Westminster Expedition- Not Your Average Road Trip

Stories are powerful. Stories are the lens through which we view the world around us. Stories distill the complexity of the world into digestible narratives that inform our values and actions every day. And in our travels, we heard lots of stories.

This past fall Westminster College sent 14 students, two professors, and a program assistant (that’s me!) on the road for a semester-long trip around the American West. We spent 82 days traveling through Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, California, Arizona, and Utah. Students earned environmental studies and history credits as we examined issues that fell under the large umbrellas of four courses: The Native West, A History of Public Lands, Environmental Cooperation and Conflict, and Landscape and Meaning. Taking advantage of the locations in which we were travelling, a significant part of the curriculum was delivered through a variety of guest speakers; Native elders and storytellers, ranchers, land managers, conservationists, public utility employees, biologists, park rangers, historians, county council members, and community activists who were gracious enough to talk to us about their areas of expertise.

Given that multiple, often conflicting, stories can connect the same series of events, we also learned the importance of analyzing those stories, asking questions that pull multiple perspectives out of a single point of view. Among those questions: Who are the winners in this story? Who are the losers? How would the loser tell it? What does the teller gain by telling the story in this way? What values are depicted as good? As bad? What are the consequences of continuing this story into the future?

I can’t think of a way to summarize this trip in a few thousand words without reducing it to a tedious list of places visited, people talked to, and van snacks eaten (lots of Oreos). Instead, I would like to share a small selection of stories that we heard on the trip, chosen in an attempt to convey the variety of perspectives, values, and genres that we encountered in our travels. The following stories are my own summaries. Through the process of listening, remembering, and rewriting I inevitably have injected my own biases, but I have done my best to maintain the original intention and perspective of the teller.

Little Bighorn National Battlefield, MT

On September 4th, we traveled from our campground on the Yellowstone River to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The monument serves as an interpretive memorial to the battle fought between the U.S. 7th Cavalry and members of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes between June 25-26,1876. At the monument we met Jerry Jasmer, a park ranger for the area. He led us along the monument’s interpretive road, sharing his understanding of the battle with us as we traveled.

The tour started at the 7th US Cavalry Memorial, a granite monument that marks the location where 40-50 US soldiers, including Lt. Col. Custer, made their famous last stand against the Native warriors. The memorial is on top of a hill just to the east of the Little Bighorn River. We were told that the tribes, being semi-nomadic, had created a large village with an estimated population of around 8,000 people that stretched for about a half mile along the banks of the river. Villages this large were unusual, but the tribes had recently come together to celebrate their annual sun dance ceremony. They may have been beginning to disperse when Custer’s scouts (some of them members of the Crow tribe) reported the location of the village to him on June 24.

Turning and looking to the east from the memorial, Jerry told us how the 7th Cavalry was located about 25 miles away from the village on the evening of the 24th. They were a part of a larger military effort tasked with finding these tribes and forcing them back onto the Great Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Upon learning the location of the village from his scouts, and fearing that a delay would result in the Native people dispersing into the surrounding hills, Custer ordered his troops to march through the night towards the tribes.

From here we drove a few miles to the south, along a ridgeline that guided much of the movement of Custer’s troops. The road ended on the hillside above where the first portion of the battle was fought. After riding through the night, Custer ordered Major Reno to take a company and flank the village on its southern side. Reno’s men crossed the river and advanced into the village from the south. They made progress at first, but were soon halted by Native warriors. They established a skirmish line, then were forced to retreat into the trees, and then again back up the hill, suffering heavy losses as they went.

As Reno’s company was driven back Custer’s troops rode around to the north, potentially trying to prevent the women and children from escaping. The warriors’ attention turned to them, having sufficiently disabled Reno. We drove along the route that Reno took as he tried to provide Custer with reinforcements, but was stopped and held under siege on top of Reno Hill.

We continued back to Last Stand Hill and were told how the warriors halted Custer’s progress to the north, and forced him to fall back as well. He and his remaining men gathered on the hill and were surrounded by hundreds of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. They shot their remaining horses and used them as protection from the warriors’ bullets and arrows. Despite their strong efforts to hold their hilltop position, they were eventually overwhelmed by the warriors and killed.

Just down the hill from the 7th US Cavalry Memorial is the “Peace Through Unity” Memorial, an American Indian designed monument that recognizes the Natives who died in the battle. The monument was authorized in 1991 but became quite controversial, and was not finished and dedicated until 2003. The purpose of the memorial is to remember the Indians who fought “to preserve their land and culture.”

