A Century of Theft From Indians by the National Park Service

In early February, I stopped in the men’s room at the Hole-in-the-Wall visitor center in Mojave National Preserve in southern California. Above the urinal was a framed history poster entitled, “Fort Mojave – Aha Mocave – And Then the White Man Came.” I was instantly offended by its placement. After all, figuratively, what a man would be doing under this poster is exactly what European colonialism has been doing on Indians for centuries.

The poster’s voluminous text, in three columns, along with eight captioned photographs, presented far more information than could be absorbed in even a long visit to the urinal (not that I’m suggesting it should have been hung in the toilet stall where people are likelier to spend more time). I was quite interested in its content so took some photos so I could study it more carefully later.

The Mojave National Preserve is run by the National Park Service, which, in contrast to previous times, has been including more Indian history in its displays and programs, and presumably this oddly-sited poster is part of that effort. Why wasn’t it inside the visitor center itself, where one might read it with better attention? And was it also displayed in the women’s room? I didn’t check. Among the books on sale in the visitor center, one full shelf was dedicated to the topic of Indians, and though the selection was decent, this particular poster — hung on the wall with other ones — would have given the topic visibility to more people.

Getting back into my truck, it occurred to me that someone with a mischievous sense of humor — with what some Indians might call “coyote spirit” — could have purposefully placed the poster above the urinal, so that the fact of Indian mistreatment by Europeans would be square in the face of every man who went in there, the majority of whom would be white. (According to research of visitors by the Park Service itself, “ethnic and racial minorities are virtually absent from the major parks in the system,” with Blacks and Latinos comprising only 3.5% each, well below their proportion of the general population.[1]) The idea that the poster was there as a prank gave me a wry smile, but if I was going to make a bet, I’d put my dollar on insensitivity.

Indian history, specifically as it relates to the National Park Service (NPS), had already been on my mind. A few days earlier, I had stopped into a Joshua Tree National Park visitor center to purchase an “America the Beautiful” annual pass, since I plan to travel throughout federal public lands in the West over the next few months and the pass will save me money in entrance fees. While there, the ranger pushed into my hand the latest edition of the park’s free quarterly newspaper.

The front page story was entitled, “Celebrating the Centennial of the National Park Service.” Amidst the expected “rah rah us, we’ll be here for another century” promotional banter was a quotation by George Catlin, a famed 19th Century painter of Western landscapes. In an 1833 article in a New York newspaper, Catlin suggested protecting the nation’s “pristine beauty and wilderness” by establishing “a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.”

Catlin is credited with coining the term, “National Park” and his vision was of a preserve in which would abound not only plants and animals but also Indians, who were common subjects of his paintings. This view was shared by other European thinkers of the day including John James Audubon, Osborne Russel, and Henry David Thoreau. In 1837, Washington Irving called for “an immense belt of rocky mountains and volcanic plains, several hundred miles in width” that “must ever remain an irreclaimable wilderness, intervening between the abodes of civilization, and affording a last refuge to the Indian.”[2] Admiration for the Indians (though often enough marked with a patronizing tone) was also a theme for many of the capital-R Romantics of the 18th and 19th Centuries; see Rousseau’s “noble savages.”

These inclusive ideas went out of vogue over the next fifty years. Catlin had made his call before the Gold Rush, the Oregon Trail and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Westward expansion of the European colonists intruded further and further into the territories of the Indians, who were no longer “way out there,” easy to idealize in art and attitude. And, Indian resistance to encroachment was sometimes violent, as can expected from people defending their homes. Sensationalist media whipped up anti-Indian sentiment.

In a pattern that had already been established in the east, settlers would move onto Indian lands, including areas reserved for the Indians by treaties, and sooner or later the bloodshed would begin, more often than not instigated by the settlers. Then, the US military would literally “send in the Cavalry” to “protect” the settlers, and kill or round up all the Indians they could. (These policies have a contemporary analog in the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis, which the US government sponsors. The theater has changed, but not the narrative being played out.)

