Colonialism for Conservation Reckoning with the racist history of the national park service

By Christina Cilento

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, widely referred to as the greatest conservation effort in American history and one of the country’s best ideas. The success of the national park venture can hardly be disputed; with over 400 protected sites across the country covering 84 million acres, the landscape of American conservation would look very different without national parks and reserves. But the National Park Service’s successes should not obscure its failures, nor allow us to excuse a darker side of American conservation. This essay will explore the National Park Service’s history of settler colonialism, resulting in the bribed and forced removal of Native Americans from their land for the creation of parks. Across a series of sections, I will describe the colonial mentalities that have marked the National Park Service over its past 100 years and conclude by imagining an alternate park service, one built for and by all Americans with the goal of preserving and honoring Native cultures and histories.

A history of displacement

The pristine condition of national parks today may give the illusion that national park land was always uninhabited by humans, never touched by the hands of man. In fact, many parks are the historic homes of Native Americans who lived there for thousands of years before colonists arrived in the United States. Yellowstone, for instance, has historic connections to 26 tribes, with the Sheep-eaters and Mountain Shoshone calling it their home before they were vacated from their land to establish the park (1). According to the National Park Service, “For thousands of years before Yellowstone became a national park, it was a place where Indians hunted, fished, gathered plants, quarried obsidian, and used the thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes (2)." And Glacier National Park in Montana was once the hunting ground of the Blackfeet tribe, used for catching buffalo by driving the animals off a cliff to crash on the rocks below (3). Once the park was taken from the tribe, hunters were forced to change their hunting methods, as they could no longer access the cliffs and buffalo herds that had been central to their food source. And the Grand Canyon was quickly vacated by Havasupai and Hualapai tribes after settlers murdered the Hualapai chief Wauba Yoman and forced both tribes onto small reservations from 1866 to 1880, resulting in the spread of disease and mass deaths in both tribes (4).

National parks held historical or spiritual significance for many Native communities, who saw the astonishing sights and monuments of the national parks as sacred spaces for religious ceremonies or worship. But, of course, governmental officials hell-bent on turning these areas into national parks did not have much sympathy for how important this land was to Native communities, and, in some cases, even tried to create a false narrative about tribes’ relationship with the land to excuse their dispossession of Native peoples. At Yellowstone, for instance, where many tribes revered the geysers and hot springs, early white park superintendents perpetuated the idea that “Indians feared the geyser regions” and used this to justify expelling the Native Americans off the land so they might make it “‘safe’ for park visitors” (5).

The National Park Service logo reimagined. By Christina Cilento.

From colonists to conservationists

Much like the founding fathers of America, the founding fathers of the National Park Service left much to be desired when it came to their perceptions toward Native Americans. As blogger Jim MacDonald put it, “the same grain [of leaders] that committed genocide to our native peoples, that raped the land, enslaved other people, and continues to foul up our air and water is in fact the same grain that set these parks aside ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’” (6). This should not be surprising. Conservation is only conservation if the land being conserved is vacant -- in the case of national parks, conservation was actually thinly veiled colonialism. Historian Karl Jacoby describes the mindset that established parks as the same one that simultaneously devalued Native peoples: “The only way you can come in and say ‘We [the state] need to manage this space and manage the environment,’ is you have to in some ways present the current managers of it — the native peoples — as incompetent” (7). The people who called for the creation of national parks thought they knew better than the Native people who had inhabited national parks respectfully for thousands of years, and they expressed this superiority by forcing Native Americans off their land through coercion or brute violence. In the eyes of these settlers, utility of the land for Native populations was not enough, even if that land had incredible significance to Native communities. The land had to serve the masses.

Gifford Pinchot, one of the fathers of American conservation, promoted this mindset through a simple philosophy that became a guiding ethos of American environmentalism: "Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run” (8). Pinchot meant this utilitarian statement to be in favor of conservation: it was more useful, in his mind, to conserve resources for use over time by many rather than for immediate use by few. This early notion of sustainability can be beneficial in some cases, yet detrimental in others. When applied to the creation of national parks, Pinchot’s mentality would excuse despicable practices, like forcing a few Native Americans off their land, no matter how long they had inhabited it, if it meant that millions of Americans could later become tourists at their former homes. It was under this colonial mindset of serving the masses, while disserving the most vulnerable population, that national parks were established.

