When Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act on March 1st, 1872, the United States embarked on “its best idea”. But Grant’s declaration of Yellowstone turned the area’s Indigenous peoples — the Shoshone, Bannock, and others who knew the land as an ancestral home — into trespassers. As the Plains Indian wars erupted around it, the federal government set aside 2 million acres of Indian country for its people — white settlers who have controlled the parks for over 150 years. As reparation for centuries of genocide and land stripping, management, and jurisdiction of America’s National Parks should be returned to Indigenous Americans.
For Indigenous Americans, their most sacred lands were anything but preserved by the National Park Service. Just as 85 million acres of nationally protected land were set aside for “Americans”, Indigenous Americans were first massacred and then crammed onto tiny reservations. The iconic Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park reads “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”. More accurately, today’s National Parks serve for the benefit and enjoyment of non-native people. While today’s Indigenous Americans can, of course, access National Parks like any other American, there is an acute failure in requiring an Indigenous American to purchase a National Park Pass. To visit their sacred lands or see the pictographic visual history of their ancestors, Indigenous Americans must make an annual $80 contribution to a federal government that time and again attempted the extermination of their culture.
America’s Indigenous history is defined by land. US Government Indian policy has pushed to exterminate Indigenous culture by forcibly taking land. Land policy is based on European colonialist land enclosure — a capitalist imagining of land as solely an opportunity for resource production. Throughout the world, stripping land from Indigenous people was justified through mise en valeur, maximizing production capacity through private ownership and rampant environmental extraction. The notorious Dawes Act of 1887 parceled reservation land to individual Indian Americans and opened communal tribal lands to white settlement. Dawes’ settler-colonialism enclosure took 90 million acres from the Indigenous tribes — approximately equal to the 85-million-acre area of America’s National Parks today. Assimilation through land policy peaked in the 1950s with Indian Termination, a federal policy centered on the dissolution of resource-rich reservations for further extraction. Termination forced resource-rich tribes to sell their reservations, pushing tribal governments into poverty and forcing mass assimilation into America’s urban centers.
National Parks, public lands with limited human extraction, are a stark rejection of colonial land enclosure. Before colonialism, most Indigenous land followed the ‘National Park Model’. Land wasn’t parceled, conservation was respected, and administration closely followed the cyclical needs of the environment. National parks would benefit environmentally from indigenous jurisdiction. Prescribed, small-scale forest fires were used for generations by many indigenous American tribes. But under settler colonialism, complete fire suppression became the dominant land management strategy. Without consistent, small-scale burns, forests are at increased risk for devastating forest fires. In 1988, this poor land management contributed to massive wildfires which burned 36% of Yellowstone National Park.
More than a loss of physical space, which in itself is damaging, land is a foundation for much of Indigenous spirituality. For the Apsáalooke — the most populous Indigenous tribe in Montana, many of whom occupy the Crow Reservation in South Central Montana — land is a repository of the Creator’s power. Much of Apsáalooke spirituality is an exchange relationship between humans and land. Forcibly moving tribes from their traditional lands was a spatial severance between human and Creator. Returning the National Parks, physical power centers for many Indigenous religions, could help mend this connection.
The National Parks have become cherished lands for all Americans. Millions annually explore the geysers of Yellowstone and the cliffs of Yosemite. While in National Parks, everyone champions Indigenous ideals of conservation and a connection to nature. Under Indigenous jurisdiction, public access to the National Parks should not change. The American experience is built on public lands, and Indigenous administration should not reduce public access.
For all the attempts at eradication — smallpox blankets to conversion boarding schools to termination — Indigenous Americans persist. Five million modern Americans identify as Native People. Complete land reparations are impossible, but a return of sacred places, frozen in time through a protected status as National Parks, may begin to heal the scars of the first American people.
Michael Romney is from Big Sky, Montana and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.