National Parks: Built On Illusion? - The Years Project

National Parks: Built On Illusion?

By Alexandra Brainerd

Widely known as “America’s best idea,” national parks offer a chance to experience the pristine American continent as it was before European contact, an uninhabited natural landscape “unspoiled” by human activity. But this illusion of uninhabited wilderness had to first be created. Almost every national park was once home to Indigenous communities that lived deeply with and modified the land for millennia, until the United States government forcibly removed them. National parks created a commodified wilderness that was offered to White Americans, excluding communities of color and allowing non-wilderness areas to become sacrifice zones.  

In 1872, when Yellowstone was created as the first American national park, the United States was undergoing large land use changes as well as beginning to transition from wood to coal as a dominant source of energy. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. forest cover had been reduced by 286 million acres from desire for timber to build houses and railroads, as well as clearing land for farming and industrial purposes. This large-scale extractivism of the American landscape may have pushed congress to protect designated pockets of land from exploitation.

In the backdrop of this period of exploitation of American soil, Native communities were massacred by U.S. troops, relocated into reservations by the government to control Native populations, and sent to the first off-reservation boarding schools. This was a period of forced cultural suppression, trauma, and the loss of many traditional practices. Prior to colonization, Indigenous communities had lived on American land for thousands of years. Instead of viewing natural resources as capital to deplete, Indigenous communities traditionally lived with the earth in a mostly sustainable and reciprocal way due to years of generational knowledge of the land and its resources. 

Though often unrecognized, the creation of national parks was another form of government sanctioned eradication of Native people and culture. In Yellowstone, over 26 tribes, including the Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Sheep Eaters, and Nez Perce, had ancestral connections to the land – which they had inhabited for more than 10,000 years. By 1879, the government had removed the last of the tribes in the park and additionally struck down Indigenous treaty rights in the Ward v. Race Horse Supreme Court decision of 1896. This extinguishing of Indigenous rights in Yellowstone became the template for the formation of proceeding national parks.

The National Park Service was created 44 years after the establishment of Yellowstone, as a sub-department of the U.S. Department of Interior – right alongside the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These two departments often fought to obtain control over national parks, most of which were initially inhabited, owned, or claimed by Native tribes. 

The creation of the NPS was made possible by The National Park Service Act of 1916 which sought to outline the purpose of national parks. Native communities on national park lands received no recognition in this act. Misguided Indigenous recognition was also apparent in The Wilderness Act of 1964. This act protected more than 100 million acres of public land with the intention of securing “for the American people… the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Wilderness was defined “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.” This act further erased the history of Native communities with claims that national parks were never inhabited, and solidified the concept that humans and the natural world cannot live together.  

Though there have been improvements, national parks still marginalize Indigenous communities and perspectives. Seventy-eight percent of national park visitors are White, and Native employees in the park services remain at low numbers. Within park visitor centers and museums, the NPS usually leaves out Native stories and histories and instead shares White settler perspectives. Additionally, at the borders of many national parks, such as Death Valley, Badlands, and Glacier, Indigenous communities historically pushed off of these lands suffer from extremely high unemployment rates of up to 50 percent

While national parks may be applauded as “America’s best idea,” the problematic history and narrative of wilderness that these parks foster inherently erases Indigenous perspectives and culture under the veil of conservation. As the United States continues to exploit its landscape and deplete its natural resources, our national parks will continue to serve as pockets of remaining nature. It is vital that Indigenous history in these parks doesn’t remain in the shadows and instead becomes a central narrative to conservation discourse within this country. 

Header image: Kelsey Johnson via Pexels