Apr 30, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cecilia Timberg | Photo by Bibi Powers

I have driven cross-country three times in my life and each time I have planned my trip by laying a well-worn map of the U.S. on the floor and playing a connect-the-dot game with the green blotches before me: National Parks.

My magnetic pull towards National Parks is as strong as it is ignorant. I was raised on the myth that National Parks are stretches of land protected as a snapshot of an America untouched by humans. In reality, the history of National Parks is soaked in corruption, displacement, and bloodshed of Indigenous communities. 

To uncover the amoral history of National Parks, it is necessary to understand that in the late 19th century and early 20th century, nature was defined by its absence of humanity. For wilderness to be inhabited by humans was completely oxymoronic.

John Muir, who is known as the “father of National Parks,” exemplifies how this mindset directly relates to Indigenous communities. In his essay “The Mountains of California”, in which he recounts his exploration of the Yosemite Valley, he writes of the Indigenous peoples he encounters “having no place in the landscape.”  With this justification, Indigenous communities across the American West were removed from the landscapes that were later designated as National Parks.

Yosemite National Park is a primary example of this displacement. The Mariposa Battalion was the first group of white people to ever view Yosemite Valley in 1851. The battalion had been sent into Northern California to kill Yosemite’s Miwok people as well as any other Indigenous communities that stood in the way of the California gold rush.

They marched into Yosemite with rifles in hopes of massacring any Miwok member, but the Miwok people hid from the invaders. The Mariposa Battalion resorted to starving them out by burning their food stores. On one particular day when they came upon a Miwok village, the members of the Battalion set the wigwams on fire and murdered 23 people as they fled their burning homes. Less than 40 years later, Yosemite became the fifth National Park.

The story of Yosemite Valley is not an anomaly in the “discovery” of pristine landscapes and dedication of National Parks. The displacement of Indigenous communities on these lands took the forms of coerced treaty signing, forced seizure of land, and intentional relocation of people.

Glacier National Park was reluctantly signed away by the Blackfeet in direct contradiction to a treaty that guaranteed that the area would remain under Indigenous control. Forcible and legal measures were taken to remove Crow, Shoshone, Bannock and Sheep Eater peoples from Yellowstone before and after its dedication as a National Park, and the government utilized threats and unequal bargains to seize Mesa Verde from the Ute people to dedicate Mesa Verde National Park. The pattern of manipulation, displacement, and physical force underpins the history of a large portion of National Parks in the U.S.

The simultaneously rising abundance of National Parks and Indigenous reservations is no coincidence. As the Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk puts it, the U.S. “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller.”

As National Park Week drew to a close last Sunday, I was haunted by the question: what now? A necessary first step is the incorporation of land acknowledgments. National Parks should include land acknowledgments at each visitor’s center to highlight the Indigenous communities that resided there. But land acknowledgments are just the first step.

David Treuer, a member of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region, wrote an article in The Atlantic arguing that “all 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States.” The acreage cited would not fully make up for the General Allotment Act, which took 90 million acres of land away from Indigenous communities, but it would be a first step.

This would also protect National Parks from the partisan tug-of-war battles taking place in Washington. A similar occurrence actually took place in New Zealand and Australia, where Indigenous communities were granted control over the country’s most precious national landmark.

Baby steps have been taken by the National Park Service to try to reckon with its history. For example, the Blackfeet may enter and camp in Glacier National Park for free. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) was passed to allow Indigenous people to enter National Parks to “exercise traditional religions,” and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) was passed to allow Indigenous Alaskan people to have a role in the conservation of Alaskan natural resources. However, there is still a long way to go.

Whether the next step in the history of National Parks is to provide uncensored use of National Park land to Indigenous communities, normalize land acknowledgments, or turn over all National Park land to Indigenous communities, one truth is clear: National Parks preserve a false narrative of an America that was absent of people and civilization upon white settlement. They preserve an America that never was.

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