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National Parks Lack Human Diversity; Now Tribes Say ‘Return Them to Us’

by Audrey Peterman

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy!”

Frank laughingly said those words to me the first time we saw the sign, “Watch out for moose!” on the highway. It was August 1995 and we had just crossed over from New York into Maine on our driving trip around the US. As a Jamaican-born woman and an American man raised in Florida, neither of us had ever seen a moose before and the thought that we might see one any minute was exhilarating. It was the first of myriad new experiences we’d have on that 12,500 mile roundtrip, from standing among the geysers of Yellowstone, to gazing at the hypnotic panorama of colors in Grand Canyon; from imbibing the energy among 2,000-year-old trees in Sequoia National Park to marveling at the atavistic atmosphere in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. We gazed at bison and wolves and black and brown bears grazing in their natural habitat in the Grand Teton and marveled about the elusive Marbled Murrulet, a bird in Redwood National Park that never touches the ground, flying straight from its nest in the pinnacles out to the Pacific Ocean. We were like children let loose in a candy shop, experiencing a world of treasures we never knew existed. The one thing we did not see was diversity among the people. Among thousands of visitors and employees there were no Americans of color – no indigenous people; no Black or Hispanic people or Asians, except visitors from Japan. It was as if we had been effectively erased, whited out. Over time we learned that these places were viewed by white Americans in power as principally their domain, which should be protected from encroachment by non-white Americans. “We come out here to get away from the problems caused by urban minorities,” one park goer famously complained in a prominent magazine. “Do not destroy our oases (by bringing them out here.” The fact that the national parks belong to “the American people” and are managed with our tax dollars “in perpetuity, for the benefit of this and future generations” did not seem to give them pause. Fast forward to 2021, when for the first time America has a First Nations woman at the helm of the Department of Interior, which manages the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Park System among several other public lands agencies. As Secretary Deb Haaland brings her perspective as a descendant of 35 generations living in close relationship to the land, leaders in the indigenous community are now calling for the national parks to be returned to the tribes. In “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” David Treuer points out why. As a Black person who has been extolling the virtues of the National Parks since I first saw them, I feel chagrined at the fact that I have not dealt much with the history and the pain indigenous people might feel about being almost obliterated from the story and enjoyment of their homelands. My focus has been on making the parks accessible and relevant to all Americans. I often say that I felt offended when I found out how ethnic groups were left out of the enjoyment of national parks. How much more offended and hurt might the indigenous people feel? Now that the question is on the table, it raises a lot of other questions. If we return the national parks to the indigenous people, what else might be expected to be returned? The First Nations people are not a monolith and different tribes may have different ideas about the concept and process. Managing public lands is an incredibly complex and challenging endeavor - are Native tribes prepared to undertake the breadth of responsibilities involved? In an era when America is striving to be more fair and equitable, does turning over the heart of our conserved lands to one ethnic group fit that bill? On a day when I am grieving the shooting death of a young unarmed Black man in Minneapolis and the newly revealed video of a soldier wearing his US Army fatigues being harassed and threatened by the police in a traffic stop for a minor infraction, I’m glad to have a new idea to contemplate. The National Parks contain our highest conservation values at a time when the forces of nature are assailing Earth in ways that do not augur well for sustaining human life - burning, melting, shaking and blowing up. It could be argued that the indigenous people lived harmoniously for thousands of years on the lands which are now part of the park system without creating the environmental and climate problems we are now grappling with. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy!” We are on the brink of something different. The old hierarchical ways of how we relate to nature and land management based upon race and class are being reshaped. I am hopeful that we will see the need to bring all our human potential and ageless knowledge to bear on addressing the problems. I hope we will give the indigenous leaders the respect of truly addressing their request.

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