Amid the renewed focus on the enduring impacts of race and racism exposed by the rhetoric and policy of the Trump administration, many people are taking a look back at two foundational acts in the making of America: slavery and the genocide against native Americans. Indigenous peoples inhabited the lands that now form the US National Parks for thousands of years before they were forced off to create the parks. As settlers expanded westward Native Americans were dispossessed of their lands, often brutally. The beloved national parks were established through the taking of these lands, including some present-day glacier or glacially-formed terrain, which figure prominently in the undertold history of the park systems’ creation.
“That’s how we think we lost it,” said Blackfoot tribal representative, John Murray, referring to a murky 1895 agreement ceding the Blackfoot tribe’s land to the US government. “When I was a kid all the elders talked about when the 99 years was going to be up. They all believed we would get it back,” he told GlacierHub.
Murray is the Blackfoot Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, a designated representative of federally-recognized tribes. The land in the northernmost American stretch of the Rocky Mountains, which his people thought would be returned to them, is now Glacier National Park, the “Crown of the Continent.” But before it became America’s most glorified national park upon establishment in 1910, it was inhabited by Murray’s ancestors, the Blackfeet.
The deep injustice felt by Murray and the Blackfeet is shared by indigenous people across the country. Though taking of Native American lands and bodies is taught in American schools, many of the 318 million visitors to the national parks last year were likely unaware of the dispossession of those lands to create them.
“Arguably the best idea America ever had was our national parks system,” a recent Thrillist article ranking the top 25 national parks in the United States began. “More than 300 million people visit every year, pouring over $35 billion into the national economy.”
The sentiment expressed in the Thrillist piece is a common refrain. The national parks are vaunted crown jewels of the nation, provide outdoor vacation opportunities, and are indispensable to local economies. The pristine lands and the people who had the presence of mind to protect them for future generations are enshrined in American lore and intrinsic to the country’s national pride.
Glaciated and glacially-formed landscapes were among the first to be established as parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite. The people who lived in those areas when colonizers arrived are among the most aggrieved.
In a painful irony, colonizers of the wild American west sought to produce wilderness by depopulating it, through force, coercion, and guile.
Uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved, writes Mark David Spence, a national parks historian and author of Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. A wilderness safe for tourism could not coexist with the indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land for generations.
The American ideal of wilderness was incompatible with habited land and “represented the one great flaw in the western landscape,” Spence wrote in his book. “According to the complaints of outdoor enthusiasts in the late nineteenth century, it seemed a wonder that any forests or animals remained in North America since Indians practically based their entire existence on the destruction of wilderness.”
The idea that indigenous peoples weren’t suited to properly care for the natural environs, which they safeguarded for generations, became a justification for their removal.
During the Pinedale Glaciation, a late phase of the most recent ice age, which ended between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago, Yellowstone was covered in ice 4,000 feet thick, leaving behind glacial features that continue to awe tourists today. At the time of Yellowstone National Park’s “discovery” by the Washburn Expedition in 1870, it was teeming with life. Thousands of people from as many as 26 indigenous groups including Bannock, various Shoshone, and Mountain Crow had been living there for generations. Early park officials understood that fear of Indian attack would prevent tourists from experiencing the wonders of Yellowstone. Through military force, the American ideal of wilderness was created by driving the groups off the land. The Wilderness Act of 1964 reinforced the idea, defining wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“Tourists and park managers believed that only the citizens of an emerging world power could experience the mountains with appropriate awe and reverence,” writes Spence. Awe and reverence the indigenous peoples certainly had––but they weren’t as interested in extraction of resources. “It wasn’t us who wanted to dig up the park,” said Murray, the Blackfoot representative. “It was our people and our values that kept places like Glacier National Park in the status they are so it could be declared a national park.” It wasn’t until prospectors fully inspected the purchased land, which yielded no minerals to exploit, that an alternative use for the land was imagined, including game hunting and scientific inquiry. But that vision would not include the land’s original inhabitants.