Meanwhile, in the intellectual circles of the European colonists, new ideas about “Nature” were taking shape. Early conservationists espoused an ideal of “wilderness”: land that is “pristine,” “untouched” and “unpeopled” which should be protected from industrial activity and human settlement. Considering the rapaciousness of both industry and settlers, they were right in calling for such protection, and we can be grateful today that somebody back then stepped on the brakes, at least in a few places. However, like many intellectuals, they were fundamentally myopic. As Isaac Kantor puts it in “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks”: “The untold story behind our unspoiled views and virgin forests is this: these landscapes were inhabited, their features named, their forests utilized, their plants harvested and animals hunted. Native Americans have a history in our national parks measured in millennia.”[3]

These facts were unknown to or studiously ignored by most conservationists, who were products of their decidedly Judeo-Christian culture, which gave “Dominion” over the entire earth and all its creatures to “Man.” Man was apart from nature, not a part of it. “Pure” nature was an Edenic place, free of Man and his inherent sinfulness. Since Man was incapable of having a healthy relationship with nature, the only way to keep nature safe was to keep Man out of it, including Indians. That these ways of relating to nature and to themselves were unhealthy on their own account went unobserved by the conservationists, except among a handful of radicals.

It should be no surprise, then, that when Yellowstone was made the first national park in 1872, the legislation did not set up Catlin’s preserve, “containing man and beast,” but rather, to quote, a “public park or pleasure ground of the people” — “the people,” of course, being European colonial tourists. A policy of extirpating Indians from their lands for the sake of preserving “wilderness” commenced.

What follows are examples of the treatment of Indians in the cases of four particular National Parks: Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite and Everglades. These stories are briefly told but more details are available in a number of books that have been published in the last 20 years, as this area of scholarship has finally begun to develop. Afterwards, I will address possible next steps that could be taken to rectify past and present transgressions by the Europeans against the Indians on NPS lands, including a proposed rule change by the NPS that would allow Indians to harvest plants in these areas.


Upon founding of the park in 1872, the Shoshone who lived in Yellowstone were immediately removed under the terms of an 1868 treaty that the US Congress never ratified. (This was shameless opportunism; in other instances, when Indians tried to hold the US government accountable on the basis of treaties they had signed but which Congress failed to ratify, US courts refused to recognize them.) Other tribes, including the Crow, Bannock, Blackfeet, and Nez Perce, who had inhabited Yellowstone seasonally or permanently for generations, saw their hunting rights eroded and then revoked, and finally their access to the park’s lands forbidden entirely by 1880, except of course as fee-paying tourists.[4] Park officials falsely claimed the Indian hunting threatened animal populations in the park, though their own surveys showed that their numbers were increasing.[5]

Some Indians still surreptitiously gathered plants and hunted in Yellowstone, taking pains to evade the US Army, which was charged with enforcing the ban. As Kantor tells it:

Thus an obsession with halting Indian use of Yellowstone began, despite authorization of much of this use by off-reservation treaty rights. The fact that Native hunters had little to do with the dramatic declines in wildlife populations of the West seems lost on early park management. The incredible irony that early managers were disregarding an integral part of the idealized Eden early white explorers found, its human inhabitants, seems overlooked by people trying to preserve part of what those explorers experienced.” He adds, in a note: “Speaking of irony, even as managers struggled to exclude native use, an early park brochure reported that superstitious fear of the park had kept it historically free of the ‘red man’s yell.’”[6]

The Indians’ treaty rights — which allowed them to hunt and gather in their historic territories, even when these lay outside their reservations — were nullified through the courts. In July 1895, a Wyoming “lawman” attacked a Bannock camp and stole their property, including some elk meat, and arrested them “for violating Wyoming game laws.” A state judge found in favor of the Indians, since their treaty rights preceded the admittance of Wyoming as a state in 1890. However, the Supreme Court overturned the case, ruling that Congress had the right to nullify the previous treaty rights by means of recognizing Wyoming’s statehood. In this way, state law was used to deny the Indians their rights on federal land, a true legal perversity.[7]

Glacier [8]

In 1888, the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana was comprised of its current holdings, plus what would become the eastern half of Glacier Natural Park, a mountainous region called “the Backbone of the World” by the Blackfeet. The area held great spiritual value for them, as well as being hunting and gathering grounds. This reservation had already been greatly reduced in size from its original dimensions, which had taken up two thirds of the state of Montana east of the Continental Divide.

