The Story We've Been Told About America's National Parks Is Incomplete

tags: National Parks, public lands

A scholar of indigenous studies, Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is policy director and senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She teaches American Indian studies at California State University at San Marcos. 

Historians of the environmental movement often locate the conservation movement’s genesis in mid-19th-century literature, most commonly invoking writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. After Emerson composed a book titled Nature in 1836, a new, mystical religious and philosophical movement called transcendentalism began to emerge in Boston, Emerson its founder, with the help of Thoreau and others. Believing that a direct experience with the divine could be attained through intimate interaction with nature, both became known as naturalists in what was a new, highly romanticized, and particularly American version of naturalism.

While Emerson and Thoreau were paving fresh intellectual ground in the East, the artist George Catlin (who was unconnected to the Transcendentalist movement) was traveling out west documenting the last of the “wild” Indian tribes, becoming famous for the hundreds of paintings that are now his legacy and for beginning a national dialogue on the need for national parks. He published several books, among them the classic Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians in 1841. In the book, Catlin lamented what he believed was the beginning of the extinction of the buffalo and the tribes who depended on them. He proposed that the U.S. should create a “Nations’ park containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!” Catlin’s work was influential and widely acclaimed, and while the idea for a national park was not yet taken seriously, a growing national angst about modernity made conditions ripe for it by the early 1870s.

The national park system has long been lauded as “America’s greatest idea,” but only relatively recently has it begun to be more deeply questioned. In his 1999 book Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Mark David Spence delivered a long-overdue critique that linked the creation of the first national parks with the federal policy of Indian removal. Spence points out that the first so-called wilderness areas that had been deemed in need of preserving were not only and in actuality Indigenous-occupied landscapes when the first national parks were established, but also that an uninhabited wilderness had to first be created. He examines the creation of Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite National Parks in particular to illustrate the way the myth of uninhabited virgin wilderness has for more than a century obscured a history of Native land dispossession in the name of preservation and conservation and serves as the foundation of the environmental movement.


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