not give us Yellowstone National Park, but also we shouldn't even believe that Yellowstone was ever anyone's to give.
I am going to go after the largest game of all first. As I've worked on gathering news about Yellowstone, it's not uncommon for me to find people who give thanks to Teddy for setting aside Yellowstone. I find that I can't help correcting them, perhaps because I have a peculiar disdain for this particular belief. Most people are happy that I have set them straight, but most people go on to say that they are still thankful for all that Teddy Roosevelt did to preserve public lands. Instead of feeling less thankful to Teddy, they ultimately feel just that much more thankful to President Grant, who signed the act creating Yellowstone National Park into law.
It won't make me popular among a lot of circles to say it, but I am not thankful to Teddy Roosevelt (or U.S. Grant).
If we concentrated solely on the history of Teddy Roosevelt, I'd have plenty of negative things to say. Perhaps, the one that riles me the most was his attitude toward the American Indian. This is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt in January 1886:
"I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth." (quoted in the pdf presentation "Genocide Against the American Indian, Destruction of the Buffalo, & Imperialism in Iraq" by Jim Macdonald)
See "The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian" by Wolfgang Mieder for an interesting discussion of the reference. Might this quote be falsely attributed? It hardly matters; the actions of the man are more indicative of the environmental destruction and genocidal instincts of the man. Roosevelt, the eastern man of wealth, traveled west and loved to hunt bison. While Roosevelt was not one of the market hunters who wiped out bison for profit as part of the U.S. policy (as part of Grant's so called "peace policy") that was used to drive Plains tribes into the reservations, he was an eager hunter. He certainly had no opposition to the slaughter until he and others realized that the extinction of the American bison would also mean the extinction of sportsmen like himself. He and other wealthy men founded the American Bison Society not so much to protect the animals and certainly not to protect indigenous interests but rather to protect something of the way of life that had been lost as a result of the mass buffalo slaughter. See "Teddy Roosevelt and The Winning of the West" for more evidence of Roosevelt's justification for genocide.
When Theodore Roosevelt was President, the United States Forest Service was founded. Lands that had been set aside as forest preserves were organized under the Forest Service and placed under the United States Department of Agriculture in 1905. In fact, that was the main effect of the law that Roosevelt signed. Prior to 1905, forest lands that had been set aside in 1891 (under Benjamin Harrison) were under the Department of the Interior, the same department that had at least nominal control of Yellowstone National Park (it was more than nominal, but at that time, the cavalry enforced laws in Yellowstone). The new Forest Service was in the hands of Gifford Pinchot, who believed in the "multiple use" theory of public lands. The forests were there to serve human interests. As such, preservation was not the intrinsic aim of the new Forest Service, but rather the usefulness to various sectors of the population.
The historical Teddy Roosevelt supported the plunder of land and resources from native inhabitants and supported conservation only so far as it preserved the kinds of uses that Teddy favored. While the national parks have also never exactly been bastions of preservation, the national forests have been far less so. In fact, a case can be made that many of the lands previously set aside are less preserved than they might have been had Roosevelt never been president.
However, we are not really here to talk about the historical Theodore Roosevelt. We are here to talk about Teddy the myth. While it's worth knowing about the historical complexities of Roosevelt in order to understand a lot of the environmental controversies today, some will argue that the value of the story about Teddy and Yellowstone rests not in history but rather in the idea that there is a great virtue in philanthropy. Great men do great things, and one of the things that great men do is preserve beautiful places for all posterity. Perhaps, when we contradict the Teddy myth, some will say we are contradicting the supposedly great virtue of magnanimity.
To the dismay and perhaps the disgust of many, I am here to dispute the Teddy myth. Even if Teddy Roosevelt had not been the man whose historical attitudes and actions disgusted me, even if he had been a man closer to what the mythology tells us he was, I would still find nothing to celebrate in the myth of Teddy Roosevelt. Why?