"Conservation is used as a tool of colonialism." -Karl Jacoby

Some of the most despicable figures in the history of Native Americans are the heroes in the history of national parks. Philip Sheridan, the General who allegedly confessed “the only good Indians [he] ever saw were dead”, fought strongly for the establishment of national parks, particularly Yellowstone (9). Sheridan allegedly believed the park was necessary to conserve buffalo populations, which had been under threat due to massive hunting efforts, and sent some of his Cavalry troops to the park to defend its borders (10). Ironically, Sheridan himself was a huge proponent for buffalo hunting in the first place: he promoted the mass killing of buffalo as a way to starve out Native Americans and thus weaken their armies. In talking about the men who hunted buffalo to the point of near extinction, he said, “These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years” (11). Sheridan’s allyship for the buffalo and the environment seemingly extended only so far as was useful to his mission of eradicating Native populations. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that Sheridan only advocated so strongly for the establishment of Yellowstone because he wanted the Native people who lived there to be forced from their land, marking a win for his army. Sheridan wedded national parks with the army so strongly that he actually wanted the parks to be under control of the U.S. Army, rather than the Department of the Interior. Sharing in this belief was John Muir, a father of American conservation, who had no faith in the Department of the Interior to do justice to the national park project (12). It is interesting to consider what national parks might look like had these men gotten their way; national parks today might be highly militarized sites, regulated not by rangers but by soldiers with guns, ready to attack anyone who threatens their landscapes.

Part of the attraction

For the many visitors who traveled to national parks following their creation, Native Americans were part of the tourism experience. The book “'Oh, Ranger!' A Guide to National Parks”, written in 1928 by Horace Albright and Frank Taylor, explained in detail how travelers might best experience Indians in their national park trips. “About the easiest place for city folks to see the Indian in his natural state is in a national park,” the authors wrote, as if Indians were animals meant for the consumption of tourists, wild beasts best observed in nature (13). This obsession with spotting Native Americans on park lands went hand in hand with stereotypes of Native people as backwards, uncivilized or inhuman. In fact, Albright and Taylor explain that “[t]he average Dude is not interested in Indians who have become civilized, who wear store clothes, ride in automobiles, and look like any other brand of humans. The Dude wants to see 'real Indians,' the kind that wear feathers, don war paint, make their clothes and moccasins of skins” (14). The “dudes” who visited national parks in the 1920s, when "Oh Ranger!" was written, were thus not concerned with learning about Native populations, but rather with having Native Americans conform to their racist notions of what Native people ought to look like. One might imagine a child pointing and crying, “Look mom, a real Indian!” in the same way tourists would stop in awe at wolves or buffalo.

This was actually the case at Glacier National Park, where the Blackfeet who historically inhabited the land were very much a part of the park’s public relations campaign. The Great Northern Railway company, which led trips to Glacier National Park, labeled the Blackfeet as the “Glacier Park Indians” in promotional materials, enticing visitors to come see them in person (15). And once tourists got off the train at the nearest station to the park, they were greeted by the “Glacier Park Indians” dressed in full regalia who shook their hands and even honored the visitors by giving them Indian names as they settled into the Glacier Park Hotel (16). One might expect a similarly absurd welcome crew to greet visitors to Disneyland, with characters in costume eagerly waving to all who enter the park gates. Of course, the difference here is that the Native American procession awaiting tourists at Glacier National Park was legitimately harmful to the way white visitors perceived of and interacted with Native communities, suggesting Native peoples existed for the benefit and enjoyment of white people.

A member of the Blackfeet tribe greets tourists at Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of PBS.

These anecdotes seem painfully outdated and alarming, but consuming Native culture is still, to an extent, part of the attraction at many national parks. From the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone, visitors can see Native Americans gathered around parks and find Native crafts and jewelry for sale at every souvenir shop or boutique in the park’s vicinity. While this craft selling is not innately bad (in that it provides income for Native people selling their products), it nevertheless echoes a history of Native cultural consumption on behalf of the mostly white park frequenters and reduces Native culture down to accessories and knick-knacks. Appreciation for Native jewelry is promoted over appreciation of Native cultures and histories, leaving park visitors with an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of indigenous people in the United States.

A service for whom?

One of the things I find most interesting about the National Park Service is its name. It is not the “National Park Administration” or the “Bureau of National Parks” -- it is the National Park Service. The use of the word “service” implies a direct benefit to all people from NPS’s existence, some concrete product accessible to and meant for every American. Yet in looking at the ways NPS has functioned since its founding, that is most definitely not the case. While national parks at their core were intended for aesthetic enjoyment -- a way for citizens to get outside and enjoy the tranquility of nature -- in practice, very few Americans could actually afford the luxury to visit the parks. In the 1890s when Yellowstone was established, a trip to visit the park would have been incredibly time consuming and expensive for most Americans, meaning that the joy of seeing Yellowstone’s wonders was unintentionally reserved for wealthy, white citizens who could afford to leave work and take a train to a remote area of the country.

Unfortunately, in the 100 years since NPS was established, this trend has not improved much. Up until the 1940s, quite a few parks maintained segregated areas, designating picnic benches for “whites only” or a specific “Negro area” for black tourists (17). This deliberate exclusion of people of color at national parks left lasting effects: as recently as 2011, roughly 4 out of every 5 visitors to national parks were white (18). And national park staff follow the same demographics -- a concerning 80 percent of staff were also white as of 2014 (19). With such homogeneity, visiting a national park can be isolating and unpleasant for many people of color. In a time when fostering appreciation and respect for nature is increasingly urgent, the National Park Service must do better to attract a diverse group of visitors to its parks and engender a passion for the outdoors in people of all races and ethnicities.