According to a 2012 study published in Conservation and Society, “Blackfeet suggested that the government deceived the illiterate Blackfeet leaders in the written terms of the 1895 Agreement,” wrote the authors. “Some tribal members claimed that the land was not sold, but “forcibly taken” even though “it might look like on paper that both parties agreed”.” The shadowy transaction occurred over several days of negotiation, included suspect language translation, and documentation only by the party holding the pen, paper, and legal terminology. The Blackfeet maintain they had only signed a 50-year lease of their land, not a cessation, and disagree on the park boundaries. Even the duration of the land lease isn’t agreed upon in the annals of Blackfeet history, much of which is unwritten, all but ensuring indefensibility of their claims in US courts of law, where material evidence reigns.
The eviction of the Blackfeet from their ancestral lands did more than displace people. “Exclusion and restriction from park lands and resources created a physical, personal, communal, inter-generational, and nutritional separation for the Blackfeet Nation from a crucial part of their homeland,” Spence told GlacierHub.
According to Spence, advertisements for Glacier National Park referred to Blackfeet as the “Glacier Park Indians” and often encouraged visitors to come and acquaint themselves with these “specimens of a Great Race soon to disappear.” Murray, the Blackfeet tribal representative, recalled park officials importing elk from Yellowstone and hiring Indians to stand around in buckskin regalia. “Down through history, Glacier Park has not been a very good neighbor,” Murray said.
“During the 1910s and ’20s, Yosemite National Park hosted popular Field Days where white visitors could dress in stereotypical garb,” wrote Hunter Oatman-Stanford in a 2018 article for Collectors Weekly. Where “indigenous employees were encouraged to act out white conceptions of native life.” The displays were designed to enhance tourists’ wilderness experience.
Indigenous people were consummate stewards of the land they inhabited and relied upon for every aspect of their lives from their strategic use of fire to their prudent hunting of game. A recent global assessment report issued by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services underscored the importance of protecting indigenous and local knowledge, people, and their ways of life if nature’s contributions to people are to be maintained. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report also notes increasing appreciation of local and indigenous knowledge in addressing land degradation issues.
The US government has done little to make reparations toward indigenous groups. In some recent instances, the Trump administration has exacted further damage. In 2017, President Trump signed the largest rollback of federally protected land in US history, slashing Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and halving nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante, both sites of sacred land to many Native American tribes. The president’s new Secretary of the Interior wants to open Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Pueblo cultural area for oil drilling. The fight to protect sacred Blackfeet sites is ongoing, as a challenge to industrialize the Badger-Two Medicine area, land considered to be the cradle of Blackfeet culture, pends in the US Court of Appeals.
Signs of a shift toward an understanding of historical responsibility for dispossession of national park lands are taking place locally, however, including in some glacier parks. The Southern Me-Wuk have reclaimed seven acres of land in the heart of Yosemite National Park to reconstruct a village. “This is really unique for a park,” said Scott Carpenter, the park’s cultural resources program manager, to the San Francisco Chronicle. “We can’t give all of Yosemite back to the tribes…but at least they can get some recognition of their story and continuity of their culture.”
In Alaska, Mount McKinley was recently renamed Denali, restoring the name to its indigenous heritage. In Glacier Bay National Park a newly constructed tribal house begins a fresh chapter in the contentious relationship between the Huna Tlingit, a Native American tribe, and the National Park Service. In the American southwest all tourist excursions into Utah’s popular Antelope Canyon are run by Navajo-owned businesses. Earlier this week the Cherokee Nation appointed its first delegate to the US Congress.
Indigenous representatives and scholars agree that the National Park Service will continue need to consider new approaches to park-tribal relations, including the integration of cultural and natural resource management, a reconceptualizing of wilderness as one compatible with sustainable use, and sharing control with indigenous groups through co-management and joint permitting systems.
Ameliorating the injustices that occurred 150 years ago at the hands people no longer alive won’t right the wrongs, but it’s a start.