In 1895, suspecting that these mountains contained valuable mineral deposits, the US government sent commissioners to purchase them from the Blackfeet and offered $1 million. The Blackfeet did not want to sell, but finding themselves in dire straits of imminent starvation with winter coming on, they settled for $1.5 million, on the condition that they could continue to hunt, gather and cut timber there. The commissioners agreed to this and the deal was accepted, though with great reluctance by the Blackfeet.

Only 15 years later, the Europeans reneged. In 1910, Glacier National Park was created by Congress, and included the area purchased from the Blackfeet. Since the legislation did not mention the Blackfeet’s hunting and gathering rights, legally the original agreement was still in force. But from that time forward, the NPS has acted as if those rights were extinguished, and prevented traditional Blackfeet activity on park land. To this day, the Blackfeet insist that they retain their rights and the situation is unresolved.

Booting out the Blackfeet did not prevent promoters of the national park from using them to attract and entertain tourists, however. Luis Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railroad, employed Blackfeet at the park train depot and in his hotels. The “Glacier Park Indians,” as they were called, became well-known as far away as the East Coast. The national park itself used them for promotion, while insisting that they otherwise had no place there. Adding insult to injury, Kantor mentions that Luis Hill “was allowed to commercially fish whitefish, a prize item on menus at his hotels, from park lakes until 1939, when the practice was banned on ecological grounds.”

Hill and his Great Northern was not the only railroad involved with the establishment of National Parks:

“Railroad tycoon, Jay Cooke, of North Pacific Railroad, funded expeditions into the lands that would eventually become Yellowstone National Park. On these exploration trips, they brought along people whom they knew would write, paint, or somehow market the beauty of the land, which would therefore increase public and government interest in creating protective laws. North Pacific Railroad saw the creation of a park as an opportunity to profit hugely by extending their lines to the borders of parkland and transporting visitors. The North Pacific Railroad also took the initiative in building nearby hotels for the tourists…. [They] were wildly successful in creating and sustaining a new field of profit and other railroad companies followed suit. The urging of Southern Pacific Railroad helped in the creation of Yosemite National Park.”[9]

The railroads had already profited from Indian theft when the US government gifted them with generous rights-of-way from the Missouri to the Pacific. As is well-known, the railroads were instrumental in the hunting to near extinction of the buffalo, an activity meant to deny Great Plains Indians their main source of food and hence starve them off the land. Indian genocide was, then, what would now be called a “public-private partnership.”

Yosemite [10]

Yosemite National Park is a special case — the exception that proves the rule — because after the endemic Indian population was driven away, some returned and were allowed to live on park grounds for many years. Originally established as a state reserve by the state of California (after US President Lincoln set it aside into public trust in 1864), Yosemite became a national park in 1890 and was under the control of the Army from 1891 to 1913. During this entire time, the resident Indians lived in their own village and interacted with tourists, acting as guides and selling them crafts, while trying to hold onto as much of their traditional lifestyle as possible. Other tribes, however, who hunted and gathered in the park but lived elsewhere, were kept out by the Army after 1890, in abrogation of treaty rights. [11].

When the National Park Service was officially promulgated in 1916, Yosemite park staff started up “Indian Field Days,” an annual event intended, in their words, to “revive and maintain interest of Indians in their own games and industries, particularly basketry and bead work.” The event was intended to draw visitors to Yosemite during the slower summer months, when the park’s famous waterfalls had dried up for the season.

