Revisiting the tangled legacy of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

At his namesake park in North Dakota, reconciling the president’s conservation successes with his racist views.

Photograph by Chuck Haney
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Fog burns off at sunrise from River Bend Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Photograph by Chuck Haney

It’s easy to become enthralled with the 26th president of the United States, particularly if you love the outdoors he helped preserve. So several years ago, when I visited North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park to research a story for National Geographic Traveler, I couldn’t help but fall under his spell, just as I was enamored by the landscape he cherished.

Then, in June of this year, Roosevelt found himself suddenly under scrutiny. The precipitating event was the decision by the American Museum of Natural History in New York to remove a bronze statue of Roosevelt, which depicted him on horseback, towering above a Native American and an African man. The statue, unveiled in 1940, was undoubtedly racist. Even Roosevelt’s great-grandson agreed it should be taken down.

The statue was commissioned decades after Roosevelt’s death; he, of course, had nothing to do with it. But the questions arose, and they were good questions. The statue was racist. What about the man?

As monuments come under scrutiny across the country, so too do the places named for conservation’s long-enshrined heroes. I recalled my travels in North Dakota. Had I missed the full story? By emphasizing Theodore Roosevelt the conservationist, had I lost the opportunity to present a more complete portrait of the man—and the land preserved in his name?

The “conservation president”

Roosevelt first came to the Dakota badlands in 1883 at age 24, drawn by a desire to hunt bison. He soon became enchanted by the immense spaciousness of the landscape—rolling hills of shortgrass prairie, broken by spectacular sandstone formations, dizzying cliffs, steep gullies, and the Little Missouri River. Captivated, Roosevelt threw himself into the life of a Dakota cattleman.

A few months after that first Dakota trip, Roosevelt’s mother succumbed to typhoid; hours later, his wife died of an illness, leaving behind their infant daughter. A heartbroken Roosevelt retreated to the North Dakota prairie, the place to which he’d return throughout his life for the kind of solace only wilderness offers. His namesake national park was dedicated nearly a century later, setting aside more than 70,000 acres to honor Roosevelt’s legacy as “the conservation president.”

Zoom in for more detail on Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s three separate sections: the North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch Units.

The privileged Easterner shared with many of the time a fascination with the West—and a concern that, with the advent of the railroad, the West was changing forever. Years later Roosevelt channeled that infatuation into policy. Regarded as one of the driving forces of the American conservation movement, he is credited with saving 230 million acres of American wilderness through legislation and executive orders. He articulated his conservation ethic in a 1903 speech delivered on the rim of the Grand Canyon: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it […] What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you.”

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Bison graze in Theodore ​Roosevelt National Park in weste​rn North Dakota. Averaging a little over 600,000 visitors a year, the park is far less crowded than the big-name parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone.

Five years later, Roosevelt employed the Antiquities Act of 1906 to set the Grand Canyon aside as a national monument, one of many that were elevated to national park status after the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. That same kind of foresight—the understanding that our heritage and well-being as a people is inextricably tied to the beauty and open spaces of our country—would years later result in the establishment of the gorgeous North Dakota park that I so enjoyed visiting.

But what about the heritage and well-being of the people who lived on these lands long before we called them national parks?

Native heritage overlooked

“The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian,” Roosevelt declared in an 1886 speech. “The truth is, the Indians never had any real title to the soil,” he wrote three years later in The Winning of the West.

How do we reconcile such wisdom with such ignorance?

“If we give him credit for being ahead of his time on some things, then we have to criticize him for where he is not,” says David Gessner, author of Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. “He was actually behind his time in some views. Part of his attitude toward Native people was that they were in the way. He never evolved far beyond the idea that the goal should be their assimilation into the larger culture.”

So shouldn’t we be getting that kind of full picture of the man when we visit a park named for him?

I put that question to Ethan White Calfe, a cattle rancher, artist, and member of the Three Affiliated Tribes who has worked as an interpreter at both Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the nearby Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

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Wild horses run through Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

“I believe we should be updating how we interpret all parks,” White Calfe says. “These places are dynamic, and as they evolve, the stories and interpretation must evolve with it; not omit or villainize, merely add to for a more well-rounded story.”

