Art, in many ways, is about the intersection between the human and the natural. What we create, and the process by which we create it, is about our personal experience of trying to live in this crazy, random and often violent world in which we have been placed.
In this way, the art of Yellowstone Park comes into its own. Few places on the planet are more naturally and spiritually evocative. It’s hard to be there and not question your place in the universe.
The park has always inspired great art. Long before it inspired your father’s favorite TV show, Yellowstone moved painters like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, whose work is the archetype of the Hudson River School, the painting technique that makes the natural world look like a dream, forever stuck in the golden hour.
William Henry Jackson’s photography of the park helped solidify it as America’s first national park. Even Frank Jay Haynes has captured views of Yellowstone so iconic they’ve become postcards, inexpensive souvenirs tourists can pass around when they get home.
Art helps us tell Yellowstone’s story. But something was missing. All of these artists were white men from elsewhere. Moran was English, Bierstadt German. Jackson and Haynes came from the East Coast and the Midwest. Yellowstone’s story is often told by visitors, passers-by who are soon leaving for the next adventure.
That’s what Mountain Time Arts is trying to solve. The Bozeman-based nonprofit has built a reputation in recent years as one of the region’s top arts providers. Their specialty is public work with an appreciation of people and places. It usually takes place on location in a natural location and emphasizes storytelling, especially that of indigenous people. Mountain Time Arts is particularly interested in using art as education, as a way to teach people about the land they are on and the people who have been there for a long, long time.
In the past, Mountain Time Arts has done projects at the Missouri Springs near Three Forks and some multimedia presentations at Story Mill in Bozeman.
Their focus on the relationship between people and the land made Yellowstone a natural fit. Mountain Time Arts presented a series of events under the “Yellowstone Revealed” banner. The projects ran from Wednesday August 17th to Sunday August 28th at various locations in the park.
The project’s epicenter was in the Madison Valley, near Madison Junction, the “All Nations Tipi Village,” an exhibit of tipis that served as a gathering place for Indigenous cultural ambassadors to share stories of their people’s connection with the park. There were also performances at the site by opera singers and Supaman, an Apsáalooke rapper.
There were also other places around the park. Patti Baldes’ “REMATRIATE,” a visual art piece featuring drummers and dancers, performed at Madison and Old Faithful. More mobile was the “ReVisiting Cultural Landscapes through Stories” project, a series of interpretive trips from the Norris area to explore locations around the park, led by Indigenous storytellers.
The longest running was the “Lighted Tipis: Resiliency of the People” installation, a series of seven tipis at the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner presented by the Pretty Shield Foundation. The teepees were lit in bright technicolor each night of the facility, bringing light to an area of the park that has seen an appalling amount of darkness.
The “All Nations Tipi Village” was originally intended to be in Gardiner as well. But after flooding washed out the park’s north entrance road, the plan was changed, moving the venue to the Madison area.
It ended up being a blessing. Madison is generally considered a waypoint in Yellowstone, not a destination. It is nearly equidistant between the two largest geyser basins in the park, Norris and Lower Geyser Basin. There is a great campground in Madison, but not much else. This is a place to drive by for more fun.
Not this time. With a destination like the “Teepee Village” giving an excuse to stop in Madison, it was eye-opening. When you get to tread the ground, and not just pass in a vehicle, Madison comes to life. This is where the Gibbon River empties into the Firehole, forming the Madison, the river that meanders through Quake Lake and Bear Trap Canyon, eventually flowing into two other rivers to form the mighty Missouri. The Madison Valley is where much of the West begins. It was a perfect staging area for storytelling.
“The river gently flows through there,” said Shane Doyle, an educational and cultural consultant who started the “Teepee Village.”
There were 13 teepees in all, located in a line along a bend in the Gibbon, a few yards from where it converges with the Firehole. There are 27 tribal nations officially recognized as having ties to the Yellowstone region. Twelve of the tipis had panels highlighting a tribe, and there were 14 other panels in the area. The last sign, on the middle teepee, represented tribal nations that had not yet been recognized by the National Park Service. Although progress continues, there is still work to be done.
Teepees, in addition to being evocative and beautiful, are highly symbolic for Indigenous peoples.
“When I first came to this park, I didn’t see any Native American presence,” said Rose Williamson, an Apsáalooke artist. “It really hurt me. Especially seeing the yurts. I’m like ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ These should be teepees, and they should be rented by a Native.
Williamson represented the Apsáalooke people with Dr. Emerson Bull Chief, an anthropologist who is also Dean of Academics at Crow Agency’s Little Big Horn College.
The couple joined a team of cultural ambassadors from different tribes, who spent the mornings of August 23-26 conversing with visitors. They shared stories about their people and answered questions thoughtfully and succinctly teaching tourists the real, often overlooked history of the lands they were on. He turned an alley into a cultural epicenter.
Doyle recruited all of the ambassadors himself. Many of them had been on the project since June 2021, when Doyle and Mountain Time Arts began talking to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Scholly about the idea.
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Doyle said, discussing the difficulties of not only performing in public, but having to be a representative of your culture. “They’re all fun people, all people with a good sense of humor and a lot of knowledge.”
They imparted this knowledge to many people during those three days. Doyle heard that the Madison area was getting twice as many visitors as it usually gets.
Williamson is an expert beader and sells her products under the Lady Pompadour name. She exhibited her work at the “teepee village” and prepared a whole spiel so that she could teach visitors about the artistic traditions of the Apsáalooke people.
In particular, she wanted to shed light on the artistic techniques used by indigenous peoples before contact with Europeans. One material used was porcupine quill, which would be softened and dyed and eventually woven in a manner resembling glass beads. She also explained the process of waterproofing rawhide. The rawhide cases would once have been used as storage for foodstuffs, but she uses hers as a cellphone case, with cultural adaptation happening in real time.
Williamson wanted visitors to take home a simple but important message.
“We are still here,” she said. “We haven’t been exterminated yet.”
“Before the park became a park, Native Americans used this place a lot,” Bull Chief said. “We are Yellowstone Park.”
The best way to teach people this, Williamson thinks, is through art.
“Art is a universal thing,” she said. “You can connect with anyone through it.”
Doyle agrees with her.
“Art is not threatening,” he said. “It connects to all the senses.”
Opportunities like this, Doyle said, allow Indigenous peoples “to assert our rights and our voices in the modern world. We have been here for several thousand years. And we have a lot to say and give about our desire to be present in Yellowstone Park as part of our homeland.
During Thursday night’s musical segment, as Kate Morton (Cherokee) and Kirsten C. Kunkle (Myskoke) sang while Sapphire Ferguson-Jetty (Dakota and Chippewa) played traditional Métis music on her fiddle, people in the back plane jumped into the Madison and swam around.
The weather in Yellowstone moves strangely. No trip there ever seems to last long enough, but there is a stillness to the place.
For a moment, time seemed to freeze in Madison. The region radiated culture. Music echoed off the walls of the valley, while stories were told in its depths.
“That setting is enough to inspire, to take in the beauty of this natural landscape,” Doyle said. “We add the human touch.”