bison and the national parks

http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/workman1b/images/image102.jpg Yesterday I “attended” a webinar about the meaning of the bison symbol for the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.  The NPS logo has a buffalo in white at the bottom point of the arrowhead.  The DOI logo uses the bison front and center.  I have many thoughts about the discussion that resulted.  Now, I want to focus upon a statement made by a couple of people during the Live Chat.  They said that they were born and raised on the East Coast and had never seen a bison close up, nor did they have any experiences to connect themselves to bison.

I am not at all surprised by such revelations.  My kids (who have lived on the East Coast all their lives) would certainly not have had a “bison experience” if they didn’t have me as a mom.  My family has been out West by an order of magnitude more times than we have been to NYC.  We have spent summers in Colorado and spent weeks in places like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain national parks,

The question for me is, does an agency like the National Park Service do itself a favor in the 21st century to keep the bison as a key part of its identity?  The webinar speakers addressed the natural history of bison (the historic range of bison included much of North America); the importance of bison to the cultural, spiritual, and physical identity of Great Plains Indian tribes; and the conservation efforts to bring bison numbers back up after their 19th-century slaughter (slaughter by European Americans in unimaginable numbers).  One could take this information in and say, “Yeah, this bison thing is over.  We need to move on.”

I am not so sure.  I am a big believer in the strength of symbols and the layers of meaning they accumulate over time.  The bison on the NPS logo initially was meant to represent wildlife, one of the major facets of the system.  Why not bears?  Many people go to the parks to see bears, and the Park Service used to make bears, fed by hand or at garbage dumps in prominent locations inside the parks, an important part of the national park experience.  Nowadays, many people want to see wolves, whether as reintroduced in Yellowstone or as longtime residents of parks like Voyageurs in Minnesota.

Bison are huge animals which represent strength and endurance.  They may seem like clunky animals because they weigh as much as a ton and have such large shaggy heads, but they can turn on a dime and attack in self-defense.  But they are also strictly herbivores, which sets them apart from bears and wolves.  You might get gored by a bison, but a bison will not eat you.

Beyond physical characteristics, bison are culturally connected in the minds of many Americans to the open lands of the mythic West.  Many people think of the Conestoga wagons trailing in a long line toward the Rocky Mountains.  Bison graze in the distance, representing both the wild side of the natural western landscape and its ranching and agricultural promise.

The mythic West and the bison also includes Indians.  Indians might be thought of in terms of the pastoral, with a tribe and its teepees set up in a bountiful area rich in food, water, and natural beauty.  Or Indians might be seen in terms of the sublime, riding barebacked on horses pursuing a herd of bison across a sweeping plain, ready to make the kill that would feed and house many families.  And Indians might be seen in terms of loss and rejection, forced onto reservations and without access to the sustenance bison had provided.

Do those Easterners from the Live Chat recognize those multiple possibilities of meaning from a white buffalo on an arrowhead logo?  Probably not upon a first or even second glance.  But maybe, hopefully, people looking at that logo will have that moment.  The moment when they say to themselves, “Hmmm.  A bison?”  And the wheels will turn and the recognition will begin to formulate.  “Yeah, that reminds me of…”  And in that action, in that revelation, the symbol will take people to meanings beyond which the National Park Service had ever imagined.

writing

photo voyageur 1963 plan

This woodcut of the iconic voyageur is from the 1963 NPS proposal for the national park. Photo credit: NPS

I had thought that while writing the first draft of my history of Voyageurs National Park, I would regularly post some related snippet on this blog.  Writing a multi-chapter manuscript and writing a couple-paragraph blog post seemed like a reasonable goal.  Ha!

I have turned in the draft manuscript, recovered from the long nights and writing marathon, and am optimistically waiting for glowing reviews from the National Park Service (another ha! there).  What better time to return to this blog?  And what better topic to address than writing?

