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Visiting U.S. National Parks While Honoring Them As The Ancestral Land Of Indigenous People

There are over 25 Native American tribes associated with the land in and around Yellowstone National Park.

The United States National Parks System is often lauded as “America’s Best Idea.” While, indeed, the preservation of some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in North America is an incredible idea, they do not rightly belong to America. For thousands of years before white settlers arrived, Native people lived on and cultivated the land which white settlers regarded as virgin wilderness. This myth of untouched wild land is still very common in National Park literature, but it obscures the long Indigenous history, effectively erasing Native people from their ancestral lands. Rather, the 85 million acres in these national parks are living examples of the footprint Indigenous people have had on the continent for millennia. 

“The national parks are the closest thing America has to sacred lands,” David Treuer wrote in his recent article in The Atlantic advocating to return the National Parks back to Native people. His proposal is one we (the U.S.) can and should take seriously. But I also see it as a call to action for travelers to the national parks. We can see those amazing public spaces for more than what the park literature tells us: as land that for thousands of years was lived on, cultivated, and stewarded by Indigenous people.

Here are a few examples of how we can learn about the Indigenous people on whose land we’re visiting in these incredible spaces. This reframing of our travels to national parks can hopefully lead to even more tangible action.

Yellowstone Falls. "How To Honor Ancestral Land Of Indigenous People While Visiting National Parks"
In a Jan/Feb 2021 Smithsonian article, the archaeologists helping to showcase the untold story of the Indigenous people of Yellowstone noted that Yellowstone Falls was a part of the original Crow Reservation.

Yellowstone National Park

“When people look at Yellowstone, they should see a landscape rich with Native American history, not a pristine wilderness. They’re driving on roads that were Native American trails. They’re camping where people have camped for thousands of years.” 

This was a quote by University of Montana professor of anthropology, Doug MacDonald in a recent Smithsonian article about the untold Native American history of the park. With the diverse wildlife and otherworldly volcanic activity from the geysers, mud pots, and hot springs, it may seem like untouched wilderness, but humans have been in Yellowstone for over 11,000 years. Many Indigenous groups migrated to the region seasonally (up to 27 tribes have been associated with the region), following the very wildlife we marvel at today. There’s also ample evidence that the obsidian found in Yellowstone was commonly traded making the area a well-traveled trade route. 

The history of Yellowstone’s establishment of a National Park is also one of the many examples of violent removal of Indigenous people for the benefit of white settlers and, in this case, tourists. In so doing, the U.S. government gradually, systematically, and often violently removed the Indigenous people such as The Cheyenne and Apsaalooké (Crow) people from their ancestral land. The Crow reservation which once occupied 30 million acres, half of what is currently Yellowstone Park was reduced to 8 million during the gold rush and is currently down to 2 million acres. 

You can learn about the modern-day culture and traditions of the Indigenous people still living near Yellowstone and you can honor them by learning about their ancestral heritage.

When settlers arrived to what is now called Yosemite National Park in the late 1800s, the Miwok people had already been living there for thousands of years.

Yosemite National Park

David Treuer’s introduction of The Atlantic article, depicts the moment the first white men saw the majesty of Yosemite Valleycalled “the place of the gaping mouth” by Native people. Like many who behold that place today, they were awestruck. But these white men were not there to revel in nature’s beauty, they were from a battalion of miners with the specific goal to kill the Indigenous people of the area to make way for U.S. western expansion and capitalist pursuits during the gold rush. The Miwok people, who had been living in what is now Yosemite National Park for around 8,000 years, were not going to go quietly. But eventually, after a lot of death, they were pushed out.

The Miwok, though, are an important example of the advanced Indigenous knowledge of natural ecology. They foraged on the acorns and berries of the region, hunted elk and other wildlife, and for those who lived near rivers and streams, fished for salmon. The Miwok used their knowledge to cultivate and manage the land, such as through controlled burns to not only prevent large-scale wildfires, but also to promote new growth. Today, California is beginning to work with Indigenous tribes (particularly the Yurok and Karuk and Hoopa people farther north along the Klamath River) on controlled burns. 

Today in Yosemite National Park, there is a reconstructed Miwok village called the Village of Ahwahnee that can serve as a starting-point to learn about the Indigenous people there. The California Valley Miwok Tribe has been federally recognized since 1916.

Mesa Verde National Park community. A great place to visit to learn about the ancestral lands of Indigenous people.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado offers a view into pre-colonial Indigenous communities through the well-preserved cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people.

Mesa Verde National Park

Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park’s cliff dwellings are remarkably preserved communities (thanks to the dry desert climate!) that show a window into the way the Pueblo people lived before white settlers arrived. Early white archeologists who had studied the site were perplexed by what seemed like their sudden departure in the late 1200s, but partnerships between archeologists and Native people whose ancestry can be traced back to those early Puebloans, is helping to fill in those gaps which this High Country News article goes into.

Through the merging of information gleaned from archaeological artifacts and oral histories, some researchers believe that a series of potentially traumatic events (conflict with other groups, drought, etc.) caused the Pueblo people to leave for the Tewa Basin in northern New Mexico. While there isn’t scientific consensus, this points to the importance of Indigenous cultural preservation (language, traditions, and spiritual practices) and the need for travelers to these regions to learn from the people whose ancestors first lived there. 

For those visiting Mesa Verde, there’s another nearby Indigenous historical site, The Yucca House National Monument, which is an un-excavated site that is believed to be one of the last places they occupied before leaving the region. 

As a way to start conversations with your kids about learning about the Indigenous people in the Southwest, check out Byrd Baylor’s beautiful book, “When Clay Sings.” It’s a poem that reflects the respect Native people have for the bits and pieces of clay pots found throughout the Southwest. Through those pots, the story of their ancestors is told. 

