Posted 121 days ago
David Treuer's argument is not only compelling, it's masterfully laid out and beautifully written. It made me want to get out and see these parks at my next possible chance and wanting to support a movement or referendum that would support his suggestion. Ideally, I actually don't think that the National Parks should be anybody's - we should try and preserve land that does not fall under the category of posession - but the tribes should certainly have more control over their maintenance. But actually transferring ownership makes sense when Treuer spills out the history of their creation.
He opens by describing the Parks' sheer beauty:
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.
We want to believe that they represent the "virgin American wilderness." Treuer says that this "is an illusion." Native tribes cultivated the land, strategically burning large swaths of land for forage for moose, deer, and caribou, among other large-scale projects. What the first American colonists came upon was not a "virgin" land, but one that was worked and prepared to support "between 5 million and 15 million" Native Americans. But the colonization of America decimated their population:
By 1890, around the time America began creating national parks in earnest, roughly 250,000 Native people were still alive.
The remaining population was forced onto reservations by the federal government. This was their goal:
In blunt terms, Thomas Morgan, the commissioner of Indian affairs, said in 1890 that the goal of federal policy at the time was “to break up reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations or tribes or bands, but as individual citizens.” This land grab bled at least another 90 million acres away from the tribes—roughly equivalent to the 85 million acres that comprise America’s 423 national-park sites.
We have this belieft that the National Parks are American "jewels," representative of our good nature and respect for the land. But Treuer's article gives us a much different sense of what they were about. Specifically, he looks at the history of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the largest champions for the parks. Treuer, on a roadtrip to see America's national parks, writes:
I wanted to begin my journey at Theodore Roosevelt because no one embodies the tensions of the park system as it is currently constituted like the 26th president. Contained in the person of Roosevelt was a wild love for natural vistas and a propensity for violent imperialism; an overwhelming desire for freedom and a readiness to take it away from other people.
As Americans, we often speak in high terms of patriotism and freedom, what we wish we embodied. The stark reality is that America, for the vast majority of people, embodies something entirely different. It is, and has been, a place of opportunity, but often for those for adhere to the principles (religion, race, ethnicity, gender) of those in power. Everybody else has to experience the full power of its imperialistic tendencies.
Although our history is filled with dark pages, Treuer believes that "ours is an era of Native resurgence." He writes:
For all we have suffered, there remain 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. When the first national parks were created at the end of the 19th century, only about 250,000 Native people were left in the U.S. Now there are more than 5 million Native Americans throughout the country, roughly equal to the number of Jewish Americans and millions more than the number of Muslim Americans.
Now is the time, he believes to transfer the ownership of these Parks, which were once the lands that allowed the Native American population to prosper, back to the protection of the tribes. This is an excellent argument, and one we should try to push forward. Pragmatically, I don't think it would happen all at once, but I believe we could start, right now, with "pilot programs" to transfer individual parks - probably those tied historically closest with tribes on whatever criteria the tribes decide on - to a "consortium of federally recognized tribes" as Treur suggests.