I love research, but research can only take you so far.  Writing is where the researcher (historian in my case) finally has a chance to make sense of the documents and other sources of information and turn them into knowledge.  Take for example my chapter on interpretation.  I had collected all of the past master plans and interpretive planning documents for the park.  I had collected examples of interpretive programs that the park had offered over the years.  I had interviewed people about the park’s interpretation.  I had experienced recent interpretation first-hand.

All of these sources came together in the chapter.  I focused upon the key themes I found in reviewing this wealth of information, and then I looked for changes over time (like any good historian would) to figure out how the park wanted to present itself over the past 40 years.  Not surprisingly, the number one key theme was the idea of the voyageur.

Until the early 2000s, the park described its namesake voyageur in iconic terms.  The “hardy and energetic” French Canadian led a “rich and happy life” amongst the Indians.  He wore breeches and leggings, plus a red woolen cap and always had a pipe in his mouth.  He was a “unique breed of man” who acted as a “human engine” in the indispensable role of transporting goods to and from the interior of the North American continent.

These idyllic descriptions from early planning documents slowly gave way to references based upon the economic and political roles of voyageurs.  The romanticized voyageur became the transportation key to opening up trade routes and drawing people of European descent away from the coastal areas.

At this point in my analysis, I could have easily said, “Done!”  I have described park interpretation.  But I knew there was a more complicated history than what these sources told upon first read.  Oral history interviews and overwhelming evidence from lawsuits and other examples of strife between the park and its detractors (and sometimes even its supporters) demonstrated that the park grappled with a serious image problem.  That romantic voyageur of old did not help the park in its efforts to win the support and trust of many people, especially the local population.

Local residents had hunted and fished the lands now enclosed by the national park.  They had snowmobiled and cross-country skied it.  They had worked for Boise Cascade and cut timber inside what are now park boundaries.  They had had cabins along the shores of the park’s many lakes.  These people knew the unrelenting demands of the natural environment upon even the most seasoned traveler.  The voyageur in some ways was one of them, not an iconic vision but a real human pushing the canoe through open water and making the best of whatever situation presented itself.

On the other hand, the romanticized voyageur worked well with the environmentalists.  They liked the idea of the hardy canoeist paddling through uncharted waters, gazing upon untrammeled nature.  Such an image worked well with people who wanted to remove snowmobiles from the park and designate the Kabetogama Peninsula as official wilderness.

The voyageur as interpreted over time was not the reason park managers had a difficult time with local residents.  The iconic voyageur, though, gave a clue as to the park’s emphases and thus aggravated an already charged situation.  The positive changes in the past ten years with local relations also cannot be directly tied to the changing description of the voyageur, but the shifted interpretation is an indicator of possibility.

My take on the voyageur as interpreted by the park needed both research and writing to articulate the subtleties of this image.  I will wait and see if the Park Service is comfortable with such an assessment.

 

convincing

I have had the honor over the past month of speaking with an array of people with connections to Voyageurs National Park.  We have sat down in an office, in their place of business, or over the phone.  Some have shared their memories with a dose of caution, not sure if they can trust me, not sure how they will sound on the tape (it’s easier to write “tape” than “digital recording”), not sure if what they say will come back to haunt them later.  Others have been a bit more forthcoming, even saying, “Take this out of the transcript but keep it on the tape.”

Oral history interviews are one of my favorite aspects of doing history projects.  I get to sit down and ask questions and learn about people and what they have done with their lives.  Sure, they focus upon the subject at hand, but, if I am lucky, they go beyond and delve into so much more. Why they love national parks and believe in the mission of the National Park Service.  Or why they question the value of tying up land and keeping progress at bay.  Why Civil War or American Revolutionary War battles deserve attention and their battlefields deserve preservation.  Or why they raise the question, “When is enough land preservation enough?”  Some interviewees have extraordinary abilities to define issues at their core and suggest solutions.  Others focus upon themselves and their immediate concerns, helping me to understand a range of viewpoints.