At this point in the NPS’ history, park directors were encouraged to develop their fiefdoms as tourist destinations and to provide amenities to attract visitors. Road-building was a major part of this, as was the construction of buildings and, in the case of Yosemite, the installation of a golf course. “Management” of animals and plants to cater to perceived tourist interests was also undertaken, such as killing predator species to encourage game animals like deer, and chopping down trees and vegetation to manufacture scenic vistas. “Indian Field Days” was in the spirit of these development goals and proved a successful draw.

Park officials were unconcerned about accuracy for this event, however. The Indians instructed to costume themselves as Great Plains Indians and set up tipis, in order to match the popular conceptions of tourists. Their own traditional umuchas — conical structures covered with strips of bark — were not considered aesthetic by park officials. They were also paid to participate in parades and to compete in events like rodeos, bareback horse races (“striped as Warriors”) and costume contests. In Spence’s words, “the Field Days often degenerated into little more than an excuse for tourists and park officials to pose in buckskin and feathered headdress.” Indian Field Days continued into the 1920’s.

Though the Indians were able to retain some of their traditional lifestyle practices, which included hosting Indians from outside the park for their own events and ceremonies (most prominently the annual “Big Days”), park officials gradually tightened their control, especially after the final Indian Field Days in 1929. In 1931, the park’s superintendent, Charles Thomson, began the process of moving the Indians from their ancestral spot to a new “village” of tiny cabins (only 429 square feet in size, each) for which the residents would have to pay rent. Even with 6-8 people in each cabin, there was insufficient space for everyone who had been living in the park, and Thomson took advantage of this to pick and choose who could move into them. Among those forced to leave were Indians who had generations-long histories on the land. Others were allowed to stay because they were popular with tourists. By 1935, all the Indians who remained in the park had been transplanted into the new cabins.

In the big picture, park officials hoped to rid Yosemite of its resident Indians by attrition, and ultimately they succeeded. Over the next two decades, they raised rents, failed to maintain the infrastructure, and refused to hire first from the Indians, as promised. In 1953, the park instituted the Yosemite Indian Village Housing Policy, which restricted residence to employees and their families. Everyone else had to leave within four weeks. Vacated cabins were destroyed to ensure shrinkage of the community. (This was during the era of the Indian “Termination” laws, which were intended to invalidate Indian sovereignty, break up the reservations, and assimilate Indians into European culture.) In 1969, the remaining Indians were moved into the housing area for park employees. The following year, the few cabins still standing were destroyed during a firefighting practice exercise. In 1996, the last Indian, Jay Johnson, departed after retiring as a park forester. He had been born in Yosemite.

Everglades [12]

The first agreement between Europeans and Indians in Florida was the Treaty of Walnut Hills in 1793, which recognized the Miccosukee tribe and their rights to territory on the peninsula. Before Florida was even officially ceded to the US, the drive to remove all Indians from the territory commenced, starting with the First Seminole War of 1817-1818, led by General Andrew Jackson. (“Seminole” was a name given to the Miccosukee by Muskogee-speaking Creek Indians who fled south from encroaching Europeans. Their word, “siminoli” means “people of the distant fires” and was borrowed into English to refer to all Indians in Florida.)

In 1830, Andrew Jackson, now president, signed the “Indian Removal Act,” which required that all Indians in the southeastern states be sent west, to Arkansas or Oklahoma. Following this, some Indians were “cajoled and threatened” to depart, but others refused. In 1835, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, found that, under the terms of the cession of Florida to the US, the Treaty of Walnut Hills was still valid so the Indians had every right to stay. This inspired Jackson’s famous words, “The Chief Justice has made his law; now let him enforce it” and he continued with his efforts unabated.

In 1842, Colonel William Worth declared “peace” in the Seminole Wars, and under the terms of the Macomb-Worth Agreement, granted the Indians the southwestern corner of Florida, including what would eventually become the National Park. In 1845, President Polk amended the agreement with an executive order reserving a 20-mile wide strip around the entire area that was to “reserved from survey ad sale.”

