Our National Parks: Indigenous Voices

Jun 16, 2016

Though the national parks have famously been called “America’s best idea," this sentiment is not universally accepted.

Native Americans were dispossessed of their historical lands in many national parks. Moreover, some parks, such as Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Missouri with its iconic Gateway Arch, is a stark reminder of this history. To most Americans, this park is a celebration of nation-building, but to many Native Americans, it recalls a period when homelands were lost and families shattered.

Moreover, the very concept of a national park is at odds with traditional Native American culture. Native Hawaiian and National Park Service employee, Melia Lane-Kamahele writes that “a national park in its conventional form – complete with boundary lines on a map, non-indigenous places names and an operating structure comprised of statutes, regulations and policies – is far removed from how many indigenous people understand the world.”

Despite this divisive history and culture, there’s been genuine progress over the past several decades to help bridge the divide between national parks and Native Americans. For example, parks such as Washita Battlefield National Historic Site and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site have been established and interpreted to tell the difficult stories of atrocities against indigenous people.

Other national parks are being “co-managed” between the National Park Service and Native American tribes on a “nation-to-nation” basis. Examples include Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where the Navajo continue traditional farming practices, and Grand Canyon National Park where multiple Native American tribes are actively engaged in managing the park’s more than 4,000 archeological sites.

On the island of Hawaii, the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail connects hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites, and trail management is increasingly the responsibility of community groups with strong historical connections to this place. The National Park of American Samoa is leased from local villages that help manage the park.

On a grander scale, the historic Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 included a provision for Native people to hunt, fish, gather, and carry out other traditional subsistence activities in designated areas of many Alaskan national parks.

It’s important that Native Americans play a vital role in establishing, interpreting and managing national parks. And to understand the full diversity of our nation’s history, it’s equally important that all Americans hear the voices of indigenous people.