The entire story of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as the campfire story to follow, suggests that we are indebted to the foresight of particular people for the goods we have today. We see this over and over again in people's stories about the Founding Fathers, in the celebration of war leaders, and the like. Unfortunately, these stories reinforce the notion that great men (or people, but more commonly men) make history and therefore our present reality possible. This worldview suggests that there are lesser people who don't matter in the story and that there is an act of power on the part of the magnanimous person that is fully appropriate, especially if the consequences of the act are desirable. We give our gratitude to our great "Fathers;" this is called patriotism (which essentially means "father").
Implicit in this view is the idea that places like Yellowstone are there for great people to provide for us. Without these great men, there would be no such place. Secondly, implicit in the view is that it's good that great men provide for people in the way that fathers provide for their children. Hence, we see over and over, Presidents of the United States gladly take on the patronizing title of "Great Father" in communicating with indigenous people.
Unfortunately, men have used the analogies of parenting in order to assert their moral authority not only over other people but also over the environment itself (which unfortunately has been used in reverse to suggest the political rule of parents over their children - a discussion for another time). Just as some men of Roosevelt's time asserted their authority over lands held by American Indians, others asserted their mineral, water, and agricultural rights over land. The general run of paternalism is the illegitimate placing of one person over another. Where that separation exists, the fundamental relationship between beings is destroyed. Unfortunately, given this hierarchical dynamic, some will talk about the enlightened despots, the benevolent dictators, and other fanciful creations of human minds who are somehow virtuous despite the place they hold for themselves over other beings. In the American context, where we pretend that representative democracy is either truly representative or a democracy, we shy away from such brutal terminology; however, the idea is the same. Great leaders provide for all of their people.
Yet, we do not ever belong to any of these people, and any act that perpetuates the notion that great leaders are doing us a favor perpetuates the arbitrary divide between people. Furthermore, no one owned Yellowstone, and no one was entitled to set Yellowstone aside (for the reasons for that point of view, please see these essays I wrote earlier this year). Stuck in this myth is the idea that people are lords over the land who may do good or ill with it; and we should be thankful for the lords who do good for the people and their land. They rule and give to people; they rule and do good with land. Yet, there is a fundamental problem in this point of view. It keeps us who are left out of the politics of the great deeds from being able to be actors in the relationship with the land. Today, we expect government to do this, or this corporate interest to do that, or this NGO to do such and such. It is their responsibility; it's not ours. We praise the politician who does not sell out; we decry most of those who do. However, for ourselves, we have nothing to say. We are common and don't aspire to greatness. We can't all be as great as Teddy; all we can do is our own part. It presumes that greatness is the credential of the few and that great acts belong only to them. In truth, they never had the entitlement to these acts in the first place.
In historical truth, of course, many actors had some role in creating Yellowstone National Park. Grant did not establish Yellowstone; it was established by an act of Congress, passed by both houses, introduced by members of the Congress at the request of citizens, some of them belonging to the Northern Pacific Railroad. That reality was made plausible by lobbying efforts, art and photography, evidence from explorations, newspapers accounts, magazine accounts, speeches, and so on and so forth. Yet, even those acts, as myriad as they are, still don't get the point that Yellowstone owes us nothing for setting it aside as a national park.
By lifting up Teddy the great land preserver, we pretend that there is something good about a system that keeps people divided from their leaders and keeps people divided from their land. It's fundamentally disempowering; it's fundamentally backwards.
As a myth, it should therefore go by the wayside. It's not only a historical monstrosity to attribute this to Teddy Roosevelt, it's a mythical one as well.
For much the same reasons as the Teddy myth should be set aside, the campfire myth should be set aside as well, though it is a better myth than the Teddy myth.
