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Landscapes of Dispossession: the National Park Service at 100 Years

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Late June, late afternoon. I speed the rental westward on CA-120, past where Jeffrey pines loom, then brake at Mono Lake. The sun falls to the Sierra Crest’s far side. Wind gusts through the sagebrush. I think of a woman, of the summit I’ll soon climb. I tell myself, You’re in nature.

Months pass. I learn Lt. Tredwell Moore entered Mono Basin in 1852. He’d chased Ahwahnechee Chief Tenaya from Yosemite—“discovered” by whites the year before, “during a military campaign to subdue the peoples of the central Sierra Nevada,” writes Mark David Spence. Tenaya eluded his pursuers. But David Carle and Don Banta note Lt. Moore found “signs of gold-bearing quartz” in the Basin. As gold-hunters went to the region, its “native people were…slowly starved to death by the loss of game taken by the miners,” Kathleen L. Hull explains.

Yosemite itself, before being conserved, “was cleared of the Native American communities who had lived in, used and shaped the landscape for generations,” Rosaleen Duffy tells us. But on its centennial, the National Park Service would rather forget the U.S. made these cherished territories amid violent mineral quests, ruined indigenous cultures. The anniversary, on August 25th, marked a “century of stewardship,” lauded the “visionary leaders” whose “groundbreaking ideas to preserve America’s treasures” still resonate.

Consider these leaders. John Muir imagined sites unblemished by Native Americans. They had no place in his vision of nature. He described “an old Indian woman”—“far from clean”—as “sadly unlike Nature’s neat well-dressed animals,” thus not a “rightful part of the wilderness[.]” A “hideous” band of “Mono Indians…seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” he affirmed. Duffy points out Ansel Adams, in Yosemite, “deliberately framed the images so that the Native American communities never appeared, even though he had to work around them constantly.”

“For the most part,” M. Kat Anderson elaborates, “conservationists did not understand how California Indians, over centuries, had influenced the animals, plants, and landscapes and maintained the land’s fertility.” Muir, careening through Yosemite, saw “what were really the fertile seed, bulb, and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.”

Now consider how the U.S. acquired terrains set aside. The gospel, according to historians, is that the Union differed from European powers, felt itself destined to annex new areas. “Unlike previous empires, the new American empire was primarily built without colonies,” since it developed by “building the continental territorial expansion of the republic directly into the American state structure,” assert Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin. One critic lauded their 2012 work as “the most important leftist book of the year, and probably the decade,” but here they recite the catechism.

Julian Go reveals the real history. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, “President Jefferson started the important precedent of appointing a military governor to the territory,” meaning newly-won lands—like California and New Mexico later—were, at first, “subjected to autocratic military rule—no governor, no judges.” “In any other country such governments would be called ‘colonial,’” Albert Bushnell Hart, 1911-12 head of the American Political Science Association, remarked in 1903. Go concludes Washington’s “territorial system entailed a colonial structure very much akin to Britain’s overseas empire.”

Efforts to secure raw materials shaped this structure. “Less than 50 years ago,” Percy W. Bidwell wrote in a 1958 Council on Foreign Relations study, “this country produced within its own borders practically all of the basic materials required by its industries,” meaning minerals like copper, zinc, manganese. Kevin Hillstrom mentions the West, at the time of intense U.S. industrialization, contained “an estimated 90 percent of the country’s metal reserves”—perfect grounds for national expansion.

But obstacles blocking Washington’s press to the Pacific also had to fall to enable conservation. “Glacier National Park, like much of northwestern Montana, used to be Blackfeet Nation territory,” explains Paul C. Rosier. “A series of military defeats in the 1860s and 1870s led to a series of political defeats at the treaty table,” and “Blackfeet leaders ceded large chunks of the tribe’s land because their people were desperate for food, clothing, and cattle,” he adds.

Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf remember that, when Yellowstone was founded in 1872, local tribes like the “Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, Flathead” all “shared the same grim realities: population decline due to disease, warfare, and despair;” more and more “white ranchers, miners, railroad workers, and settlers” flooding the region; and “mounting pressures to yield hunting grounds and familiar landscapes.”

Repurposing land as “nature” further disordered native subsistence patterns. The “creation of Glacier terminated Blackfeet rights” there—“Indian hunters were either jailed or removed”—but “sustained those of non-Indians,” according to Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek. Spence depicts a “subsistence culture based on extensive plant gathering and the hunting of smaller game animals” in Yellowstone before the Park. But 19th-century miners and commercial hunters were “depleting game stocks and destroying important food-gathering sites” where the Crow fought to maintain this way of life. By the 1880s this tribe was “almost wholly dependent on [government] rations.”

In Karl Jacoby’s view, “conservation inevitably magnified the importance of wage labor as an alternative means of support,” as “residents’ access to the local environment”—the source of subsistence—was barred. Grand Canyon National Park, which “encompassed the territory that the Havasupai people had long claimed” for hunting and gathering, proves his point. Its transformation into a tourist area had their “reservation completely surrounded by national forestlands, so that any effort by the Havasupai to venture” past its borders would pit them against “the forest’s new federal managers.”

“Once subsistence from the available land was no longer possible,” notes Stephen Hirst, “the Havasupai had to obtain cash to buy food at the tribal store at [sharply inflated] prices,” and by the 1920s were doing “menial wage labor for the National Park Service[.]”

Late June, mid-morning. I rest climbing Mt. Dana, feel faint, fail trying to breathe deeply. Orange lichen brightens in the sun above the tree line. No trail here—just cairns suggesting a path. I am alone and Tuolumne Meadows is four thousand feet down surrounded by more mountains. I tell myself, This is a wild place. But this “uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved,” as Spence concludes. While the Park Service celebrates, we have to remember Yosemite and other “national parks enshrine recently dispossessed landscapes.”

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Nick Alexandrov lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com

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