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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

New novel explores the history of Yellowstone Park and its Indigenous links

BY Ben Powless Mar 13, 2022

David Galloway first experienced the wonders of Yellowstone National Park as a university student working as a tour guide in 1977. He piloted a passenger boat around Yellowstone Lake and fell in love with the place. 

Now, over 40 years later, he shares some of his personal history – including a run-in with a grizzly bear – and some inventive storytelling in Burning Ground, a book that tells a part of the history of Yellowstone, as the park celebrates its 150th anniversary. 

Founded by the United States government on March 1, 1872, the park was not just the first national park in America, but in the entire world. After the Hayden scientific expedition in 1871, which included geologists, ornithologists, climatologists, geographers, a painter and a photographer, the U.S. Congress was persuaded by the unique geological and biological setting and decided to set aside 2.2 million acres from major development.

“What makes Yellowstone so unique, first of all, it’s the most active geothermal area in the world. There are more geysers and hot springs and thermal features per unit area than anywhere else in the world,” Galloway explained. “All this thermal activity is because Yellowstone itself is the remains of a giant volcanic caldera that erupted 600,000 years ago and we’re seeing the remnants of that.

“Most of the park is over 8,000 feet and so you’ve got these wonderful thermal features in an alpine area with wildlife that is unlike almost anywhere in North America,” he added. “In this area you have bison, wolves, elk, moose and all matter of wildlife living in this wonderland – which is what it was called initially when it was established, and aptly so.” 

While the first expeditions by non-Indigenous people began in the 19th century, it was widely used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, including the Crow, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Cheyenne and Sioux all living within or making use of the lands at different times. 

Galloway says the 1970s protagonist in Burning Ground goes on a vision quest only to find himself in the 1870s and a member of the Hayden expedition. Part of Galloway’s inspiration for the story was a Crow friend named Redfield he had worked with, and whose culture is reflected in the vision quest. 

“Imagine the wonderment of a modern person going back 150 years and seeing what the Europeans had never seen before, experiencing it with the expedition for the first time with contemporary sensibilities, the shock of how he would view things,” Galloway explained. “Part of the shock is the conflict – a lot of cultural conflict between Europeans and Native Americans, and how we view the world today versus during the frontier times.”

Galloway said he wanted to help readers understand the mindset of Indigenous groups from that era. “They were wronged in so many ways: their lands were taken away and they were put on reservations, and the government reneged on treaties. I wanted readers to think about what it was like to be in their shoes.

“History for some folks tends to be dry – facts, figures and dates. I wanted to put it into a story format to show what I see as a significant part of the history of Wyoming and Montana that we now take for granted. While it’s fiction, it’s authentically researched historically based fiction. I wanted the book to be entertaining while readers learned about that history,” he added. 

Galloway said Burning Ground has been very well-received and he’s now halfway through writing a sequel which should be ready by this summer. Asked if he’d like to see the book turned into a movie, he said, “It would be wonderful, obviously, but I have no false dreams about that happening.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.