I. The End Result of Dirty Business
IN 1851, members of a California state militia called the Mariposa Battalion became the first white men to lay eyes on Yosemite Valley. The group was largely made up of miners. They had been scouring the western slopes of the Sierra when they happened upon the granite valley that Native peoples had long referred to as “the place of a gaping mouth.” Lafayette Bunnell, a physician attached to the militia, found himself awestruck. “None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley, can even imagine the feelings with which I looked upon the view,” he later wrote. “A peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears.” Many of those who have followed in Bunnell’s footsteps over the past 170 years, walking alongside the Merced River or gazing upon the god-rock of El Capitan, have been similarly struck by the sense that they were in the presence of the divine.
The Mariposa Battalion had come to Yosemite to kill Indians. Yosemite’s Miwok tribes, like many of California’s Native peoples, were obstructing a frenzy of extraction brought on by the Gold Rush. And whatever Bunnell’s fine sentiments about nature, he made his contempt for these “overgrown, vicious children” plain:
Any attempt to governor civilize them without the power to compel obedience, will be looked upon by barbarians with derision … The savage is naturally vain, cruel and arrogant. He boasts of his murders and robberies, and the tortures of his victims very much in the same manner that he recounts his deeds of valor in battle.
When the roughly 200 men of the Mariposa Battalion marched into Yosemite, armed with rifles, they did not find the Miwok eager for battle. While the Miwok hid, the militiamen sought to starve them into submission by burning their food stores, souring the valley’s air with the smell of scorched acorns. On one particularly bloody day, some of the men came upon an inhabited village outside the valley, surprising the Miwok there. They used embers from the tribe’s own campfires to set the wigwams aflame and shot at the villagers indiscriminately as they fled, murdering 23 of them. By the time the militia’s campaign ended, many of the Miwok who survived had been driven from Yosemite, their homeland for millennia, and forced onto reservations.
Thirty-nine years later, Yosemite became the fifth national park. (Yellowstone, which was granted that status in 1872, was the first.) The parks were intended to be natural cathedrals: protected landscapes where people could worship the sublime. They offer Americans the thrill of looking back over their shoulder at a world without humans or technology. Many visit them to find something that exists outside or beyond us, to experience an awesome sense of scale, to contemplate our smallness and our ephemerality. It was for this reason that John Muir, the father of modern conservationism, advocated for the parks’ creation.
More than a century ago, in the pages of this magazine, Muir 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: Many of the landscapes that became national parks had been shaped by Native peoples for millennia. 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. Yosemite Valley’s sublime landscape was likewise tended by Native peoples; 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.
The national parks are sometimes called “America’s best idea,” and there is much to recommend them. They are indeed awesome places, worthy of reverence and preservation, as Native Americans like me would be the first to tell you. But all of them were founded on land that was once ours, and many were created only after we were removed, forcibly, sometimes by an invading army and other times following a treaty we’d signed under duress. When describing the simultaneous creation of the parks and Native American reservations, the Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk noted darkly that the United States “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller.”
Many of the negotiations that enabled the creation of these islands took place in English (to the disadvantage of the tribes), when the tribes faced annihilation or had been weakened by disease or starvation (to the disadvantage of the tribes), or with bad faith on the part of the government (to the disadvantage of the tribes). The treaties that resulted, according to the U.S. Constitution, are the “supreme Law of the Land.” Yet even despite their cruel terms, few were honored. Native American claims and rights were ignored or chipped away.
The American story of “the Indian” is one of staggering loss. Some estimates put the original Indigenous population of what would become the contiguous United States between 5 million and 15 million at the time of first contact. By 1890, around the time America began creating national parks in earnest, roughly 250,000 Native people were still alive. In 1491, Native people controlled all of the 2.4 billion acres that would become the United States. Now we control about 56 million acres, or roughly 2 percent.
And yet we remain, and some of us have stayed stubbornly near the parks, preserving our attachment to them. Grand Canyon National Park encloses much of the Havasupai Tribe and its reservation. Pipe Spring National Monument sits entirely inside the 120,000-acre Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation, in northern Arizona. Many other parks neighbor Native communities. But while the parks may be near us, and of us, they are not ours.
We live in a time of historical reconsideration, as more and more people recognize that the sins of the past still haunt the present. For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend—and protect and preserve— these favored gardens again.
IN JULY 2020, I conducted something of a barnstorming tour. I wanted to look with fresh eyes at the park system, to imagine a new future for it. I had planned on visiting all sorts of places—the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains National Park—but the coronavirus pandemic intervened.
Some parks closed completely, while others (like Yellowstone) closed campgrounds, cultural centers, and museums. In the end I drove from Minnesota through North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon and down the spine of California. Then I turned around and drove back. I visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellow stone, Grand Teton, Mount Hood National Forest, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree.
The roads were quieter than usual, though the skies were sometimes hazy as the West Coast burst into flames. I slept in campgrounds, in my tent in the backyards of friends, and, rarely, in a hotel or motor lodge. I cooked on the trunk of my car and on picnic tables, under the blazing sun and in torrential rain. I fought off raccoons and squirrels.
