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Why is Washington State Parks Appropriating Native American Struggles to Police Instagram?

This past weekend, we packed up the family and drove to Eastern Washington to see the fall leaves and a part of the country we had not really visited yet.

I highly recommend the journey. It is stunningly beautiful. I had hoped to spend more time writing today on why you should visit. Instead, I am asking why is the Washington State Parks department co-opting Native American hashtags to intimidate people on Instagram?

I really wanted to photograph the Palouse. Often referred to as Washington’s Tuscany. I googled it and noticed that Steptoe Butte State Park was an ideal location. So Ideal, in fact, that photographer’s kind of groan… oh yeah, that is where everyone goes… before they tell you where to actually go.

Steptoe Butte: Should It Be Renamed?

Steptoe Butte is a jagged quartzite peak that juts out of the surrounding landscape, giving people a truly 360-degree view of the Palouse for miles around—We just happened to visit when the clouds covered the peak.

A person might be forgiven if they thought Steptoe described a geologic formation.

I certainly did.

A sign directing us to the Steptoe Battlefield caused a bit of confusion when we were working our way to the butte. Being curious, I investigated it.

Steptoe is a name. Colonel Steptoe, to be exact.

 In 1858, Colonel Steptoe led 150 soldiers into battle against various Native American Tribes that inhabited the Pacific Northwest to protect miners. It appears as if he tried to sneak that in before congress ratified the actual treaty they signed, and he was embarrassingly defeated.

It is a strange story, but after the battle, he returned to Virginia, was placed on sick leave until he was forced to resign his commission in 1861, where he died four years later in 1865.

Let us place this in historical context. How bad of a military commander did you need to be for the Confederacy to not even consider enlisting you?

Apparently not bad enough of a commander for Washington State to keep an entire mountain named in your honor. Instead of perhaps, any single one of the Native Americans who were defending their land backed by a treaty they had just signed.

Why does this matter? It is a long list of Mountains, National Parks, State Parks with English names on top of the Native American Names that existed centuries beforehand. It is not Washington State Parks’ fault necessarily, but it is, in part, their responsibility to correct.

Just like it is their responsibility to ensure that the Native American Heritage is respected. At least to the same extent, they would give a disgraced military colonel from the 1860s.

I shouldn’t even be the person pointing out that the park should be renamed. I didn’t even know the battle happened until this past weekend. I just thought to myself, “Huh, that should probably be renamed.” Is there not a commission that looks into this type of thing? I do not even see an attempt to rename Steptoe Butte in a google search. Perhaps there is a reason that I am unaware. If so, please let me know.

Palouse Falls

We visited Palouse falls next. It is far more impressive than the numerous gorgeous photos can attest. If anything, there is a surplus of striking images of Palouse Falls nearing the point of abuse. 

I visited Ireland a few years back and stood on the Cliffs of Moher. It is similar in the drop-off and arguably more dangerous. They have a memorial dedicated to the people who died there. But they also have a trail where many thousands of people walk the entire length of the cliffs.  My kids were not with me, but since then, despite not having a fear of heights myself, I have had recurring nightmares about my children falling off a cliff. Nobody warns you before you become a parent about the nightmares you will have concerning their safety. They are by far the worst I have ever had in my life, and they happen with a fair bit of regularity.

A place like Palouse Falls, with the steep drops into the canyon, is quite literally what fuels my nightmares.

The park itself is not huge. You drive down a two-mile-long dirt road passing dozens of parked vehicles of hunters out looking for whatever their prey was. Once you arrive at the parking lot, you are exceptionally close to the falls. Except we were not sure where we parked in relation to the falls. The first thing we noticed was what appeared to be a trailhead and a gate with dozens of other visitors going past. It seemed apparent to us that was the direction we needed to go to a far greater degree than the fenced area to our sides and just out of view of where we parked.

At the gates, some signs were clearly placed warning of the apparent dangers. I did not see a single one that said to stay out. To their credit, it is a dangerous place, and extreme care must be taken here.

At ten feet away from the ledge, you feel the wind ripping across the desert a bit more intensely; at 5 feet, your adrenaline starts spiking, any closer and you are very much testing the fates. Just a freak gust of strong wind and some loose stones, and you are dead.

I tell you this because the average person’s body will very much react to the genuine danger of being that close to the cliff. You do not really need the signs. You literally feel the threat from ten feet away, fence or no fence.

Yes, people have died there. A quick google search will let you know that.  Out of the last four deaths, two of them were swimming underneath the falls, and two fell. Seventeen life flights over the past couple of years, I searched for more information on each incident and came up empty handed. Were they the result of cold, fast-moving water or falling?

The possibility of death sounds scary, but you know, in comparison to the 200,000 visitors, the falls receive each year, and only two in the last half-decade attributed to falling. It is a relatively safe place to visit.

So if you, like us… noticed the signs warning of the danger, and you, like us… felt the adrenaline spike, you were probably part of the actual statistic of 99.999 percent of visitors that left the state park that year in your car and not in a life flight. For me, I stayed about five feet back, and my kids, I strictly ordered to stand behind me and where my tripod was set up. Which is where I was just out of frame when this photo was taken by my wife with her iPhone.

I take hundreds of photos of each of the many places we visit. I have taken more than a terabyte of pictures this year alone. The trail entrance was quite literally so expected and unremarkable that I did not even take the time to photograph it, and I quite literally take photos of EVERYTHING.

We take great care in our travels. I am consistently annoyed at Instagrammers who actively destroy landmarks and natural wonders to get amazing shots. As far as we were aware, we were on park land and we stayed on clearly marked paths.

