The history of the land in the United States is one of ERASURE; of the genocide of indigenous people, and of the legacies of people of color using, nourishing and shaping the environment. I’ll trace how that forced absence leads to a lack of “diversity” in parks today. Why are only white people (check out the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense fund) the most visible experts and stewards of nature? What stories are we telling about people of color in our parks? The experience of nature is far from neutral.
Ep 1: ERASE
January 26, 2018
A few years ago, the National Park Service did a study on their visitors and reported that over the span of one year, 80% of their visitors were White. Not only that, 80% of their staff were White too. These numbers alerted people an aspect of life in the U.S. that feels rather obvious. That coming camping, hiking, rock climbing, and outdoor recreation in general, kind just seem like things White people do.
So when I came across these demographics, I immediately went duh. When I look at movies or things like magazine advertisements, environmentalists are depicted as 20-something year-old white dudes. Dudes who make documentaries about polar bears, or go on rough, manly adventures in the mountains. Dudes who wear Patagonia and hiking boots and rock gnarly beards.
Here’s one way to begin thinking about why outdoor recreation is so White. Imagine if you heard about a party, and your friends and social media tell you that hundreds of these dudes attending. Would you go?
That’s the analogy made by Michelle Gee, Chief of interpretation and education at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for the National Park Service.
“Usually how it goes is that your friends tell you about the party,” she says. “You’re not going to go on Google and randomly search out a party and go there. If you don’t feel safe, it’s not your space, why would you go?”
“It’s the same with a National Park or any parks I think. If all the thousands of people who work for the national park service are White, then they’re gonna tell all their family and friends who are probably mostly White. It’s a perpetuating cycle of who goes.”
When it comes to the parks and outdoor spaces, it’s not just about whether or not you got an invite. It’s asking yourself, if i go, do I know how to behave? What do I wear? Can I afford the entrance fee? Do you feel safe? And then there’s the more abstract, intangible feeling of asking yourself, do I really belong here?
The difference between a park and a party? A park is supposed to be a public space. So why does going to a park feel as exclusive as going to the club?
“I don’t know if there’s any singular answer,” Gee says. “I think it’s a really multilayered history that we’re going back into. It’s a complex issue, like with the founders of the park: What were their real intentions? They weren’t necessarily creating parks for everyone. They were thinking of their white counterparts.”
Neutral Grounds is a podcast series about nature-loving culture and how it relates to race, place, and history. This the first episode. Were the parks really made for white people? The answer is YES. I’m going to look at this legacy, through three different angles, because like Michelle says, there are many layers to what’s going on. To get to the bottom of this, we need to talk to the people who are actually in the parks. We’re going to hang out in San Francisco, and talk to people from places like the John Muir Woods, a redwood forest in the Bay Area, and places like the Crissy Field urban park, where people have Fourth of July BBQs.
I’m Shirley Wang, I’ll be your host.
This series is called Neutral Grounds because I want us to remember that park spaces are often depicted as apolitical, but in fact the way people interact with the outdoors is FAR from neutral. Race, identity, our backgrounds and perspectives very much informs who belongs, who imagines themselves in wilderness spaces, and who does not.
Park visitors are generally not used to seeing people of color in the parks. Here’s one example, from a leader in the park service named Ernesto Pepito. He works with young people of color and takes them outside for activities like gardening, pulling out weeds, and mulching.
People will ask me ‘What did these kids do wrong?’” Pepito says. “They assume them doing service in the park is a punishment.”
“The kids felt that as a group, we were doing something wrong. It makes them feel that the outdoors is not their space, and if they were ever to come back they’d have to be very cautious. There would be a sense of not feeling welcomed. If we’re talking about the word marginalization, we’re talking about young people who navigate their schools, their neighborhoods, any other institutions feeling like an outcast and feeling a little mistreated and not served.”
“Nature becomes just another one of those places,” Pepito says.