Nevertheless, the Seminole Wars continued until 1855 and the Macomb-Worth Agreement was largely ignored by settlers and the military. However, the US never fully accomplished its goal of driving out all the Indians, despite great monetary expense and high casualties. Though the majority of the Indians were sent west, a few hundred tenacious individuals — mostly Miccosukee but also some Muskogee — managed to hold out, hiding in the wetlands of the Everglades, which they call, “Pa-hay-okee.” There, they refused offers of money for land and in their isolation succeeded in avoiding the poverty and cultural dissolution that had been suffered by Indians elsewhere who were shunted onto reservations far from their homelands. They made no agreements with either the federal or state government.

In 1935, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Indian Commissioner John Collier met with some of the Indians, mostly Creeks, to try to convince them to become an “official” tribe and seek a legal reservation. Ickes also informed them about the proposed Everglades National Park, which would take a significant piece of their traditional (and treaty-guaranteed) territory, though Ickes reassured them that he believed they should retain hunting and gathering rights there, and have first shot at park jobs.

The majority of the Miccosukee had no interest in giving up any land or in negotiating with the US, but a group of Muskogee felt differently, and went to the table with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an above-board reservation was created for them which was declared the official “Seminole” reservation. Starting in 1937, the government began forcing Indians out of the Everglades, and in 1947, Everglades National Park was opened. This outcome, and the method of arriving at it, was typical: splits within Indian populations were exploited by the US, which would ignore traditional factions in favor of “progressive” ones. Traditionals, standing by their ancient principles, would be left out in the cold, knowingly. In this case, the “progressives” were dominated by a non-endemic tribe, the Muskogee Creek, and the Miccosukee traditionals were not considered to be a “real” tribe by the US .

In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) was formed, with the ostensible purpose of settling any extant claims with cash payouts. The real purpose was not justice, but to open Indian lands to resource exploitation. Any tribes that accepted a settlement would give up previously held treaty rights. In 1950, the Muskogee progressives filed suit to receive payment but the Miccosukee traditionals loudly distanced themselves from the effort and in 1951 presented President Eisenhower with “the Buckskin Declaration,” which demanded that the US cease conflating them with the Muskogee, respect their long-standing independence, rights and lifestyle, and send a representative so that these issues could be cleared up.

Eisenhower sent the US Indian Commissioner, who concluded that the Miccosukee had the right to live and hunt in their traditional ways in the Everglades, including in the National Park. In 1954, in a report following a meeting with some Miccosukee representatives — who called themselves the “Everglades Miccosukee General Council” — the US finally recognized the Miccosukee as a separate tribe from the Muskogee and reiterated that their rights of occupancy and use still existed, regardless of claims to the contrary. However, the ICC ignored this report, and the NPS refused to allow hunting or living by Indians on park lands. The theft was admitted but then quickly ignored.

Rifts formed among the non-acknowledged Miccosukee during the 1950’s and In 1960, the General Council — without the support or approval of a group of traditionals — successfully forced the state of Florida to recognize them as a tribe and extend them a lease on 143,500 acres of land. The Bureau of Indian Affairs soon granted them a lease from the NPS for a “reservation” five miles long and 500 feet wide along the Tamiami Trail, an east-west highway north of the National Park. The opposing traditionals refused to cooperate in this process and did not join the “Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida” when it was incorporated in 1962. In 1976, the incorporated entity accepted a cash settlement from the ICC.

In 1974, the NPS swallowed up another chunk of ancestral Indian territory with the creation of the Big Cypress National Preserve. Though the terms of the taking allowed the Indians to retain “their usual and customary use and occupancy” there, including hunting, gathering and conducting ceremonies, the NPS proved reluctant to honor the agreement, especially “occupancy” — which is to say, tending their gardens and actually living there.

In 1983, President Reagan signed into law an agreement between the incorporated Miccosukee tribe and the state of Florida granting the tribe 189,000 acres and $975,000. Shortly thereafter, he received a letter from some of the traditionals — the last hold-outs of the last unconquered Indian tribe in the US — protesting the agreement as illegal.