The Havasupai people (who call themselves Havasu Baaja, the People of the Blue Green Waters) still reside below the rim serving as protectors of the canyon and everything therin.

Grand Canyon

“The Havasupai are the guardians of the Grand Canyon,” Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a Havasupai Tribal Councilwoman told WBUR’s Here & Now upon the 100th anniversary of The Grand Canyon’s establishment as a national park. “We call ourselves the Havasu Baaja, the People of the Blue Green Waters…this land is sacred and this land has sustained life since the beginning of time.”

Watahomigie-Corliss represents a community of Havasupai people who still live below the rim of the Grand Canyon, many in Supai, which is known well for the majestic blue-green water found in nearby Havasupai Falls. The Havasupai are among 11 tribes associated with The Grand Canyon. After establishment of the national park, they are the only ones to remain. Many elders in the community still express trauma from that period of removal. Project 562—a project from photographer Matika Wilbur to photograph over 562 Indigenous nations—recently posted a reflection on Instagram from Havasupai elder, Rex Tilousi about how his people felt when they were told to leave their traditional sites around the Grand Canyon rim to make way for the new national park: “we didn’t want to leave. That’s where we belonged. Not the canyons, the land, the springs belonging to us, but we belonged to these things, to this place.”

Today, councilwoman Watahomigie-Corliss says that the relationship with the national park has improved, turning into a more respectful partnership. This can be seen through work The Grand Canyon Trust does to help protect Indigenous knowledge and tribal lifeways. But like in a lot of national parks, the cultural respect and acknowledgement for Indigenous communities is not easy to find for the average tourist. In some ways, it’s on us to learn about the people who are still there protecting the grandeur and beauty of the place.

Note: While visiting the Havasupai Falls and the people in the community of Supai is a common activity, take note of these Grand Canyon Trust recommendations and do your research in advance.

The Black Hills National Forest -- called Pahá Sápa, meaning "the hills that are black" by the Lakota people is a great place to visit to honor the ancestral lands of the Indigenous people.
The Black Hills National Forest — called Pahá Sápa, meaning “the hills that are black” by the Lakota people — is a sacred space to the Lakota Sioux. It is an excellent alternative to visiting Mt. Rushmore while visiting South Dakota.

Black Hills National Forest

When many non-Indigenous travelers look to South Dakota, the first thought might be that rock face with four white men carved into the mountainside. To Indigenous people, particularly The Lakota Sioux, the monumentbuilt on sacred ground in the Black Hillsis a lasting reminder of European colonial appropriation of their land and the wide-scale violence perpetrated against their people. But nearby in the Black Hills National Forest you can not only revel in the beauty of the unique landscape, but learn about the Native history and thriving modern-day culture of the people in the region. 

The Black Hills are so named because of the Lakota phrase, Pahá Sápa, meaning “the hills that are black” because of the way the dark trees looked against the light prairie land leading to the mountains. The Lakota have been associated with the area for over 10,000 years which has been a sacred site for ceremony and sanctuary. This all ended when fur traders and settlers came through in the 19th century.

Today, you can learn a history different from the one told at Mt. Rushmore at the Crazy Horse Memorial and the Indian Museum of North America, which aren’t just focused on preserving the history, culture, and heritage of the Lakota people, but of all Indigenous people in North America. 

South Dakota as a whole, in fact, is at the center of radical resistance from Native groups and their allies who have been actively protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation for the last few years.

And among this vibrant protest for sovereignty are also palpable living examples of Lakota heritage throughout the state. One organization providing education for travelers around existing Native culture is Re-Member, a non-profit that works with the Oglala Lakota communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation to “improve the quality of reservation life through relationships, shared resources and volunteer services.” Their purpose is not only to provide support, but to also build allies in the Native sovereignty movement. In Non-Covid times Re-Member organizes weekly volunteer trips for adults and kids as young as 8.

To engage your kids in discussions around Indigenous movements in North America, check out the award-winning book, “We Are Water Protectors” written by Carol Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade.

A list of books to read before visiting any ancestral lands of Indigenous people

Advocacy and Education Beyond the Park Visits

One of the coolest things about shifting your perspective of these natural places is that you start to see nature and “wilderness” in a completely different way. In these places where humans have lived for thousands of years, there is so much we can learn about Indigenous heritage and the knowledge of the natural world therein. 

Here are some ways we can tangibly bring these lessons back to our everyday lives:

  • Continue to learn about the Indigenous people whose land we’re on. Whether you’re in a city or a national park, wherever you stand or sit in North America, you are on Indigenous land. Bring the lens you took with you to the national parks to everyday life. You can read more about how to go about doing that in a blog post I wrote last November on Native land acknowledgement.
  • Support Indigenous organizations where you live. Find the organizations who are advocating for and serving the Indigenous people in your region and get involved either through monetary support or active engagement (or both!).
  • Read books and stories to your kids by and about Indigenous people that include the past, present, and future. Here is a list of our favorites on Bookshop (this includes a few options for adults). 
  • Look for opportunities for advocacy in which you can include your kids. You can see what Native groups in your region are doing and follow their lead. You could have your kids write letters to the national parks office about including information about the Native people whose land the park sits on. You could find ways to support the Land Back movement and other Native sovereignty efforts across the region. There are countless ways to grow your allyship.

In closing, I want to go back to David Treuer’s proposal to return the national parks to Native people. It is a cause worthy of support from nature lovers everywhere. It seems radical, but it is also a fairly simple prospect that could do so much more to preserve these spaces for everyone than current practices. Perhaps it’s a cause that we, as allies, can more actively and collectively get behind. To help us being doing that, we can at least start seeing the national parks beyond the wildlife and what brochures currently tell us. 

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