Hidden Spirit: Theo. Roosevelt NP

Writings on the National Park Project:

Art and Text by Beth Shadur

My work is intended to celebrate the pristine spaces found in the National Parks of the United States, created in order to inspire stewardship of our land and climate. The works address current and historic challenges the parks face in terms of industry, climate and environmental change, growing tourism and other human impact on surrounding communities. Any such look at the National Park system must acknowledge the problematic taking of lands from Native peoples, and the destruction of Native culture that ensued. I have attempted in these works to pay homage to those original inhabitants by including images of Native people, artifacts, and their original use of the land; I consciously do so to honor the values shared by Native populations of living integrally with the land. As Americans, we have much to learn from their view of these lands as sacred.


When the original acts were created by our government in 1916 and 1964 to create and protect National Parks with the intent to preserve ‘wilderness’, there was no recognition of the fact that these lands had been inhabited historically by Native peoples. According to Isaak Kantor’s article “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks” in Public Land and Resources Law Review, Vol. 28, 2007,“ Glacier and many other national parks are built upon an illusion. They seem to offer us a rare chance to experience the continent as it was, to set eyes on a vista unspoiled by human activity. This uninhabited nature is a recent construction. The untold story behind our unspoiled views and virgin forests is this: these landscapes were inhabited, their features named, their forests utilized, their plants harvested and animals hunted. Native Americans have a history in our national parks measured in millennia. They were forcibly removed, and later treaty rights to traditional use such as hunting and fishing were erased, often without acknowledgment or compensation. Immediately after these removals, the parks were advertised as a showcase of uninhabited America, nature's handiwork unspoiled. “ Such is the true history of the creation of our National Park System.


Fortunately, in current days, tribal rights are being reinstated in many places in an attempt to ‘compensate’ for the abysmal history of the federal government in removing Native peoples from these lands. Tribal rights now must be protected by federal agencies to allow Native peoples to use land that they consider religiously and culturally important. The current National Park Service is cognizant of who originally inhabited and cared for their lands. Most parks serve to educate visitors about Native origins and the parks and preserve various items and photographs of early use. But, National Parks still grapple with issues of conflict between tourism and the sacred nature of the land. As the System allows tourists to enjoy the recreational use of the National Parks, the park administrations need to be respectful of and protect sacred areas and practices, such as vision quests, hunting and ceremonial use of the land. These conflicts will continue until more people are educated as to the importance of respect for various cultures and their practices. My hope is that acknowledgement paid to these Native histories, practices and usages in my works will remind people of the origins of these lands and who peopled them. 

The Hidden Spirit, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, watercolor by Beth Shadur

The Hidden Spirit, detail.

Little Mo, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, watercolor by Beth Shadur

Party Girls, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, by Beth Shadur

Theodore Roosevelt National Park resides on the original homelands of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Akirara Nations. The lands were originally peopled by various Plains tribes. Early use included buffalo jumps, where buffalo were driven over the edge of a cliff instead of killed with arrows; a buffalo processing “camp;” hunting, particularly of the sacred Golden Eagle, (represented by a feather in the work and flying in the upper right); and for sacred ceremonies. The Badlands type of land wasn’t particularly suited to living, but it was considered sacred ground and used for ceremonies by many tribes, including Hidatsa, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Crow, Blackfeet, Sioux, Rocky Boy, Assiniboine, Lakota Sious, Mandan and Cree.

An historic photograph is included of a Gros Ventre Hidatsa woman holding animal skins, as well as of Spotted Bull from the Mandan tribe.


Theodore Roosevelt first visited the Dakota Territory in 1883. As he continued to visit and hunt there, he watched changes take place from a land where game was plentiful, and land wasn’t privately owned. He sought refuge there after the terrible day in 1884 in which he lost both his mother and wife, and he built a cabin (depicted in the painting) and eventually a ranch there. But as he watched more ranches and towns develop, he felt it necessary to create a National Park to protect land there from further development; it was declared a National Park in 1947. Theodore Roosevelt with his horse is depicted in the lower right of the painting.


More recent issues are the development of fracking in the area, shown in the upper left area, which has led to an explosion of towns and large populations right outside the North Unit of the Park. Roads are in constant use by large trucks bordering the park, and night skies are polluted by light. This is a jewel in the park system, because it isn’t as well known as many of the western National Parks, and has herds of wild horses, many buffalo and wonderful and colorful rock formations.