2015: The NPS Tries to Loosen Up (a little)

In 2015, the NPS proposed a new rule that would allow traditional plant gathering on park lands by Indians, with restrictions. In its text, the NPS takes a step away from the hallowed concept of “unpeopled” wilderness:

“Research has shown that traditional gathering, when done with traditional methods and in traditionally established quantities, does not impair the ability to conserve plant communities and can help to conserve them, thus supporting the NPS conclusion that cooperation with Indian tribes in the management of plant resources is consistent with the preservation of national park lands for all American people.” [my emphasis][13]

The first person who introduced me to traditional gathering of plants was Finisia Medrano, a Shoshone elder who has been practicing the ancient Hoop for over three decades. The NPS’ conclusion that harvesting helps support plant populations would not be news to her, nor to anyone familiar with the traditional practices. Indeed, she referred to the patches of Yampah, Biscuit Root, Camas, and other plants, as “gardens.” Contrary to the popular notion of “gathering,” these patches were not merely harvested from, as a deer browses grass, but were tended, which included seeding. Finisia calls it “wildtending.” Some of these gardens are ancient, going back centuries, if not millennia.

In Yosemite, after the resident Indians were no longer allowed to follow their traditional practices, which included burning, their gardens became overtaken by shrubbery and then trees, and were no longer productive for food. The proposed rule from the NPS does not go so far as to allow burning and is silent on the topic of seeding or other forms of propagation, so either the full picture is not clear to them yet, or they are only interested in taking this one step right now.

The proposed rule comes with a number of restrictions, which include: harvesting can only be done by members of federally-recognized tribes with historical ties to the particular park land; names of harvesters must be submitted along with an explanation of how they were chosen; a list of what will be harvested, where and how much, must be included; and, the park superintendent or regional manager may deny the activity based on environmental grounds.[14]

Doubtless, to bureaucrats, these restrictions make sense, as they probably do to many people who are accustomed to accrediting themselves with bureaucracies and for whom such obedient acquiescence (if accompanied by defeated grumbling) is a mark of responsible adulthood. But traditional plant gathering has never been subject to such processes. If anything, the spirit that guided such activity was far stricter, but in a totally different way that is virtually incomprehensible to the colonial mindset. It’s not for nothing that Indian gardens were productive for centuries, in sharp contrast to the methods of the European settlers, who moved on from farming a piece of land after they had worn out the soil.

As per their process, the NPS invited comment to the proposed rule, and received 69 responses from Indian tribes and individuals. As reported by the Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN), the rule’s specifics did not meet with a chorus of approval:

“Most who submitted comments had something to say about the authority vested in the park superintendents, the designated gatherers and limiting them to tribal members, and the disclosure of traditional information with no assurance that this information won’t be made public (sharing these details with anyone outside of the tribe is not customary—period).”

As seen in the section above about Everglades National Park, not all Indians choose to be “federally recognized” but still claim their legal rights to hunt and gather in their traditional territories, rights that still technically exist according to treaties, whether or not the NPS recognizes them. As a case in point, the ICTMN article quotes Bobby Cypress Billie, of the the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation, who said, “Even if they come out with it, we are still going to maintain our way of life and our land.” Other non-recognized Indians might be more easily cowed, of course, due to their own particular circumstances or history.

In some cases, tribes and individuals are not “federally recognized” even though they would like to be. The BIA is, and always has been, a political organization, acting not only from its own prejudices but also at the behest of outsiders with power who have their own agendas. There are still tribes, especially in California, who were “terminated” in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and are still striving to be re-recognized. For the time being, these Indians would not be eligible to participate in the new NPS process.