That well-rounded story, White Calfe says, should include the fact that the national park was once the homeland of Native people—specifically the Three Affiliated Tribes. Also called the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, the tribes now live on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, northeast of the park.

“Today, visitors hardly get a glimpse at the history or lifeways of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people,” White Calfe says. “With the exception of a hiking trail and a few trail signs, our footprint is all but being whitewashed away.”

White Calfe calls Roosevelt “a good conservationist of public lands, but Native Americans were not included in his definition of ‘public.’ He was a conservationist and prejudiced. To deny either point doesn’t do justice to the truth.”

Roosevelt and race

Race, too, has to figure into a fuller interpretation of Roosevelt the man. Shortly after becoming president, he famously invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House—an action that brought him widespread condemnation in the South. It was the first time in American history that a Black person had received such an invitation.

“TR was astonished by the criticism,” says Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources for the National Parks Conservation Association. “He declared that he would invite Mr. Washington over for dinner any time he damn well pleased! But no such invitation was ever again to come to Booker T. Washington or any other Black leader over the remainder of TR’s time as president. He wasn’t willing to buck the code on race relations twice. So what does he get for bucking it once?”

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As president, Theodore Roosevelt set aside land in many national monuments, parks, and reserves—almost 200 of which were created by his own executive action.

Roosevelt’s record on race was certainly mixed. In a 1905 speech, he called white Americans “the forward race” that should help raise “the backward race in industrial efficiency, political capacity, and domestic morality.” Spears also points out that Roosevelt oversaw an unjust dishonorable discharge of 167 Black soldiers in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, despite knowledge of the soldiers’ innocence.

“So was T. R. a racist? Yes,” says Spears, who is African American. “Should that ruin his reputation as a conservationist and boss of the trustbusting Progressive Era? Probably not. But I tend to be a fan of nuance.”

Parks as learning places

The notion that Theodore Roosevelt National Park should present a fuller picture of its namesake receives no argument from Park Superintendent Wendy Ross. She’d like to expand the park’s presentation of Roosevelt, but she runs into a perennial challenge facing park managers: limited budgets.

“Obviously we’re open to discussing more,” she says. “But our interpretive staff is so small, and our visitor center’s dated exhibits aren’t providing that kind of information.”

Ross sounds a hopeful note, though, informing me that a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is slated to open in 2024 just outside the park’s gateway town of Medora.

“We think the library will help us connect the conservation legacy and the Native American legacy,” Ross says. “We can reconnect Native peoples with the land that they are no longer on. We can bring in Native American elders and other disenfranchised folks. We can connect the past and the present, [and connect] natural history to the way people lived on this landscape.”

I’m certain that a fuller presentation of Roosevelt the man—say, in the park’s small museum, in interpretive signs, in a campfire program—would have done nothing to diminish my experience of the park. It would only have enhanced it. The prairies would have been just as vast, the badlands just as rugged, the bison just as majestic, and the prairie dogs just as cute.

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Bison cross the Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Yes, we visit parks to experience pristine landscapes and broad horizons—to escape the humdrum, to feel uplifted and inspired. But many of us also go to parks to learn. Does learning about the full complexity of Theodore Roosevelt—president, conservationist, racist—in some way undercut the experience of the park? Or should it be part and parcel of the experience?

“Teddy can take a punch,” David Gessner tells me.

A national park like Theodore Roosevelt is a giant resource. Its wild, beautiful land contains multitudes, including the living heritage of its first people and the looming presence of the man it’s named for. It’s a multifaceted organism. So is Theodore Roosevelt. Was Roosevelt a visionary advocate for our country’s astounding landscapes? Was he racist and patronizing toward Indigenous and Black people?

Yes and yes. Let’s tell the whole story and let’s learn the whole story—at Theodore Roosevelt or any national park. We’ll be informed and inspired to preserve the best of our land and our national character.

Robert Earle Howells is a California-based writer whose passion is public lands that preserve disappearing landscapes. Follow him on Instagram.