Cornelius Hedges supposedly spoke out against all the schemes that the members of the Washburn Expedition (minus Truman Everts, who was lost on his own remarkable journey) had in dividing up the lands for their own good. He supposedly said that Yellowstone should be set aside as a national park for all the people. In a subtle way, this is different than the Teddy myth. While most of the members of the Washburn Expedition were prominent citizens of Montana, no one has really ever heard of them. For a man like Hedges to have the foresight to set Yellowstone aside as a national park suggests not so much the idea of a great father doing a great thing but rather a common man doing a great thing for all common people. He might have profited; however, the Hedges story suggests not so much magnanimity but generosity of the human spirit. Isn't this just the kind of story we want to raise up in a national park, one set up "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people"? Certainly, a lot of other civilian administrators in the park thought so and continue to think so (even some who no longer believe in the historical veracity of the myth).
While most likely historically false, one must admit that as a myth this is an improvement over the Teddy myth. We have to like the idea that any one of us might be able to do a great thing if put in the right circumstance. This suggests the heroism of the common soldier in battle rather than the great General. We have to like that idea just as we like common heroes, just as we embrace Huckleberry Finn and Rocky Balboa. It seems to fit in better with Western history; a history that embraces scoundrels of various types. We like this very much.
Yet, here again, something is amiss. Why is Cornelius Hedges thought to be so great? Who is being left out of the myth? How can we not notice the irony of this adventurer being praised for a national park in a land that was already inhabited by indigenous people? That's not only historically relevant but mythically relevant as well. Hedges was not simply the common man; he was the adventurous common man. In that sense, don't we have every reason to ask by what right does he presume as adventurer to stake his point of view over the land no matter how beneficial it is to his people? If Neil Armstrong had claimed that the moon should be off limits to human exploitation, some would surely see that as admirable, but why does Neil Armsrong get to speak on behalf of the moon or anyone else who might come into contact with it? How does one person's act speak to the relationship that all of us should have with a place? The myth doesn't just say, "Wouldn't it be nice if no one profited off of this land?" The myth says that they all took the idea seriously and strove to make it happen. It's not a fanciful idea but a call to action, a particular call to action that doesn't take other people into account and certainly doesn't take the land, animals, and plants into account. The land is still beholden to the whims, however benevolent in intent, of humanity.
Again, the problem is a sense of entitled place in respect to everything else. It's certainly more empowering to suggest that one day we might be adventurers who do good deeds; however, what good is that if our fundamental sense of entitlement is so out of whack? When American soldiers go to Iraq, I'm sure there are still many of them out there doing good deeds. Some defuse bombs that would kill people indiscriminately, some offer medical care to all sides, and yet the war in Iraq remains paternalistic at its core. We think of Iraq in terms of what "we can do" for the Iraqi people. Or, some who are less generous think about what we are doing in Iraq can do "for the American people." Yet, throughout this, so many people and things are being left out. No one thinks of the desires of the land, the water, the people who are being "helped." Just being part of that, even in the role of helping, fundamentally preserves the illegitimate hierarchical attitudes we have toward other beings.
In just the same way, the campfire myth does the same.
Christmas in Yellowstone is unlike the other myths in that there is nothing inherently paternalistic about it; however, as presented reinforces some exclusion. Perhaps, slight changes to the myth might suffice.
I must admit that I always loved Christmas in Yellowstone. During my summers in the park, I perhaps enjoyed no other tradition more. We'd get to dress up, decorate the store, and play holiday music. On two different years, they even put my frame (at the time, about 145 pounds) into Santa Claus outfits. I always hated the idea of Santa Claus, but the temptation to act was too great. We had laughter, fun, and great food. There were employee skits, gift exchanges, and a sense at times that it really was Christmas.
Last summer, I was in Yellowstone on August 25 and was staying in Canyon Village at the time. Each day, I had at least one meal at the Fountain in the Yellowstone General Store. It seemed that I always had the same waitress from Poland. She and I talked a bit about her experience in the park, and she felt that her employers had not been upfront with her. She was struggling just to raise the money just to get back to Poland where she was a medical student. During one of our conversations, I mentioned that the tradition of Christmas in Yellowstone was not what was being told in the store. She spoke closer to my ear, "It doesn't surprise me; I don't trust anything these people tell me." In the same store, I talked to an older worker who was dismayed that Christmas was being de-emphasized by Delaware North, who operate the general stores. The worker said that their bosses felt that "Christmas" was too religiously exclusive and that they were to say the more politically correct, "Happy Holidays."