Also left out would be Finisia Medrano, who undoubtedly knows more about traditional plant gathering than the majority of Indians alive in the US today. But her genealogical background is European. Her original teachers were Shoshone grandmothers, who made the not unmomentous choice to share their knowledge with her despite her lack of Indian blood, and who is the NPS to question their judgment? (Not that Finisia cares about laws or the NPS anyway; on this issue, as with many others, she shares the defiant spirit of the unconquered Miccosukee.)

Just how much distance lies between the worldviews of the NPS and traditionally-connected Indians was made clear by the words of the Indigenous Elders and Medicine People Council, who were quoted in the ICTMN article: “Our sacred relationship with these plants, and the ceremonies and customs connected to them, is an essential part of our spiritual way of life…. To place the Superintendent and/or Regional Director and/or designated person between the Creator and the Indigenous Peoples is a direct violation of our rights.”

Again, for those people who are deeply ensconced in the colonial culture of the US, with its endless number of “designated” persons whose permission or grace is required for any number of legal or moral choices, the statement of the Indigenous Elders is ludicrous, even offensive. As a commenter to the ICTMN article put it: “The rights of wild plants and animals MUST take priority over the alleged ‘rights’ of humans – ANY humans. It’s the only way that irreplaceable genetic diversity can be preserved! Wildlife can’t protect themselves from us, and extinction is forever!” These words are cast from the same mold as those of the 19th Century intellectuals with their “unpeopled” wilderness ideal, and though they are embellished with current scientific terminology and a contemporary catchphrase, at their base is the same unproductive misanthropy.

At the heart of these misunderstandings is the refusal of European colonial culture to recognize that its view of the world — as “Dominion” to be exploited or “protected” — is not shared by traditional Indian culture. No real conversation can happen while the this mindset itself is non-negotiable.

Cutting to the chase, Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot Indian, attorney and director of the Land Peace Foundation, is quoted in the ICTMN article as saying: “The only appropriate step here would be to remove the prohibitions placed on indigenous people completely, not create new rules that allow restricted access that actually defeats traditional purposes.”

Responding promptly to an email I sent in late February, Jay Calhoun, a NPS Regulations Program Specialist, said that the NPS “is considering the public comments that it received” and “hope(s) to publish a final rule this summer.”

The Big Picture

Of course, this proposed rule is small potatoes (or yampah roots) in the larger issues around NPS lands and Indians. For a wider perspective, I share here the words of Peter Matthiessen, from his book, “Indian Country”:

“How just, how right it would be… to restore to the Miccosukee of all factions their traditional use of Pa-hay-okee. Excepting the main access route far to the south, the Everglades National Park is almost roadless; in the region of the Long River where the Miccosukee lived before, there are no roads at all. Plenty of territory exists for the few families who might wish to return to traditional life: the tourists would never see them, never hear them. For the rest, the knowledge that there was a homeland for their children to return to would suffice… Since no white people use this north half of the park, and since it is legally Indian land, why not restore it to the Indians? This is their country, and the Indians would certainly observe the restrictions necessary to protect rare plants and animals; they have done so forever, needing no laws, out of reverence for their native earth and sacred homeland.”[15]

A still bigger idea is to simply return most if not all public lands to the Indians, along with unconditional monetary recompense if they want it, and full apologies to make it official. This concept is only entertained at the radical fringes of these discussions, but I believe it would be better as our starting point. After all, it was only through intimidation, violence and theft that Indians don’t have access to their land in the first place. Since Christianity so dominates the colonial culture that wrought these deeds and perpetuates them to this day, I will appropriate its language: If we are looking for redemption, shouldn’t we start with the original sin?

Discussions among people of the colonial mindset about Indian rights to hunt, fish, gather and wildtend on NPS and other public lands almost always jump of from “What could go wrong.” Thus, the restrictive approach of the NPS in its proposed rule and the shrill insistence by the ICTMN commenter that the worst case scenario is the only possible result. But what if we turn the question around and ask, “What could go right?”

