Decolonize National Parks

By Wynnē Weddell

Before diving into our National Park Guides and Area Guides, we strongly encourage you to read this perspective from DV team member Wynne Weddell on the legacy of the National Park System and how the dire need to decolonize the parks starts with reframing our understanding of them on the individual level.

“There are now over 400 national park sites, covering 3.4% of the country. These parks were created only after the forced removal of Indigenous people by the US government. Seizures and broken treaties were put in place to deprive us of our homelands and rights.”

If you’ve ever traveled to a national park, you’ve traveled to stolen lands that were cherished and occupied by Indigenous nations all across Turtle Island since time immemorial. You have walked on trails that are thousands of years old. These lands are rich in history.

Our stories are woven into canyon cliff sides. They live on in water droplets on moss-covered walls; in light filtering throughout the forest at golden hour; through wind blowing in the grasslands; in waves breaking on the shore. These are the lands that we hunted, fished, harvested, and performed our ceremonies on. Sacred land that we tended and shaped with sustainable land management practices.
This all changed in 1872 when congress made Yellowstone the so-called United States’ first national park. There are now over 400 national park sites, covering 3.4% of the country. These parks were created only after the forced removal of our people by the US government. Seizures and broken treaties were put in place to deprive us of our homelands and rights.

‘Wilderness’ is an Illusion

Mountains with a bear

“Glacier and many other national parks are built upon an illusion. Theyseem to offer us a rare chance to experience the continent as it was, to set eyes on a vista unspoiled by human activity. This uninhabited nature is a recent construction. 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. They were forcibly removed, and later treaty rights to traditional use such as hunting and fishing were erased, often without acknowledgement or compensation. Immediately after these removals, the parks were advertised as a showcase of uninhabited America, nature’s handiwork unspoiled.” 

– Issac Kantor – “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks.”

John Muir, known widely for his racist remarks and wrongfully praised in the outdoor community as an environmental conservationist, mistakenly, “…described the entire American continent as a ‘wild garden favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe.’ But in truth, the North American continent has not been a wilderness for at least 15,000 years: Native peoples for millennia had shaped many of the landscapes that became national parks. 

Forests on the Eastern Seaboard looked plentiful to white settlers because American Indians had strategically burned them to increase the amount of forage for moose and deer, and woodland caribou. Native peoples likewise tended Yosemite Valley’s sublime landscape; the acorns that fed the Miwok came from black oaks long cultivated by the tribe. The idea of a virgin American wilderness—an Eden untouched by humans and devoid of sin—is an illusion.” – David Treuer

National Parks Today

I am fortunate to have had the privilege of being exposed to the outdoors at a young age, a luxury not all have access to. Hiking has been my medicine since childhood. I frequently left the rez to take road trips with my family to spend time together in nature. For me, nothing soothes the soul more than walking amongst the trees, streams, and rivers. I sit, listening and learning from mountains, eventually climbing those mountains, no peak out of reach. 

As an Indigenous woman who has been to many national parks, including Dena’ina, Koyukon, Lower Tanana, Upper Kuskokwim, and Western Ahtna lands in Denali, Blackfoot lands in Glacier, Ahwahneechee, lands in Yosemite, Havasupai, and the Hualapai lands in the Grand Canyon, my homelands of the Black Hills and Badlands; I consistently am left with feelings of indignation. Why, in these spaces, are we spoken and written about in past-tense? Why are we not the ones giving tours and telling the history of the land? After all, we know it best. Why are we not included in all conversations surrounding land management practices and who has access to sacred sites? Why do POC only make up 22% of the visitor population to national parks? Why do I have to pay to access my ancestral lands?

The time for change is now. National parks should be enjoyed and accessed by everyone, not catered only to giant RVs and sprinter vans that fill their parking lots with primarily white tourists, snapping photos and leaving without any acknowledgment and respect for the land they are on, showcasing the NPS’ history of prioritizing tourism over ecological stewardship. 

Indigenous nations should have access to these lands for free, whether for recreating, ceremony, fishing, and hunting. Tribes should be included in every conversation regarding where funds are being distributed on programs in the NPS and all conversations regarding land management. The list could go on to point out the unjust flaws the National Park System upholds, rooted deeply in its history of white imperialism. National Parks must be held accountable for contributing to the erasure of culture. Let these guidelines be a good place to start.

‘Leave No Trace’ is a great value & concept (in theory) in vanlife. Make sustainable swaps & try to use natural toiletries. Check out the Sustainability section of the BIPOC Guide to learn about some of these natural and sustainable alternatives.

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