I mention the two stories to bring out a couple different sorts of ideas. The waitress from Poland had already dismissed her employers as liars; for her, there already was no Santa Claus. The myth of Christmas in Yellowstone was meaningless to her before I even opened up my mouth. For her, it was a work day to deal with a reality that was different than one promised when recruiters sought employees in Poland. At most, she could say it was good because the older workers had something to enjoy. In the other, the myth had lost its force because it was being challenged paternalistically by those who would enforce greater openness and sensitivity to people with different traditions.
Indeed, the Christmas myth is not necessarily one that appeals to non-Christians. It hearkens back to traditions of the wealthy people who frequented the grand hotels as the stagecoach era was giving way to that of the automobile. The United States and the West in reality was always more diverse than the image many have of it, but the spontaneous celebration of stranded visitors still speaks to old fashioned values. For some, those old fashioned values are the racist and intolerant ones that were in fact true.
Most people, however, would not put such a cynical spin on the tradition; I suspect that most people simply thought of it as a homage to Yellowstone's peculiar and extreme weather. It was a witty joke on the tourists, a way for workers to celebrate together. It was never intended to be exclusive but inclusive, and that's the way most people see it - and perhaps rightfully so.
That the history involved employers pulling the wool over the eyes of their employees - as employers are prone to do - is not particularly relevant to the myth, which puts the foundation squarely in the hands of people spontaneously coming together with a shared affinity for celebration and play. That by itself is a beautiful idea.
Yet, as long as the myth of Christmas in Yellowstone remains in the hands of the employers and not the employees, the myth isn't fully folklore. Furthermore, until the myth does fully embrace the idea of inclusion, then it's not a myth befitting of a place where the enjoyment of people and the protection of plants, animals, and land exist in one place. That is, Delaware North is not wrong to suggest that the Christmas myth is not fitting for all people or all employees as it is commonly told and that there is a contradiction in that. Yet, it's odd that they are the arbiters of the myth.
Thus, the criticism of the Christmas in Yellowstone myth is more measured. Perhaps, if the myth wasn't owned by the concessionaires but was rather truly shared spontaneously by people who sought to be inclusive - which is in fact the spirit of the celebration - it would better hit the mark. During all my years, though workers did the vast majority of the planning, we all did so within the confines of management. Christmas in Yellowstone was never truly a choice. Though many of us loved it - some did not - how ironic that all the while we were still confined to the actual history we didn't even know about. The employers created Christmas in Yellowstone; they still held the reigns. Making it "Happy Holidays" from on high makes it no less so even if that's exactly the direction we should take it.
Finally, Jellystone reinforces many of the same perverse ideas that people have about what Yellowstone should be.
I'm barely old enough to have seen the old Yogi Bear cartoons, and I frankly don't remember them too well. I remember imitating Yogi's voice, "Hey BooBoo." To be honest, I don't remember much if any association with Yellowstone National Park, which I rarely if ever thought about throughout my childhood. Like many people I come across, I doubt I would have been able to say much more about the difference of Yosemite to Yellowstone than that Old Faithful was in the latter (and many can't say that much).
And, yet, to this day, the idea of Yellowstone as Jellystone is very strong. I remember so clearly people coming up to me and with a smirking grin on their face ask me where Yogi Bear was, as though I had never heard that one before. That idea may have been reinforced by the images we still occasionally see of a Yellowstone where black bears begged for food on the side of the roads, by amusement parks, by campgrounds that exist all over the country - some named Jellystone - where all kinds of modern conveniences exist.
The myth represents to us a place of fun, amusement, where bears and humans can interact and have personality. Why would anyone want to put a damper on that?