Jerry described changes that have taken place at the battlefield in the decades that he has worked there. Initially, the intention of the monument was to commemorate the US soldiers who had died at the hands of the “enemy.” In recent decades efforts have been made to reinterpret the battle to show the two sides as being “equals,” and honoring soldiers and warriors alike. The idea that the monument still fails to reach is that one side, the Natives, were fighting to preserve their culture and way of life from an aggressive conquering force, the United States. And in traveling on the interpretive road, I couldn’t help but notice that its position following the ridgeline along which Custer’s troops moved made it easier to put yourself in the shoes of the US soldiers than the people in the village.

Walking past the visitor’s center after our tour, we passed an interpretive ranger performing for an amphitheater full of tourists. “Listen. The leather on their stirrups is creaking. Creeak. Can you hear it? Creeak. Creeak.”

Wolf Recovery Efforts, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, ID/WY/MT

On August 29 we woke up well before the sun rose, packed up our camp near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and drove to meet Brenna and Kira Cassidy, two of the leading wolf biologists in Yellowstone National Park. As we drove we watched the sun rise, and were lucky enough to see a black bear from the road. Optimistic about how the day was turning out, we turned into the parking area where we were supposed to meet the biologists to find them outside their car pointing binoculars and spotting scopes at a nearby hillside. Calling us over, they let us look through their scopes to see a couple wolves on top of a ridge!

We watched the wolves for a few minutes until they eventually disappeared down the other side of the hill, at which point our attention turned to Brenna and Kira. They graciously spent the next hour and a half answering our questions about wolf restoration in the area.

Starting from the beginning they told us how, prior to white settlement, wolf habitat had ranged continuously from the arctic circle all the way south into present-day Mexico. As white people moved into the area they began to decimate the wolf population, both intentionally and unintentionally. Agriculture destroyed a lot of habitat for both wolves and the mammals they prey on, which caused them to begin attacking livestock. This began a decades-long campaign to eliminate wolves, mostly through hunting and poisoning.

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and several species of wolves were soon listed as endangered. In 1995 packs of wolves from British Columbia and Northwestern Montana were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park, and were quickly successful. The packs spread into their new territory, enjoying a relative abundance of prey that existed as a result of their absence. The packs expanded through the park and beyond into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Their population has stabilized between approximately 80-100 within park boundaries, and outside the park they continue to slowly push into new, mostly mountainous, territory.

Brenna and Kira then told us about the largely beneficial impact that the reintroduction of wolves has had on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wolves primarily hunt elk and bison, which helps to manage the size of those herds. This helps to maintain the health of the meadows, forests, and grasslands where those animals graze. Wolves also limit the number of coyotes in a territory, which allows a variety of smaller carnivores to be successful. And they provide bears, coyotes, and scavengers a chance to fight for or scavenge from their kills.

As a result of their success, wolves in this region have been removed from the endangered species list. Now each of the states in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has developed a management plan that allows for a certain number of wolves to be hunted, as well as for ranchers to protect their livestock by lethal means. That is where Jon Trapp comes in.

Jon spent years with a non-profit conservation group working one-on-one with ranchers to encourage non-lethal means of managing wolves. From the use of rubber bullets to fireworks to guard llamas, he told us about the many creative methods that ranchers can potentially use to discourage wolves from preying on livestock. But Jon also had another important message that he wanted to share from his years convincing ranchers to care about wolves: The only way to truly get people with opposing ideas to understand your perspective is through building a trusting relationship.

Snake Valley, UT/NV

The 150-mile stretch of Route 6 that runs between Delta, Utah and Ely, Nevada has to be on the short list for the title of “loneliest highway in America.” Besides the entrance to Great Basin National Park, itself one of the least visited national parks in the country, it would be easy for a driver to travel through the area and believe there was nothing there besides sagebrush, a handful of ranches, and a convenience store that has alcohol and slot machines on the western side of the state line that runs through the building. It takes some digging to discover that the Snake Valley, spanning the border between Utah and Nevada, is home to one of the most controversial water rights battles in the American West.

On October 23 we met Warren Cook, a Westminster graduate who, while at Westminster, had written a research paper about the water controversy in the region. He spent the next few days showing us around the valley and introducing us to the local people that had stepped up to fight this battle.

There are approximately 1,000 people living in the Snake Valley, which spans approximately 1,000,000 acres and is flanked by mountains on its eastern and western sides. The valley itself is a desert, meaning that it receives an average of less than ten inches of rain every year. (The surrounding mountains see more precipitation, including snow in the winter.) The primary industry in the area is ranching and farming, both very water-sensitive activities. This became especially relevant in 1989 when the Southern Nevada Water Authority (essentially, Las Vegas) began applying for permits to tap into the groundwater in the Snake Valley and construct a pipeline to transport that water to Las Vegas. Snake Valley residents, fearing that this would draw down the water table enough to hurt their agriculture, stepped up to fight Las Vegas.

