America’s national parks are often considered the country’s “crown jewels” – places of beauty, recreation, conservation and preservation of precious wilderness.
But Atlantic magazine contributor David Treuer says that land wasn’t wild when it became parkland. It had been trodden on for millennia by Native Americans. He argues that land should be returned to Native American tribes so they can manage it for all Americans.
Treuer grew up on the Ojibwe Leech Lake reservation in Northern Minnesota, and is a professor at the University of Southern California. He says returning the land would be part of a reckoning with America’s troubled past of “defrauding” Native tribes out of their land. And that reckoning is happening at the same time the country reckons with its history of racism, oppression and white supremacy.
“Look at our country, look at what we’re going through. Look at what just happened in Chicago, look what happened in Atlanta, look what happened in Boulder. Look what’s happening, you know, in relation to Black men in this country. Look what’s happening to sort of all of us in relation to the vaccine, in relation to the pandemic – it is a moment of reckoning for all of us. And I think we need to reckon with the past,” Treuer told Texas Standard.
Yellowstone was America’s first national park, founded in 1872. Its creation, along with that other parks, was built upon a myth that the country was virgin territory when Europeans came here to colonize. If the land was considered “wilderness” they could justify “civilizing” it. The parks were preservation of that so-called wilderness.
“And so you need to think of it as an untouched wilderness in order for that story to be true and to feel like you had a right to do what you did. But it’s not true,” Treuer said.
The parks came about around the same time as Native American reservations – both “boxes” that are too small for animals or people, Treuer quotes Native American spiritual leader Black Elk as saying.
But Treuer says Americans now have an opportunity to right wrongs done to Native people by doing what is “noble.”
“For the past 40 years, you know, since Reagan, frankly, a lack of compassion is sort of become dominant in our politics and in our public,” he said. “And this country, if it’s going to survive, needs to remember and reassert its nobler ideals, one of which is justice.”
Treuer has faced some detractors since his Atlantic story was published, but says much of the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive.”