The People of the Glacier Lands Taken to Create US National Parks

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.

Members of the U.S. 6th Cavalry pose with the Fallen Monarch tree in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, Yosemite, 1899 (Source: National Parks Service).

“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. 

Glacier National Park’s most iconic piece of ice, Grinnell Glacier, shown in 1910 and 2017 (Source: National Parks Service).

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.”

Eight Crow prisoners in present-day Yellowstone National Park, 1887 (Source: WikiCommons).

“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 second largest remaining glacier in Glacier National Park, Blackfoot Glacier, photographed in 2012, bears the tribe’s name (Source: Troy Smith/Flickr).

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.

Blackfeet in the Two Medicine area, 1914 (Source: National Parks Service)

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.

Sadie and Suzie McGowan, of the Mono Lake Paiute, standing in meadow near Yosemite Falls, 1901 (Source: San Joaquin Valley Library).

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.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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Native Americans Call to Change Names of Yellowstone Sites

An organization of tribal leaders representing Indian Nations in the Dakotas and Nebraska has called for a name change of Yellowstone National Park’s Mt. Doane and Hayden Valley.

Mt. Doane, a 10,500-foot peak located in the Absaroka Range along the eastern boundary of the park, was named after Gustavus Doane, an American lieutenant who played a major role in a large massacre of Native peoples in 1870. Tribes across the United States and Canada have joined a petition to change the name of Mt. Doane to “First Peoples Mountain.”

In addition, a number of groups have called to change the name of Hayden Valley, a major attraction located in the center of Yellowstone National Park. The valley was created by glacial retreat about 13,000 years ago. However, like Mt. Doane, the name of the valley is contentious. It was named after Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist and surveyor who advocated for removal of Native Americans.

Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park (Source: Freddie Tanedo/Flickr).
The name change petitions in Yellowstone mirror a national movement to remove monuments and landmarks tied to racism.  
 In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Chief Stanley Charles Grier of the Piikani Nation said Hayden “incited this hatred towards indigenous peoples at the time in his policies and his written statements.”

In August, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, along with individual tribes, submitted a proposition to change the name of the iconic valley to
 “Buffalo Nations Valley.”

 

However, controversy surrounds these petitions. In early 2018, elected county park commissioners in Wyoming voted against the Native Americans’ proposal for these landmarks to be renamed. Some commissioners expressed that changing these two names would open the door to a long series of controversies and debates over the naming of other landmarks. Moreover, they have advocated that people like the current names and are comfortable with them.
Although the committee voted against the name change, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names has the final authority on the decision.Regardless of what the board determines, many Native communities remain committed to calling the landmarks by their Indigenous names. Len Necefer, a member of Navajo Nation who received a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy is a leader in this effort. Necefer stimulates and encourages people to place geotags using the location’s Indigenous name. Necefer created social media pages on Facebook and Instagram to check in to places using geotags that show Native place names and indicate their locations around Colorado. @NativeOutdoors has over 20 thousand followers on Instagram and encourages the dialogue and acknowledgement of Native communities in public wild spaces.
@NativesOutdoors(Source: NativesOutdoors/Instagram)

The push to rename Hayden Valley and Mount Doane is part of a movement that is likely to continue.

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Leaving No Stone Unturned: An Interview with Yellowstone’s Ice Patch Archaeologist

Craig M. Lee, from the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), is a renowned researcher in the field of glacier archaeology. Recently, Lee and his team from INSTAAR created a video on ice patch archaeology in the Greater Yellowstone region. The video introduces Lee’s glacier archaeological findings and work in the region since 2005 as he has sought to reveal Native American cultures with impending climate change.

“We really want the people of Montana to know that there is a very deep heritage to their state,” Lee says passionately in the video before the camera pans across a beautiful landscape of ice patches. “High in the alpine, above the modern treeline, ice patches – frozen for millenia – are melting,” he adds.

Lee has experience working in federal, state and municipal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He has also directed field projects in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, publishing his research in several major journals, including Antiquity, American Antiquity, Arctic, and The Holocene.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Lee explains more about his work at INSTAAR and his recent video.

GlacierHub: Please give a brief introduction of yourself and your academic interest.

Craig M. Lee: I’m an anthropologist and archaeologist interested in the human use of alpine environments. Beginning in 2000, through impetus of doctors E. James Dixon of the University of New Mexico (formerly of INSTAAR) and William F. Manley (INSTAAR), I was introduced to the then nascent field of “ice patch archaeology” through several years of formative and amazing fieldwork with members of the Ahtna Tribe in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in the Interior of Alaska. The field has grown in geographic range and complexity, and we now recognize it to be global in nature (And yet all of Asia remains terra incognita). Researchers in Europe frequently refer to the field as “glacial archaeology,” in part because of archaeological finds in glaciated passes.