Anyone who has driven through Yellowstone knows that when there are significant numbers of cars parked by the side of the road, an animal of interest is near. The larger the number of vehicles, the more likely it is to be a bear. Perhaps, that anecdote is literally false - I have not done the measurements - but we know that there is a great deal of truth in the statement. No one pulls over for pine trees; no one pulls over for chipmunks; no one pulls over for the vast majority of things that exist in the park. Yet, bears have a particular pedestal in the public imagination, a pedestal that existed long before Yogi Bear and even long before Yellowstone became a national park.
Nevertheless, Jellystone reinforces the relationship with Yogi Bear as almost worthy of us. Of course, he's not as smart, tends to do stupid things, and needs a wise human like Ranger Smith to keep everything together. The bear essentially is the human pet, there for us. So too is the park; amusement is defined by the goodies we can play with. What can be more amusing than talking bears!
My sense is that the National Park Service has long been embarrassed by the Jellystone myth and has sought to distance itself from it; nevertheless, it lives on. It lives on in the recreational industry, who would turn Yellowstone into a playground of snowmobiles. It lives on in the disappointment I heard from many that Yellowstone doesn't have golf courses, has too many rules, serves its animals and features more than it serves its people. In dealing with the push back on services, the Park Service and its concessionaires have created hotels, offered fireside ranger programs, and in recent years brought satellite television and wifi into the dormitories and cell phone service into the park. Long ago, Yellowstone opened its doors to our favorite toys - our cars.
While humans going back so many thousands of years have had an active role in the Yellowstone ecosystem and play is an essential part of living, the way we play is just as important. If our sense of play is to create a hierarchy of animals and treat the ones who might just talk back to us as the ones most dear to us (however subservient they remain), then Yellowstone will always simply be an extension of Jellystone. If play, however, can be something else, something that doesn't exist on a playground of better and worse sorts of beings, then Yellowstone could be something else.
We might be able to take something from even the worst of myths.
I have no idea how one might even begin to salvage a myth like Jellystone, or for that matter, most of the other myths considered. Yet, each speaks to something perhaps that makes my own condemnation seem harsh. While the Teddy myth perhaps is bankrupt in so many respects, it's certainly worthwhile to believe that people before us were virtuous. We would like to give thanks for something. It can't all be bad, and it's not. Our fond memories of play, of opening presents, of discovering new things for ourselves, of adventure are not bad instincts or bad memories even if some of the myths that inspire these things are not helpful. We cannot destroy the spirit that gets joy from these tales. Thus, we need to ask ourselves what's to be done. That is, how might we re-mythologize Yellowstone? We will have to consider that next time. All the same, we cannot look uncritically at the past as though it is innocent. That myth is not compelling and is often used to perpetuate the injustices that exist today. We need, as the lyricist once sang, "new dreams tonight" (before his idea was to use the magnanimity of great leaders to rid the world of poverty and AIDS). "How long must we sing this song," - dear Bono and everyone else.
Here's what's to come.
Now that we have looked at the relationship of false beliefs about Yellowstone to myth (Part 1) and argued that the particular myths considered are harmful, we cannot draw the conclusion that our stories of Yellowstone should not be shrouded in mythology. Even if not all myths about Yellowstone are good myths, if any place lends itself to mythology, it's a wonder like Yellowstone. What kinds of myths might we dream?
Part 3 will consider ways we might re-establish myths in Yellowstone, at least considerations that might playfully and truthfully challenge the ways we are prone to think about this magic place ("magic", eh?)
Read Part 1: True and false, history and myth
Read Part 3: A new Wonderland to behold
see also of some relevance:
The Magic of Yellowstone History Guide (includes papers and small essays about the history of Yellowstone and place names)
Forthcoming Yellowstone essays (talks a little about my initial thoughts concerning these essays)
Tell Bush that Benjamin Harrison did not establish Yellowstone National Park in 1891! (about the White House's strange faux pas on a presidential trivia page)