Segregated area at Shenandoah National Park. Photo by National Park Service

A new National Park Service

In crafting this project, I’ve grappled with the fact that the National Park Service has done a lot of good for this country, despite the harm it has caused and the many areas in which it can approve. Regardless of the demographics of people who visit national parks, for instance, I do believe it is genuinely positive that so many people are exposed to nature through their existence. I’m glad that, while we watch land being denigrated across the country, we also have designated areas that cannot be touched by pipelines, mines, or corporatization. And I wonder if -- had the National Park Service not been established -- our national parks and the Native Americans who historically inhabited them might have met an even darker end. Would the land that is now Yellowstone have been destroyed by railroads, housing developments, or deforestation? Given the dire and alarming ways that land has been continually taken from Native Americans over the course of American history, it seems that Native land could have met a worse fate than being converted into national parks, but that fact still does not excuse the dispossession and disenfranchisement that had to take place to make Native land available for the appreciation of the masses.

Some people may take the view that Native Americans being forced out of their homes was a “necessary evil” to create the national parks. But did Native displacement have to occur for environmental conservation to exist in the United States? What if, instead of forcing Native Americans off the land they occupied, the federal government preserved their lands as meaningful cultural sites for tribes and the country at large? Shouldn’t the presence of Native Americans on “national park” land and the immense significance many park sites had for indigenous people have been to enough warrant the conservation of those areas? Why did national parks need to be vacated, aesthetically perfected, and opened to the masses to have value to the federal government? National parks could have been created in conjunction with Native American tribes, rather than against their will, and been intended for the conservation of culture rather than the consumption of nature. It is difficult to imagine a Native-centric National Park Service given the endurance of NPS's current conservation model, but our national parks may benefit from a radical reimagination of their role and function. In looking to the next century, the National Park Service must deeply reflect on the last 100 years and reconcile its history of colonialism and racism. The park service will not benefit from hiding its past, but rather must make reparations for it. To truly serve all people, NPS must make amends to the Native communities it has consistently disserved.

Works cited

  1. Landry, Alysa. “Native History: Yellowstone National Park Created on Sacred Land.” Indian Country Today Media Network. 1 March 2014. Accessed 25 Nov. 2016.
  2. “Yellowstone - Historic Tribes.” National Park Service. Accessed 25 Nov. 2016.
  3. Albright, Horace, and Taylor, Frank. "Oh, Ranger!" A Guide to National Parks. Leopold Classic Library, 1928.
  4. “Native Americans Throughout Time in the Grand Canyon.” My Grand Canyon Park. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016
  5. Whittlesey, Lee. “Native Americans, the Earliest Interpreters: What is Known About Their Legends and Stories of Yellowstone National Park and the Complexities of Interpreting Them.” The George Wright Forum, vol. 19, no. 3, 2002, pp 40-51, Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.
  6. MacDonald, Jim. “A Critique of National Parks as ‘America’s Best Idea.’” New West, 30 Sept. 2009. Accessed 25 Nov. 2016.
  7. NoiseCat, Julian Brave. “The Forgotten History of ‘Violent Displacement’ that Helped Create the National Parks.” Huffington Post, 26 Sept. 2015. Accessed 26 Nov. 2016.
  8. Wilkinson, Charles. “‘The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number in the Long Run”: TR, Pinchot, and the Origins of Sustainability in America.” Colorado Natural Resources, Energy and Environmental Law Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 2015, pp. 69-79. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.
  9. "Philip Henry Sheridan." PBS. Accessed 2 Dec 2016.
  10. “Episode One: The Scripture of Nature.” The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, written by Dayton Duncan, directed by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, PBS, 2009.
  11. King, Gilbert. “Where the Buffalo No Longer Roamed.”, 17 July 2012. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.
  12. Ryan, P. J. “John Muir.” National Park Service, 1 Dec. 2000. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.
  13. Albright, Horace, and Taylor, Frank. "Oh, Ranger!" A Guide to National Parks. Leopold Classic Library, 1928.
  14. Albright, Horace, and Taylor, Frank. "Oh, Ranger!" A Guide to National Parks. Leopold Classic Library, 1928.
  15. Wyckoff, William and Dilsaver, Lary. “Promotional Imagery of Glacier National Park.” The Geographical Review, vol. 87, no. 1, 1997, pp. 1-26, Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.
  16. Carlson, Caitlin. “Uniquely American”: The Great Northern Railway, the Blackfeet, and the Creation of a National Identity in Glacier National Park, 1910-1935. Dissertation, St. Cloud State University, 2014.
  17. Onion, Rebecca. “Photos: When Segregation Reached Right Into National Parks.” Slate, 19 June 2016. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
  18. Nelson, Glenn. “Why Are Our Parks So White?” New York Times, 10 July, 2015. Accessed 26 Nov. 2016.
  19. Nelson, Glenn. “Why Are Our Parks So White?” New York Times, 10 July, 2015. Accessed 26 Nov. 2016.

Paintings accessed through and

Created By
Christina Cilento

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.