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.
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.