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Story by David Treuer
May 2021 Issue
Editor’s note: This article is part of a new series called “Who Owns America’s Wilderness?”
photo above: Katy Grannan–Glacier National Park, in Montana, as seen from the Blackfeet Reservation, near Duck Lake.
WN: It’s hard to fathom the horror of White genocide against the Indigenous of North America. Deliberate or inadvertent, massive loss of life and concomitant loss of land are legacy of Western “civilization’s” advance on Turtle Island. For as we read:
When describing the simultaneous creation of the parks and Native American reservations, the Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk noted darkly that the United States “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller.”
Many of the negotiations that enabled the creation of these islands took place in English (to the disadvantage of the tribes), when the tribes faced annihilation or had been weakened by disease or starvation (to the disadvantage of the tribes), or with bad faith on the part of the government (to the disadvantage of the tribes). The treaties that resulted, according to the U.S. Constitution, are the “supreme Law of the Land.” Yet even despite their cruel terms, few were honored. Native American claims and rights were ignored or chipped away. (emphasis added)
“To the disadvantage of others” . . . has ever been the prevailing American Way–polar opposite of any concept of truth or justice. This was fundamental, original made-in-America apartheid. An evil concoction of greed, fear and xenophobia has ever driven American policy towards the “Other.” “Land of the Free”–provided one was on the White side of “Freedom.”
In 1851, members of a California state militia called the Mariposa Battalion became the first white men to lay eyes on Yosemite Valley….
The Mariposa Battalion had come to Yosemite to kill Indians. Yosemite’s Miwok tribes, like many of California’s Native peoples, were obstructing a frenzy of extraction brought on by the Gold Rush. And whatever Bunnell’s fine sentiments about nature, he made his contempt for these “overgrown, vicious children” plain:
Any attempt to govern or civilize them without the power to compel obedience, will be looked upon by barbarians with derision … The savage is naturally vain, cruel and arrogant. He boasts of his murders and robberies, and the tortures of his victims very much in the same manner that he recounts his deeds of valor in battle.When the roughly 200 men of the Mariposa Battalion marched into Yosemite, armed with rifles, they did not find the Miwok eager for battle. While the Miwok hid, the militiamen sought to starve them into submission by burning their food stores, souring the valley’s air with the smell of scorched acorns. On one particularly bloody day, some of the men came upon an inhabited village outside the valley, surprising the Miwok there. They used embers from the tribe’s own campfires to set the wigwams aflame and shot at the villagers indiscriminately as they fled, murdering 23 of them. By the time the militia’s campaign ended, many of the Miwok who survived had been driven from Yosemite, their homeland for millennia, and forced onto reservations.
Thirty-nine years later, Yosemite became the fifth national park. (Yellowstone, which was granted that status in 1872, was the first.) The parks were intended to be natural cathedrals: protected landscapes where people could worship the sublime. They offer Americans the thrill of looking back over their shoulder at a world without humans or technology. Many visit them to find something that exists outside or beyond us, to experience an awesome sense of scale, to contemplate our smallness and our ephemerality. It was for this reason that John Muir, the father of modern conservationism, advocated for the parks’ creation.
More than a century ago, in the pages of this magazine, Muir described the entire American continent as a wild garden “favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe.” But in truth, the North American continent has not been a wilderness for at least 15,000 years: Many of the landscapes that became national parks had been shaped by Native peoples for millennia. Forests on the Eastern Seaboard looked plentiful to white settlers because American Indians had strategically burned them to increase the amount of forage for moose and deer and woodland caribou. Yosemite Valley’s sublime landscape was likewise tended by Native peoples; the acorns that fed the Miwok came from black oaks long cultivated by the tribe. The idea of a virgin American wilderness—an Eden untouched by humans and devoid of sin—is an illusion.
The national parks are sometimes called “America’s best idea,” and there is much to recommend them. They are indeed awesome places, worthy of reverence and preservation, as Native Americans like me would be the first to tell you. But all of them were founded on land that was once ours, and many were created only after we were removed, forcibly, sometimes by an invading army and other times following a treaty we’d signed under duress. When describing the simultaneous creation of the parks and Native American reservations, the Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk noted darkly that the United States “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller.”
Many of the negotiations that enabled the creation of these islands took place in English (to the disadvantage of the tribes), when the tribes faced annihilation or had been weakened by disease or starvation (to the disadvantage of the tribes), or with bad faith on the part of the government (to the disadvantage of the tribes). The treaties that resulted, according to the U.S. Constitution, are the “supreme Law of the Land.” Yet even despite their cruel terms, few were honored. Native American claims and rights were ignored or chipped away.The American story of “the Indian” is one of staggering loss. Some estimates put the original Indigenous population of what would become the contiguous United States between 5 million and 15 million at the time of first contact. By 1890, around the time America began creating national parks in earnest, roughly 250,000 Native people were still alive. In 1491, Native people controlled all of the 2.4 billion acres that would become the United States. Now we control about 56 million acres, or roughly 2 percent.Read: The Blackfeet brain drainAnd yet we remain, and some of us have stayed stubbornly near the parks, preserving our attachment to them. Grand Canyon National Park encloses much of the Havasupai Tribe and its reservation. Pipe Spring National Monument sits entirely inside the 120,000-acre Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation, in northern Arizona. Many other parks neighbor Native communities. But while the parks may be near us, and of us, they are not ours.We live in a time of historical reconsideration, as more and more people recognize that the sins of the past still haunt the present. For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend—and protect and preserve—these favored gardens again.
Please click on: Return National Parks to the Tribes