More than any other place I visited, Yellowstone seemed to contain the multitudes of America. There, I saw elk and bison. I saw enough recreational vehicles to house a good portion of this country’s homeless. I saw lake water, river water, black water, swamp water, and frothy waterfall water. I saw Tony Hawk being stopped by two park rangers after longboarding down the switchbacks above Mammoth Hot Springs while an actual hawk circled above him. I saw Insta gram models in tiny bikinis posing in front of indifferent bison. I saw biker gangs (who seem to really enjoy parks) and gangs of toddlers (who don’t seem to enjoy anything). I saw tourists, masked and unmasked. I saw placards and displays. I discovered that you can learn a lot about nature at Yellowstone, and perhaps even more about American culture. But the park’s official captions give you at best a limited sense of its human history.
The photographs that accompany this article are portraits of members of the Blackfeet Nation and the lands around them. They were taken on the Blackfeet Reservation and in Glacier National Park, in Montana, over two weeks in March. The Blackfeet’s homelands once encompassed part of the Rocky Mountains and what became the park, before the tribe was dispossessed of its land. Many of America’s national parks were once home to Native American tribes that have since been evicted by force or dishonest dealing.
Yellowstone National Park was created about 100 years after the country was born. An 1806 expedition, part of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, passed just north of where the park is today. Later, John Colter, one of the Corps members, joined the fur trade and purportedly became the first non-Native to see its vistas. Of course, Native people had lived there for thousands of years, and at the time Colter was setting traps in the area, they still claimed Yellowstone as their home.
Colter traveled through the Yellowstone area and the Teton Range in the early 19th century, looking for fur. Wherever he went, he ended up in mortal conflict with Native Americans, culminating in his wounding at the hands of the Blackfeet. He hid from the tribe under a pile of driftwood and then walked for a week to safety. Over the next 60 years, trappers like him described the landscape that would become Yellowstone as an area of mud geysers, acid pools, and petrified trees.
Not until 1869 did the first official expedition explore the region and confirm the mountain men’s accounts. Things moved quickly after that. In 1871, Ferdinand V. Hayden led a government-sponsored survey of Yellowstone that produced reports complete with professional sketches and photographs. Based on that report, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellow stone Act of 1872, which created America’s first landscape to be “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Grant’s declaration made trespassers of the Shoshone, Bannock, and other peoples who had called the parkland home for centuries. The tribes left with the understanding that they would retain hunting rights in the park, as guaranteed by an 1868 treaty. Before the century was out, however, the government had reneged on that promise. This tactic of theft by broken treaty would become a pattern where parks were concerned.
When Yellowstone was established, the Plains Wars were raging all around the park’s borders. It was as though the government paused mid-murder to plant a tree in the victims’ backyard. The Dakota War had erupted 10 years earlier, just east of the Great Plains. By the time it was over, dozens of Dakota had been hanged, and more than 1,600 women, children, and elders had been sent to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling. Eventually, all of the treaties between the Eastern Dakota and the U.S. government were “abrogated and annulled.”
In 1864, on the Plains’ opposite edge, at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory, Colonel John Chivington massacred and mutilated as many as 500 Native Americans. In 1868, just four years before the creation of Yellowstone, Native Americans, led by Red Cloud, fought the U.S. government to a standstill, then forced concessions from the Americans at the treaty table, though these, too, were eventually unmade.
War came to Yellowstone itself in 1877. Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce had been shut out of their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and embarked on a 1,500-mile journey that would end just south of the Canadian border, where they would surrenderto the U.S. Army. The Nez Perce did their best to avoid white people on their way. But they were attacked on the banks of the Big Hole River, in August 1877, by soldiers in Colonel John Gibbon’s command. Gibbon’s men approached the camp on foot at dawn, killing a man during their advance. Then they began firing into the tepees of the sleeping Nez Perce, killing men, women, and children. The Nez Perce counterattacked. Their warriors kept Gibbon’s soldiers pinned down while the others escaped. Although they defended themselves well, they lost at least 60 people.
Reeling from these deaths, the Nez Perce passed into Yellowstone, where they ran into tourists from Radersburg, Montana, enjoying the “pleasuring- ground” created at the expense of Indians. The Nez Perce briefly held the tourists hostage, and then released them, but went on to kill two tourists in the park later in the month.
Moving east through the park, the tribe forded the Yellowstone River at a place still known as the Nez Perce Ford. Around the time they crossed the river, an elderly woman peeled away from the main column and stayed at an area known as Mud Volcano. She sat on a bison robe near a geyser and sang. When a U.S. scout approached her, she closed her eyes. “She seemed rather disappointed,” John W. Reding ton, the scout, wrote, “when instead of shooting her I refilled her water bottle. She made signs that she had been forsaken by her people, and wanted to die.” Ten minutes later, a Bannock scout for the Army obliged by striking her down and scalping her. One hundred and forty-three years later, my sons and daughter and I would stand on the same spot, wondering why there are so few places in the park where you can learn about its bloody past. Viewed from the perspective of history, Yellow stone is a crime scene.
AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS comprise only a small fraction of the land stolen from Native Americans, but they loom large in the broader story of our dispossession. Most of the major national parks are in the western United States. So, too, are most Native American tribes, owing to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which attempted to eject all tribes east of the Mississippi to what was then Indian Territory. The reservation period likewise began, for the most part, in the West, in the mid-19th century.
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