National Parks

From “Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future” by Patty Krawec – Broadleaf Books

The US National Park system has been displacing Indigenous people for more than one hundred years. Just like governments use the language of safety, conservationists use the language of environmentalism to push aside the original peoples of the places where the parks now exist. In the 1960s, Minnesota senator Gaylord Nelson attempted to push through legislation that would remove waterfront land from the Bad River and Red Cliff Ojibwe reservations and turn it into a national park, moving the tribes further inland. Postwar prosperity meant family road trips and vacations for the middle class, and that meant increasing the available wilderness for them to travel to. Because of the engagement and activism of those tribal members, as well as the coordinated response from at least thirty other tribes and non-Native community members, this was unsuccessful.

In 2012, the Red Cliff Ojibwe opened Frog Bay Tribal National Park, which includes tribal lands as well as lands that they purchased from a retired professor. David Johnson learned that the tribe wanted to purchase the land he and his wife had bought decades earlier, but the tribe could not afford it. He sold it to them at half of its appraised value, saying that he had “always felt a little embarrassed at owning property that should have been in the tribe’s hands all along.” People can, and do, donate or sell property to tribal governments. It is one way that tribes are able to increase or restore their land base.

Actually restoring national parks to the Native peoples from whom they were taken is another idea that is gaining some interest in the United States and canada. In the May 2021 issue of The Atlantic, Ojibwe writer David Treuer wrote a piece entitled “Return the National Parks to the Tribes.” In it, he describes how the US government displaced the Miwok tribe from the land that would, thirty-nine years later, become Yosemite Park. This story repeats itself across the United States and Canada: Indigenous peoples banished from what conservationists saw as pristine wilderness. These parks were seen by settlers, in the words of David Treuer, as “natural cathedrals: protected landscapes where people could worship the sublime…an Eden untouched by humans and devoid of sin.” But, he goes on to point out, these places were never untouched. In a reenactment of the fall, the settlers cast out the original people and called it pure. Treuer, and many others, argue that if the US government is to take seriously ideas of conservation and reconciliation, these lands should be placed under the control of the tribes from whom they were taken. He notes that there is precedent for this in Australia and New Zealand, where many significant natural landmarks are under the control of the Indigenous peoples: Uluru, for example, and almost half of the Northern Territory of Australia. In Canada, the territory of Nunavut was separated from the Northwest Territories in 1993 and is largely administered by the Inuit who make up most of the population.

In New Zealand, the Raupatu Lands component of the Waikato River claim was settled in 1995, and it returned land to the Maori tribe who had originally lived there, including lands that were under existing Crown ownership: the University of Waikato, Te Rapa Airforce base, the Hamilton Courthouse, and the police station. These lands within the city boundaries of Hamilton, New Zealand, are now Maori land. This arrangement has provided the Maori tribe with a tax base from which they can make decisions about development, and it involves them in a partnership with the city where they have real power to influence decisions.