National Parks Along the Lewis and Clark Trail Preserve American Indian Culture

Date:   September 15, 2006

Roger Kennedy, NPCA Board Member and National Council Chair, 617.491.7247
Shannon Andrea, NPCA Media Relations Manager, 202.454.3371

National Parks Along the Lewis and Clark Trail Preserve American Indian Culture

New Study Finds Funding Shortfalls Impact Preservation of Artifacts, Landscapes

Washington, DC – A new study released today by the National Parks Conservation Association’s (NPCA) Center for the State of the Parks indicates that funding and staffing shortfalls at Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site and Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota impacts the ability of the National Park Service to tell the diverse stories of American Indian culture.

“The National Park Service plays a significant role in protecting, preserving, and interpreting the stories and history of American Indians,” said NPCA Board Member and National Council Chair Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service and director of the National Museum of American History.  “Full funding of our national parks would help preserve the magnificent heritage of our country and tell these important stories.”

According to NPCA’s new assessment, funding shortfalls at Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site impact the park’s archaeological resources, cultural landscapes, and historic museum collections.  Park staff use existing published works to inform interpretation, but additional funding for research would help park interpreters further understand the culture and lifestyle of Plains Indians.  For example, funding for additional oral history interviews with tribal members would greatly contribute to the park’s interpretation of and relationships with American Indian tribes associated with Knife River.

A critical component of Knife River’s cultural landscape program is to return the park to a native prairie representative of the landscape and vegetation that would have been familiar to the Knife River Indians in the early 1800s.  Persistent non-native, invasive plants threaten the park’s cultural landscapes and are difficult to control.  Currently, the park uses combinations of herbicide treatment, mechanical methods, native seed planting, and prescribed burns to restore native plant communities.  Additional funds are needed to support these treatments, as the cost of materials increases each year.

Erosion along the banks of the Knife River presents a great threat to the park's archaeological resources.  For example, the Elbee Site is facing severe impacts from erosion and additional funding is needed to determine and enact the appropriate conservation methods to prevent the continuing loss of archaeological sites to erosion.  Full funding for support from a regional archaeologist is also key to ensuring archaeological resources continue to receive excellent care.

The park's museum collection contains historic objects such as clothing, ceremonial objects, ceramics, historical documents, and photographs of American Indians.  Recently, a seasonal museum technician was hired, however a full-time curator is needed to properly care for the current museum collections, manage future acquisitions, and create additional museum exhibits.  Temporary exhibits are often developed because the museum exhibit area is modest in size and only a small fraction of Knife River's collection can be exhibited at a given time.  Hiring a full-time curator could expand the scope and complexity of the exhibits.

“Our national parks face enormous challenges, including an annual operating shortfall in excess of $600 million,” said Kennedy.  “Funding and staffing shortfalls limit park staff from learning more about the American Indian culture and the intriguing stories that capture America’s history.”

Funding and staffing shortfalls are also present at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, once the primary fur trading station on the Upper Missouri River.  Fort Union was once a center of cultural mingling among European Americans and many American Indian tribes.  Today, a partially reconstructed fort exists at the same location as the original, constructed with information gained through extensive archaeological investigations, historic paintings, and archival documentation.

NPCA’s study indicates that funding is needed to research written accounts of Fort Union’s military history, social history, ethnography, and scientific discovery. These projects would significantly increase the understanding of Fort Union Trading Post and its diverse history, and they would provide greater information to inform public education programs at the park. 

Additional funds are also needed to adequately care for the park’s museum collection, which contains more than 800,000 objects that teach about the lives of the American Indians and European Americans who lived, worked, or traded with one another at the fort.  Only half the items have been cataloged and funds are needed to support cataloging activities because materials cannot be studied or used in interpretive displays until they are cataloged.  The curator is the only cultural resources staff person at Fort Union Trading Post; at current staffing levels, it will take more than 50 years to document the collection.

Relationships with nearby American Indian tribes are critical elements of Fort Union Trading Post’s history and remain key to interpretation today. At least eight groups played a significant role in the fort’s history: Assiniboine, Crow, Blackfeet, Plains Cree, Plains Chippewa, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sioux. The park sponsors events and programs that encourage American Indian participation and generate increased interest in the ethnic diversity of the region, and staff are working on an ethnographic study to enhance interpretation and understanding of American Indian connections to the fort.

NPCA launched the landmark Center for the State of the Parks program in 2000 to assess the health of national parks across the country.  The new report, National Parks Along the Lewis and Clark Trail, assesses the cultural and natural resources at six national parks associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition, including the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Missouri National Recreational River, Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, and Nez Perce National Historical Park.  Report findings indicate that the National Park Service needs additional funding to protect, preserve, and interpret these historic treasures.  View a copy of the full report

Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System. NPCA, its 300,000 members, and partners work together to protect the park system and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for generations to come.  To help save our national parks, visit NPCA’s Take Action Center at

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