Washington State Parks Instagram Intimidation

Here is where the problem begins; we like numerous others, post the photos to Instagram, and tag the pictures as you do on Instagram.

The next day, we found a surprising comment. Washington State Parks had taken the time to comment. Which ordinarily would have been a point of pride. But read it below.

My wife caught it first and she instantly felt bad. She showed the comment to me, deleted it and was about to remove the entire post. I stopped her. Their tags struck me as intimidation and bullying in the names of Native Americans, which instantly made me think, the same department that seems to lack the awareness they should rename Steptoe Butte is picking on people over the walking on trails they made.

Why is an agency that is a function of Washington state lecturing me on respecting indigenous lands? I haven’t fought legal battles all the way up to the state supreme court with indigenous people and actively worked to deny them fishing rights.

So here is where my brain started firing.

Their first bullet point, I think, was argued well enough above. It is dangerous. Everyone with a nervous system is aware of that, and the signs do not detract from that. I recognize that we may have been in the wrong place. It was not intentional.

However, there was a wide-open gate with the clearly marked and maintained trails guiding visitors to the gate and beyond. Trails that took us directly to where we took the photos seems a bit skewed from their message.

A point of concern to me, after their “you may damage artifacts” is did they not do an archeological survey prior to renaming Palouse Falls the Official Washington State Waterfall? That choice appears to have nearly quadrupled the amount of visitors it receives each year, of course they did a survey, right? Maybe they did, maybe not. If they did- it doesn’t appear to be public record.

I know the state parks probably does wonderful work alongside the tribes when it comes to preserving artifacts and historical sites. Early this year, I thought I may have stumbled upon a petroglyph in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and got a rare peek into how National Park officials (Not state park) work alongside the tribes to investigate and record these types of findings.

Palouse Falls is Dangerous, But…

Seriously, you should know not to be stupid in a place like Palouse Falls. Their comment is correct about placing rescuers in harm’s way, attempting to rescue you. I noticed the trail leading down to the bottom was sketchy from a fair distance away. That trail is listed on Alltrails.com and a few other sites.

Also, where I start to say hmmm, is that they clearly chose those particular hashtags to trigger or shame people. This is where Washington State Parks start to become glaringly hypocritical. Their work should be a work of atonement. It should be to educate and inform and NOT intimidate and shame.

Washington should not be policing and shaming it’s citizens for transgressions which it is far more guilty. Are they aware of the idiom that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones…

The land around the falls was once tribal land. The whole state was tribal land. The area around the falls is, to the best of my knowledge, not currently tribal land. It is however, very much sacred. The issue is that before it became a state park, it took many white men to donate their land, not a tribe. As a white man and a visitor to that land, I do truly appreciate them doing the right thing and sharing Palouse Falls with the world.

Washington State Parks Failure.

There are a few informational boards placed throughout that talk about the history of Native Americans in the area. The Palus tribe even had a village there.

An interesting fact is that the entire Palouse region either stems from that tribe’s name or the altered French word pelouse meaning grassy fields, possibly named by the French Fur traders who were amongst the first Europeans to visit the area. Historians are not sure which. It is entirely possible that the name for the Palus tribe was not the tribe’s actual name, but a name applied to the people who lived there by the French fur trappers.

To recognize the existence of an entire tribe of people who lived on that land. The Washington State Parks built a singular covered picnic area at the exact site where some artifacts of the tribe were discovered.

That picnic area technically could not even be used for a picnic since the picnic table was severely bowed. It was quite literally shaped like a half-pipe. As I approached it, I even thought, how the hell does something like that happen without the table breaking?

I did not even know that the picnic spot was chosen for its historical importance until I dug a bit deeper on the internet after returning home.

Congrats, Native Americans. Thousands of years of tribes living on the land, and all they got a dysfunctional picnic table. A picnic table from the same government organization that now co-opts hashtags like #respectindigenouspeople #nativeland and #nativeamerican. Why are they attempting to shame people who give a shit and respect the land into not doing something they designed and actively advertise.

So, excuse me for asking, what in the actual hell are you thinking Washington State Parks? Maybe shut up about respecting Native Americans when you literally have a state park named in honor of the guy who was sent to kill them and failed to such a degree that he became a national embarrassment. Are you seriously tone deaf to the fact the State of Washington has had a far more deleterious effect on tribes than my walking on clearly marked trails ever has?

Perhaps place your resources on solving ethical conundrum like how to atone for the states sins before policing Instagram for others you deem to be making far lesser sins.

Also, your reply seems an awful lot like a first amendment violation not-so-cleverly disguised as a call to social justice against the people who visited and freely helped promote the place you paid actual tax-payer dollars to entice people to visit. If Washington State Parks was hoping to intimidate or shame us into deleting the post, they failed.

We are not at fault or responsible for the overarching incompetence of your department.

My advice: stop sharing worthless platitudes on Instagram, maybe do more to rename state sites after Native Americans, and if you have enough tax-payer money left over, feel free to add a few more fences and signs warning of the very obvious dangers to Palouse Falls State Park or maybe even go the extra mile and build an actual monument. God forbid you build a museum on the spot the relics were found helping to educate future generations. Maybe even one of those glass bottom viewing decks. That would sure take the attention away from the clearly marked path leading past a wide open gate. You can start raising that money by cutting a position or two from your Instagram team. I’d happily donate to it’s construction.

I reached out to the Department of Washington State Parks to comment and was ignored because they clearly know better. I mean who the hell am I other than a guy who can read and make simple connections. But please, feel free to reach out and correct me. I am more than happy to admit I am wrong.

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Written by Corey Dembeck

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