What is astounding to me about these interviews is that I get convinced.  I will come into an interview with a host of questions, based upon my research.  I try not to have any preconceived notions about the person to be interviewed, nor their possible answers to the questions.  But, I know that I have my own thoughts about an issue, and I must admit to myself that I am one of those liberal tree-huggers and historic preservationists who probably wouldn’t sit down on my own with half the people I interview for these projects.  We just wouldn’t circulate in the same venues.

But I am also not an investigative reporter, out to uncover the big story, expose people, and make a name for myself.  I truly want to hear what people have to say.  I want to learn from their stories.

And I get an inkling into their own perspectives, their own motivations.  Take “Sue”–she had lived by the battlefield most of her life.  She had a nice house, her husband worked in the local community, she had served as a volunteer for many charitable organizations.  The battlefield, in her mind, had been marked and preserved and interpreted for the public.  What more did the Park Service want?  More land?  More money?  But what about the people living there, who had to pay higher and higher taxes because more land was being taken off the tax rolls?  What about the jobs that new development would bring?  I remember Sue looking me directly in the eye and asking me, “Why more land?”  I could not answer.  I was simply being the funnel to capture her views.  Plus, I had to admit she raised important points.  When would there be enough preserved land?

Then there was “Bob.”  Bob had had a family business before the national park’s establishment.  Some members of his family had been all for the park, others were skeptical or even downright against the park.  The Park Service bought out the land and improvements associated with the family business.  The family members became concessionaires.  Bob remained devoted to the park.  He knew that park visitors wanted to immerse themselves into the park and all it had to offer, and his business contributed to that desire.  He had many stories to share about those visitors and what fish they caught, how many family reunions his place of business hosted, why the park mattered.  He made me laugh when he described the bear that got into the kitchen or the kids who maybe got a little too brave for their own good.  His stories brought life and energy into the documents and reports I had studied.  He helped reassure me that the park did matter.

I have done close to 200 oral history interviews for my history projects.  I have listened and learned from each one.  I have been convinced by their viewpoints, and I hope I have captured their perspectives fairly in my writing.  I thank them for their time and trust.

mundane but necessary

I now have a clean desk and floor.  My research project on Voyageurs National Park has generated thousands of documents, almost all hard copies, that have needed a home in my office.  I have slowly and steadily been filing these pieces of paper, but then I got another box from the park with more documents.  Back to work filing.

Why do I have an entire blog post on filing?  I have found with past research projects that filing is sometimes the crucial link between research and writing.  When I sit at my computer working on a chapter, I have documents in piles around me.  What I pull for that chapter largely depends on how well I filed the documents.  Sure, I take good notes when researching, and I refer back to those notes to make sure I have everything for a chapter.  But, the files are my entry into a chapter. If I cannot find a document, no matter how good my notes or my memory, I cannot use the document for evidence.

Historians live by dates as a starting place for building our arguments.  I, at least, need to know what happened before, during, and after so that I can make an informed statement about why or how.  So, putting documents in chronological order is a simple but important step in my filing.  The task is mindless and mundane but necessary.

But my documents are not simply placed in chron order.  I organize them by topics or major events first.  For Voyageurs, that has meant topics like Master Plan, General Management Plan, Snowmobiling, Wilderness, or Concessions.  I try to keep all the interpretive materials together.  Key organizations, like the Voyageurs National Park Association or Citizen’s Committee on Voyageurs National Park also have their own files.  Many times, the number of documents for each topic spread over several files just to keep them manageable.  Those files are divided up by date, of course.

I have found over the course of several research projects that too much division into topics ends up more work when writing.  I used to divide out park management into much smaller topics, such as land acquisition, community relations, employee relations, etc.  Now, I keep those topics and more all together.  I find I use the documents more if they are included in a longer sweep of management issues than if I separated them into discrete units.  Park superintendents have to juggle many issues at once, and I try to keep that in mind when filing and writing.