Lee out in the field at Yellowstone National Park
Lee out in the field at Yellowstone National Park (Source: Craig M. Lee).

GH: What drove you to create the video?

CML: The field is a tiny silver-lining to climate change in that the host of paleobiological material and archaeological material being exposed by melting ice patches is providing an unprecedented window into the past. Archaeological resources emerging from retreating ice patches can capture public interest and integrate education about archaeology and Native American cultures with ancient and modern climate change. The United States Forest Service, a consistent, primary partner in the research for more than a decade recognized it was important to share the results of the project with a broad public audience and helped fund the video. The target audience includes all of the citizens of Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Area (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming), but it will resonate with people living elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains and other areas with alpine snow and ice in North America and around the world.

GH: After watching the video, what is the main takeaway message you would like the audience to get?

CML: Ice patches and the alpine have been central elements of the socio-cultural landscape of the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA)–and of many mountainous areas— since time immemorial. The places, now construed as wilderness— ostensibly devoid of Man— were a “peopled-landscape” and contain clear evidence of sustained human interaction and involvement year-over-year, century-over-century, and millennia-over-millennia. It is patently wrong to think of these places as “intact” ecosystems without humans as an apex participant.

Ice Patches in the Greater Yellowstone Region
Ice Patches in the Greater Yellowstone Region with Lee and his team (Source: Craig M. Lee).

GH: Any other information you would like to share with our readers?

CML: In the conterminous United States alone, archaeological material exposed by melting snow and ice has been identified from the Sierra Nevada of California to Olympic National Park in Washington, and from the Colorado Front Range to the Greater Yellowstone. We have no cogent way to respond outside of the sheer force of will brought to bear by a few incredibly hard-working scientists in staff positions in our federal agencies, for example, forest and park ecologists and archaeologists. The ice patch record is finite, and the overt decisions we make to engage (or not) with this opportunity to “know” the past affects all future generations. To quote friend and colleague Francis Auld (Kootenai), “The protection of these resources is essential for sustaining the living cultures.”

GH: The video has received high reception from residents of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem/Greater Yellowstone Area (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming) thus far. If you are living in the Rocky Mountains or other areas with alpine snow and ice in North America and around the world, or are simply intrigued by the work of glacier archaeologists, this video is highly relevant and recommended.

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Roundup: More Cars, Skiers but Fewer Helicopters This Summer

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

 100 YEARS OF PARKS

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Visitors gathered at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park (Source: Montana Standard)

From MONTANA STANDARD:

“After Yellowstone National Park welcomed a record 4 million visitors in 2015, what will America’s first national park do for an encore in 2016?Probably more of the same. Tourism experts are predicting that 2016 should be another banner year for Montana’s tourism industry. Montana hosted 11.7 million nonresident travelers in 2015, an 8 percent increase from 2014. However, the $3.6 billion, in spending represented a decrease of 8 percent from the previous year.

UM’s research shows that Yellowstone and Glacier National Park represent the biggest draw to out-of-state travelers. A number of events that will coincide with the centennial of the National Park Service could also boost visitation this year.”

Read more here.

 

Group wants Glacier Park helicopter tours permanently grounded

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Glacier Hotel had its share of colorful characters and events. (Source: Missoulian)

From Missoulian:

“Click on a website Mary T. McClelland created a few days ago, and you’ll see waves lapping at the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

McClelland this week released an open letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on behalf of Friends for a Quiet! Glacier Coalition, which calls for an end to scenic helicopter tours over the park by 2017.

Glacier’s solitude has been shattered by hundreds of helicopter overflights,” McClelland’s letter says, “and the incessant noise pollution endured by wildlife and visitors is destroying what Glacier stands for – the pinnacle of natural beauty and tranquility.”

 Read more here.

Top 5 Glaciers to Ski This Summer

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Before dropping the Middle Teton, Griffin Post and his crew had the opportunity to contemplate their sanity. (Source: OnTheSnow)

From OnTheSnow:

“If hiking for your turns during the spring means you’re committed, what does hiking for you turns during the peak of summer make you? Aside from chemically unbalanced, it makes you lucky. A number of glaciers still exist in North America (believe it or not), from the Sierras to the Tetons, offering skiers and riders not only an endless winter, but endless views as well. Here are our top-five spots to scratch (or should we say shred) that summer itch.

1. Grand Teton National Park: Glacier Route, Middle Teton

2. Glacier National Park: Salamander Glacier

3. Mount Shasta: Hotlum-Wintun Glacier

4. Sierra Nevada: Palisade Glacier

5. Mount Rainier: Paradise Glacier”

Read more here.

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