The NPS itself broaches this topic in the text of its proposed rule, stating that it “would provide opportunities for tribal youth, the National Park Service, and the public to understand tribal traditions.”[16] Understanding of tribal traditions is certainly in short supply these days, not only among Europeans but also many (if not most) Indians. Though recent books and scholarship — generally by non-Indian researchers — have begun to examine how Indians were essentially the keystone species in many ecosystems in the US prior to the European Invasion, it is indeed true that only through actual practice can Indian traditions be kept alive and their vital lessons spread and passed on.

Speaking from my own experience, I can attest that what I absorbed about traditional Indian wildtending from Finisia Medrano in one four-day visit is totally different than what I have picked up on the same topic in all the words I have read in the four years since then. Information, in other words, is no replacement for hands-on experience. And hands-on experiences are what we collectively need to engage in, rather than the abstractions of technological culture.

Left to their own devices, unencumbered, is the only way that Indians will be able to keep their traditions alive, and amend them as needed for the changed circumstances to the land in their already too-long absence from it. In the past, their traditions would not have been fixed; like everything else in nature, a fluidity must have marked their actions, and it is vitally important for all people that we see what novelties would emerge now. European domination of the Americas has resulted in widespread environmental destruction and if there is any chance at all for the survival of all humans and the rapidly disappearing flora and fauna of the planet, I am convinced that we must learn and apply all that we can of “the old ways.” Why? Because the old ways worked.

Once they had the space to be themselves again, would the Indians be willing to share with us non-Indians? I’m sure that some would and some wouldn’t. The topic is definitely controversial in Indian circles. For example, Matthiessen quotes Buffalo Tiger, of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, as saying: “We survive, because we go with nature, we can bend, we are still attached to the earth. Now your way of life is no longer working, and so you are interested in our way. But if we tell you our way, then it will be polluted, we will have no medicine, and we will be destroyed as well as you.”[17] Conversely, other Indians have the opposite opinion, and have shared their practices and ceremonies with non-Indians because they were to told to do so, either by their elders or by their own personal conscience. We would just have to see who was willing to share what.

We European colonizers on this continent are, to put it bluntly, a bunch of spoiled-rotten children, and the work we must do to attain actual adult responsibility is not limited to what Indians might have to teach us. Regardless, it’s well past time that we got out of their way.

[1] Ruppert, David. “Rethinking Ethnography in the National Park Service” in The George Wright Forum (Vol. 26, No. 3, 2009) , p. 53.
[2] Kantor, Isaac. “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks” in Public Land & Resources Law Review (Vol. 28, 2007), p. 45.
[3] Kantor, p. 42.
[4] Vernizzi, Emily A. “The Establishment of the United States National Parks and the Eviction of Indigenous People” (Senior Project, California Polytechnic University, 2011), pp. 29-30, 33.
[5] “American Indians in National Parks” at Inforefuge, p. 3.
[6] Kantor, p. 50.
[7] Kantor, pp. 50-51.
[8] Information on Glacier, except where otherwise cited, from Kantor, pp. 51-52.
[9] Vernizzi, pp. 22-23.
[10] Information on Yosemite, except where otherwise cited, from: Spence, Mark.”Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), Chapter 8: “Yosemite Indians and the National Park Ideal: 1916-1969,” pp. 115-132
[11] Vernizzi, pp. 20-21, 27-28.
[12] Information on Everglades mostly from: Matthiessen, Peter. “Indian Country” (New York: Viking Press, 1984), Chapter 2: “The Long River,” pp. 15-63; with details from: LaDuke, Winona. “All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life” (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999), Chapter 2: “Seminoles: At the Heart of the Everglades,” pp. 24-45.
[13] National Park Service. “Gathering of Certain Plants or Plant Parts by Federally Recognized Indian Tribes for Traditional Purposes” (Federal Register, 4/20/15), p.6.
[14] Tirado, Michelle. “National Park Service Does Face-Plant With New Rule on Gathering Plants” on Indian Country Today Media Network, 8/20/15.
[15] Matthiessen, p. 61.
[16] National Park Service, p. 2.
[17] Matthiessen, p. 36.


Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press