I guess I should end with the confession that my desk and floor are not perfectly clear.  I have been writing chapter one, and so those documents are out and about.  My filing system seems to be working as I put words on the page.  Those words come slowly, sometimes with great determination and anguish, but at least I know my filing gives me easy access to the documents I need.

anticipation

I am starting to write my history of Voyageurs National Park.  It will be seven chapters and will cover the period from 1975 to 2005, with background material going back to the time of the voyageurs and American Indians.  Moving from research to writing is always exhilarating and daunting.  I am anxious to put into words the ideas and leads I have uncovered while reading through the documents and conducting oral history interviews.  But I also enter this stage of a project with anxiety and trepidation, remembering the arduous task of matching documents to themes and events, wrangling a coherent story out of thousands of primary sources.  I often think of this stage as pregnancy all over again, nurturing what is inside, battling the discomfort and pain, and then birthing something (hopefully) new and wondrous and beautiful.

I have two postcards tacked onto the bulletin board behind my computer screen, easily within view as I write.  They give me hope.  One is a Norman Rockwell painting from the Saturday Evening Post.  Rockwell is sitting in a chair, his back to the viewer.  His legs, spread wide apart, hold a book face down and a rag.  He scratches his head, paintbrush in hand.  All is gawky and angled with diagonals going every which way.  Before him sits a white canvas with just the outline for the Saturday Evening Post banner.  His desk and floor are a disarray of newspapers and journals.  Rockwell captures in this humorous account of the artistic process the moment of befuddlement, of anticipation, of sheer confusion that must always precede the vision that drives the creative process forward.  It serves as a reminder to me that I am okay, I just have to keep going.

What is the second postcard?  It shows the photograph taken at the moment of the first flight at Kitty Hawk.  I can remember the story the Park Service told at the visitor center there, that the Wright Brothers had flipped a coin to determine who would be in the airplane and who would be on the ground.  They asked a third person (can’t remember if he was a local or not) to stand at the camera and push the button to take the shot when the plane took Imageoff the ground of its own power.  “Yeah, yeah,” I can almost hear the man say, as if the Wrights will actually get their invention to fly.  But, the airplane does lift off the ground.  The man pushes the button, mouth agape.  The first flight captured forever.  The promise fulfilled.

That is how I always see my writing.  The promise fulfilled.  These next months, join me as I share the challenges and frustrations of writing about Voyageurs National Park.

can you canoe?

It is 26 feet long, wears multicolored medallions on its front and back, and has a hole on its side.  What is it?  A birch bark canoe handmade in 1974 expressly for the Voyageurs National Park visitor center.  The only problem is that the canoe never made it to the visitor center (though the Park Service did display it in its former headquarters building).

I don’t have all the story yet, but somehow the park’s first superintendent Myrl Brooks convinced National Geographic to pay for William Hafeman to build the canoe.  Hafeman had a boat works in Bigfork, MN, and he used traditional Indian techniques in constructing the canoe.  Birch bark for the skin, cedar for the ribs, sap mixed with ash to seal the canoe.  The front and back are painted white with medallions in red, blue, and yellow on a black background.

Brooks was a little ahead of his time in wanting the canoe for the new park.  He realized once Hafeman finished making the future display piece that the anticipated visitor center was still several years away.  What to do?  Brooks explored sending it to the Arch in St. Louis before the Koochiching County Museum in International Falls accepted the canoe under a long-term loan.  The canoe eventually made its way to park headquarters and then in 1988 to the Rainy River Community College, also in the Falls.

The community college hung the canoe up just over people’s heads against a huge plate glass window.  With time, the ties holding up the canoe shielded the areas under the ties from the sun which baked the rest of the canoe and washed out its natural color.  Students maybe/probably took the canoe down at least once and tried it out on some nearby water source, evidenced by grass stuck on the canoe’s bottom, as found after a one-year inspection.  Then a fight broke out in the community college’s hallway and an errant fist punched a hole in the canoe’s side.

