To explore the history, culture and current life surrounding Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site on the North Dakota-Montana border, look through the eyes of National Park Service employee Loren Yellow Bird. Loren's Arikara-Hidatsa ancestors were part of real history on the land long before there was a fort here—or a national park site.
Loren has worked at Fort Union for 17 years as an interpreter, historian and park ranger. At the park, Loren participates in historical re-enactments as a Native American dancer, fur trader, and weapons expert. His many hats also have included wildland firefighter, EMS responder, sun dancer and pipe carrier.
“We all need to know the history and culture we talk about and represent at our site,” Loren says. Nearby in his office, he proudly displays a picture of his great-great-great grandfather, Son of the Star -- a reminder of his family’s history and ties to the land. “It's not just the Native culture but also the European culture, the fur trade culture, the early American West and the preservation of the land and its resources.”
As the only Native American working at the fort, he feels a calling to speak not only for his own tribe but for all of the nine tribes for whom Fort Union was the most important fur trading post on the Upper Missouri River between 1828 and 1867.
His historical and linguistic expertise led to an offer to take a leave of absence to serve as the technical advisor on the Arikara language and other tribal languages for the movie The Revenant. Fort Henry, the precursor to Fort Union, plays an important role in this 2015 Oscar-winning film. Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a frontiersman who survived a grizzly bear attack on the Western frontier. His journey takes him to Fort Henry at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in northwestern Montana. Fort Henry, built in 1822, and later Fort Union, went on to become the place “where hides and beads changed hands” in the fur trade, according to the National Park Service. The movie has drawn travelers to visit present-day Fort Union.
Now Loren Yellow Bird himself is the subject of a new video. When David Ehrenberg and his team at the Park Service’s Harpers Ferry Center wanted to create a video about Fort Union with a more unique focus than the usual National Park Service living history piece, they focused their cameras on Loren. In the video, we see him as a park ranger in his uniform, but also as a dancer at a Native American celebration, as a costumed fur trader and as a weapons expert firing a flintlock musket.
If you visit Fort Union, be sure to stop by the visitor center to watch the NPS short doc and check out one of the ranger programs.