And in talking to Warren, and the locals that he introduced us to, that coming together of the community is the most interesting part of the story. There is a greater diversity of people in the Snake Valley than one might expect from a rural agricultural area. Of course ranchers and farmers make up the most significant portion of the population, but within the valley there are a number of other populations as well. There is a religious commune based in the small town of EskDale, Utah. There is the School of the Natural Order, another community that emphasizes meditation and reflection as tools to tap into the energy of the universe, in Home Farm, Nevada. And there is Great Basin National Park, with its team of rangers, ecologists, etc. in Baker, Nevada.

In an age of such entrenched political partisanship it seems nearly impossible for people with such wildly different perspectives on the world to be able to cooperate on anything. Yet without such cooperation in the Snake Valley, Las Vegas would most likely be pulling tens of thousands of acre feet of water out from under them and potentially destroying the agriculture that the community is based around. A rancher that we ate with one evening talked about how people know that there are certain topics to avoid around different people, but you accept that and work together where you have things in common.

Bears Ears National Monument, UT

One of our last stops of the trip, as we made our way back to Salt Lake City, was Bears Ears National Monument. Between November 13-15 we toured the region with Jonah Yellowman, chatted around our campfire with Navajo member and former County Councilman Kenneth Maryboy, and talked to Amanda Podmore with Friends of Cedar Mesa.

All three of our guest speakers stressed how important this cultural landscape is to each of the five tribes (Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah Ouray Ute) that consider Bears Ears to be part of their ancestral homeland. Beyond the tens of thousands of archaeological sites, with some of the best-preserved ruins I have ever seen, the landscape itself has tremendous cultural significance. It has both spiritual significance, as a place where the spirits of the people’s ancestors continue to exist, and physical significance, as a place for gathering essential medicinal plants, hunting, and performing ceremonies.

Work on the proposal to protect the cultural resources and natural landscape around present-day Bears Ears began in 2010, through the actions of Diné Bikéyah. As a grassroots group dedicated to advocating for the rights of its member tribes, Diné Bikéyah did extensive research to determine which areas were most important to protect and how best to protect them. As they refined their proposal they presented it both to San Juan County and the Utah State Government. Unfortunately their proposals gained little traction, and as the State Government began to finalize their Public Lands Initiative, the tribes realized that they had been largely overlooked.

The tribes then looked to the Federal Government, and advocated for the creation of a national monument to protect their ancestral homeland. The idea was taken up by the Department of the Interior, and over the next couple years the Federal Government and the Inter-Tribal Coalition worked together to create a monument that would protect the area in a way that satisfied the needs of the tribal people. In 2016 Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to create the 1.5 million acre Bears Ears National Monument, making it the first monument in U.S. history to have been proposed by and created in collaboration with Native tribes. Each of our speakers talked about the significance of this recognition of Native peoples at the highest level of government, and their hope that this type of relationship could be continued into the future.

During our visit, however, that feeling of hope and optimism had dimmed. Donald Trump was expected to visit Utah in a couple weeks with the intention of dismantling the monument that everyone had worked so hard to create. (He did visit, and shrunk the monument by 85 percent.) The tribes and conservation groups had their lawyers ready to fight the executive order that was to come and were prepared to do everything they could to protect this sacred space, but that didn’t do anything to soothe the sting from the tribes having been screwed by the government. Again. With such a long history of being forced off their land, slaughtered by the military, forcibly assimilated into white culture, and shoved onto impoverished reservations, with thousands of broken promises and treaties in the mix, this just amounted to another broken promise.

Pulling It Back Together

In our 82 days on the road we engaged with over 100 guest speakers, each of whom had a different story to tell us. Sometimes we would hear multiple stories about the same history, and sometimes we would hear a single story and have to extrapolate what differing opinions might exist and why. Traveling in this way we were exposed to more different perspectives in one semester than we would have in decades of traditional classroom learning. And we learned how to analyze those stories, how to create a fuller picture from just one or two perspectives. I’d encourage you to do the same, with the stories I just told and with the stories you hear every day on the news, from friends, from enemies, from anyone.

Who are the winners? Who are the losers? How would the loser tell it? What does the teller gain by telling the story in this way? What values are depicted as good? As bad? What are the consequences of continuing this story into the future…

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