Landscapes of Shame: America’s National Parks

Artwork from book cover | America at War with Itself

Artwork from book cover | America at War with Itself

This winter, the war-journalist Robert Fisk and his wife, together with Justin Huggler and his partner Anu, visited Wannsee Villa in the Berlin suburbs where, he writes, “Hitler’s war criminals planned the industrial side of the Jewish Holocaust in 1942………We prowled the rooms of this delightful lakeside SS guest house with its magnificent windows, parquet floor, statues and gardens where Adolf Eichmann, Reinhard Heydrich, Roland Freislerand other monsters met to plan the destruction of the 11 million Jews who in 1933 lived in lands which might fall to Germany”, CounterPunch, Jaunuary 10, 2017.

A few nights ago, in the dining room of the Furnace Creek Inn at Death Valley, I was gathered with friends to celebrate my birthday. We ate beneath portraits of Fred Harvey, the pioneering hospitality entrepreneur and the American borax magnate, Francis “Borax” Smith, together with copies of some of billionaire Phil Anschutz’s western art collection which features work by artists such as George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel.

Anschutz, whose wealth was created in oil and railroads (but is now heavily invested in real estate, hospitality and entertainment), owns Xanterra, the National Parks concessionaire which runs the Inn. While we consumed elegant dishes of steak, salmon, scallops and duck, we were surrounded by artifacts of a triumphal colonizing civilization. Below us, at an unkempt corner of the roadside parking lot was an exposed ledge containing several bedrock mortars which had been used over many hundreds of years to grind Mesquite beans by the local Timbisha Shoshone Indians, who were exiled from the Park in 1933, five years after the founding of the Inn, by order of Herbert Hoover.

The Wannsee Villa now serves as a Memorial, Conference and Educational Center. Fisk reports that Justin Huggler proclaimed, after his visit, “Your capacity to take in the horrors just runs out……You have to come back, again and again.”

We ate in the dining room both nights of our stay and slept soundly in well-appointed guest rooms. On the second evening before dining, we enjoyed cocktails at the bar. On our last morning we swam in the warm spring fed pool. During our days in the Park we visited such well known geological marvels such as Zabriskie Point, Badwater (lowest place in the United States), and Artists Drive where oxidized minerals in the hills glow with a rich variety of colors.

We partook of National Park mythology: of virgin wilderness where only tourists roam and out of which an invincible race, Homo Americanus, has arisen. At Death Valley this narrative is embellished rather than discomfited by the near-disaster of those pioneer families traveling in some twenty covered wagons on their way west, who sought to cross this desert floor walled by the Amaragosa range and the Panamints. Reduced to burning their wagons to cure the meat of their erstwhile teams of oxen, they escaped on-foot with only one fatality and the valediction, “Goodbye Death Valley”. The expedition is now celebrated by the Death Valley ‘49ers at Furnace Creek with annual cook-outs, a poker-championship, old-time country music and competitions of wagon-train and horse-back riding. Portraits of the organization’s past presidents looked down on us from the hotel’s winding corridors – their confident sun-dappled faces entirely untroubled by the dispossession of the land’s native peoples.

Blame Ken Burns, the Leni Riefenstahl of the National Park Service. As he suggests, we were reconnecting to our soil and to our souls in ‘America’s Best Idea’ – its National Parks. Writing of Yosemite, Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory, 1995, notes that in the 1860’s it represented “a place of such primordial beauty that it proclaimed the gift of the Creator to his Chosen People”.  After Obama established three new National Monuments late in 2016 he gushed,

“Our country is home to some of the most beautiful God-given landscapes in the world. We’re blessed with natural treasures – from the Grand Tetons to the Grand Canyon; from lush forests and vast deserts to lakes and rivers teeming with wildlife.”

The American myth of exceptionalism is intimately entwined in the grandeur of the landscapes its pioneers found in the process of colonizing the continent, many of which are now National Parks, but in order for these landscapes to fully support a Christian, Eurocentric foundation mythology it was, and remains, necessary to exclude their indigenous peoples.

What I am suggesting here is, perhaps, an obscene syllogism: yet there is something eerily reminiscent in the worship of the aesthetic treasures of America’s grand landscapes with National Socialist notions of the blood and soil (the medium from which sprang the emblematic Teutonic forest) out of which was forged the German volk and the heinous exclusionary principals Hitler enshrined in Mein Kampf and later enacted as the holocaust. John Muir, the founding father of America’s National Parks, and who provided the philosophical underpinnings to this country’s unique vision of an uninhabited ‘wilderness’, was clear that “dirty”, “deadly” and “lazy” Indians did not belong in God’s own country.

As Mark David Spence shows in Dispossessing the Wilderness – Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Oxford University Press, 1999, in the first half of the nineteenth century there was a very different sense of American wilderness – one in which the presence of native peoples contributed to the gestalt of the wild.  Although this conception evolved directly from a Europeanized Romanticism, it nevertheless provided a place for the ‘Red Man’ in an emerging civilization. Henry Thoreau, perhaps the nineteenth century’s most influential wilderness philosopher, somewhat grudging conceded that,

“Why should we not . . . have our national preserves . . . in which bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race . . . still exist, and not be civilized off the face of the earth?”

But in suggesting that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World” he was referencing a human connection to the earth which he fully understood was best epitomized by native peoples.

After the Civil War and the founding of the transcontinental railroad, there emerged what Spence calls “separate islands of the mind” where the preservation of the country’s scenic wonders in parks and the confinement of Indians to reservations developed in ways that denied their obvious correlation. The new discipline of ecology that emerged out of George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, 1864, suggested that humans disturbed natural balances and that the preservation of wilderness must therefore consist of places “untrodden by man”.

So it was that our National Parks were created to bind the country together after the ruptures of the Civil War; to take aesthetic advantage of the imperial expansion of the United States into areas of unequaled scenic magnificence; to provide new customers to the country’s burgeoning rail network and support the conservation of natural resources as a salve to the growing sense of impending environmental catastrophe. That this was achieved at the cost of promoting the removal and sometimes annihilation of the native peoples occupying those lands is to the lasting shame of all white Americans.

The resilience of this country’s indigenous peoples has belied what Herman Melville called “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” (see the action at Standing Rock). There is now a small community of Timbisha Shoshone living in an area between Furnace Creek Inn and the National Park Service Information Center, but they are tenants of the U.S. government rather than the inviolate beneficiaries and stewards they once were, of a land they call Tüpippüh.

The Park Service remains paternalistic, seeking to have tribal members continue past practices of mesquite harvesting and thus improve the aesthetics of the oasis’ tangled brush. Younger members of the tribe are understandably more committed to their social and economic development through the running of a shaved-ice stand and seeking positions at the Inn, which is about to undergo a $50M renovation and be transformed into a luxe year-round desert spa resort, from which the glories of a mostly uninhabited landscape can be more comfortably viewed.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at