The canoe now sits in archival storage in a specially made cradle by the park’s shop and maintenance staff.  Another canoe, also made by Hafeman, takes pride of place in the Rainy River Visitor Center.

Why am I blogging about a canoe?  This canoe tells us that the park, even before its official establishment in 1975 (it was authorized in 1971, but it took awhile to get key land from the state to make the park official), had a vision for its interpretation, to tell the voyageur story in a tangible lifelike way with a full-scale, traditionally made canoe.  The canoe also tells us that the park wanted a big enough visitor center to display the canoe, but such a building would take lots of time and money not immediately available.  And once the park had its showplace it had another canoe made to fit its central exhibit space.

There is more to learn, I am sure.  I have the above information from the accession file for the 26-foot canoe, plus from talking with the park’s collections manager.  How did Brooks and National Geographic end up working together in getting the canoe?  Do the medallions have any special meaning?  What did students think of the canoe hanging above their heads?  Can you take this canoe a little further along the history trail?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

messy history

I walked yesterday from my car through the empty parking lot, down the ramp, and to the entrance courtyard of the Rainy Lake Visitor Center.  And then I finally paid attention to my ears.  No one was around, so I expected no sound.  But the trees.  They swayed and bristled and stretched in the rushing wind.  Their branches hit against each other.  Their trunks creaked like an old rusty door hinge.  I stopped and listened.  My head filled with the fullness of the woods surrounding me.  I felt connected to the trees and the land in an elemental way.

Driving through International Falls heightens my sense of smell.  The Boise Cascade plant manufactures paper, plus fiberboard.  Scrubbers seem to have eliminated most of the industrial smell from the air, but the sweet piney smell of pulverized wood remains, redolent especially on these cold crisp days.  I at first tried to cover my nose when I got a whiff of the wood scent, not sure of its origin and a bit taken aback that an entire town could be permeated by the smell of one industry.  Time has made me expect and anticipate the woody fragrance as I drive by the four-story high piles of fine wood shavings next to the railroad tracks.  The scent to me means International Falls.

What does all this mean with regard to “messy history?”  The swaying trees take me back to the voyageurs traveling in their not-so-silent world, canoes laden with furs and cold weather chasing them back toward civilization.  The pulp smell reminds me of the logging and manufacturing history that prompted people to want to preserve as a national park the very lands that had supported the paper and logging firms.

Messy history complicates, challenges, opens eyes, puts things in your face, leaves you a little uneasy, and adds dimensions beyond a simple straightforward narrative.  Messy history lets you feel the weight of the past, like the ponderous tick of a timepiece echo down a long dark hall.

Where is some messy history with respect to Voyageurs National Park?  The voyageur history, that could become messy.  The French fur trappers are held up as rugged individuals who traded fairly with the Indians and shared their knowledge of travel routes and land possibilities that later settlers followed.  But surely not all voyageurs maintained such positive and mutually beneficial relationships with everyone they met.  And while the voyageur history sets the stage for the national park, to what extent does that history really play out in the average visitor experience?  How many people opt to canoe through the park as opposed to take their power boats and zoom?  People see the landscape that could easily have been nearly the same as what the voyageurs saw.  But the sounds, the smells, those details are incongruous with the past history.

The Boise story with regard to the park’s establishment is also messy.  Boise opposed the park because, officially, the company worried that a national park in Minnesota and other national parks in Washington State (North Cascades, for example), threatened the company’s long-term access to national forests and thus raw materials for the company’s manufacturing.  A good chunk of national forest land, plus Boise land, was needed to get Voyageurs National Park started.  The messy part is that Boise had recently acquired a land development company, and a possible place for development was the shoreline of the Kabetogama Peninsula, of which Boise owned a fair share.  The company remained very quiet about its ideas for that land, but park proponents talked endlessly amongst each other about the potential threat.

Messy history reminds us that there are multiple motivations and also multiple senses to engage.  We learn from allowing ourselves to become enveloped by these scents and sounds and complications.