In parks, we are constantly reminded that outdoor recreation was not made for people of color. In this first episode, we’re going to look at the exclusive history of the parks. In the next episode, we will look at issues of physical access, as in transportation costs or park fees. And in the last episode, we are going to look at outdoor recreation culture, and examine even social behavior is regulated by Whiteness — through things like the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and how you think.
But to get there, first we need to think about where this idea of the parks come from. We need to talk about erasure.
In the United States, our idea of the pure wilderness and pure nature usually doesn’t include any people at all. Our idea of nature, is usually pretty much empty.
An ad from NorthFace Apparel uses “This Land was made for You and Me” as the soundtrack to an idyllic outdoors adventure. People in this video are jumping off cliffs into water, snowboarding on snowy mountains, running across boulders into a waterfall. In these the person is either alone, or with one or two other people.
From a conservationist perspective, this is a good thing, because then nature becomes a place to visit or escape to. The idea is that we can protect it better if we are only using it to enjoy its beauty.
But the great outdoors wasn’t always empty. People used to live right in the heart of those isolated corners of the mountains, in the thick of the forests and valleys of the U.S. What happened to them?
We’ll start our story in a place that isn’t necessarily a park, but still is part of the National Park Service: Alcatraz Island.
Here on the island, a park ranger gives a free tour called Indian Lands. She says the history she is telling has been missing from the park experience. While other tours focused on the Alcatraz Prison, this ranger’s tour took us to parts of the site that talked about a little known story: the story of the longest native American occupation in the history of the United States that took place right here, on this island in 1969.
“A whole bunch of indigenous people came out from San Francisco State, San Francisco University and UC Berkeley. They came out here to occupy the island because of a treaty,” she explains.
The Treaty of Laramie of 1868 gave the Sioux people the right to claim any land retired by the federal government. After the Alcatraz prison closed in 1963, Native American activists saw this as an opportunity to reclaim the island and use it to build a college for Native American students.
“They felt there were so many injustices that the community had to face the entire indigenous community all over the country,” she says. “They want to make sure that with the Civil Rights era in full swing, indigenous people had a role in fighting for their civil rights as well.”
After the occupation, however, instead of giving the island to the indigenous people, the island was closed for a few years, then it was given to the National Park Service.
This isn’t the first time that’s happened. The land of the Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National parks also took land directly from indigenous people.
And this is the first step of erasure. Literal removal of people’s bodies from the land.
A really popular national park is Yellowstone in Wyoming. Before it was a park, that land owned by the Mountain Crow group. Colonizers were okay with that at first. But after a while, a certain preservationist idea began to gain popularity: it was the idea that animals, birds, and wildlife needed to be protected by federal law.
The army and state troops started to systematically remove any indigenous person found in the park. Tribe members were relocated, or given subservient roles as employees of the park. Many were even murdered.
But when you look at the numbers, much of the animal-killing and environmental abuse was not done by indigenous people. It didn’t matter that most the killing was actually done by white, upper-middle class park visitors. As the park managers saw it it was much easier to label the indigenous people as the killers, since they were already considered savages.
Back on Alcatraz — the ghosts of this past still haunt the island. Many visible remnants of the occupation have been intentionally preserved. All over the buildings, random walls and on the watertower, there are messages painted in red. One says “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.” another says “Warning. Keep off Indian property” Inside the prison, there are red handprints above the doorframes which the tour guide points out as a symbol for the Red Power movement.
This tour is part history of the island, part social justice education. She talks about indigenous people’s history, but also talks about the civil rights movement, past and present. In an hour she brings in the following: the Co-Intel FBI program that targeted black panther activists in the 60s, the incarceration of black males in US, the politics behind the redskins football team name. She talks about cultural appropriation, Flint Michigan, Black Lives Matter
But throughout the tour, she keeps repeating something. She asks people to tell her if they think she’s inserting her opinion. I asked her why.
“What I’m talking about out here is very controversial. A civil rights movement is being celebrated out here to a certain extent and there are a lot of people what’re against civil rights movements. They think that there shouldn’t be protests that were are in a post racial society,” she says.
The tour guide tells me about a time when she was confronted by an unhappy visitor who claimed the tour was too political. The visitor looked at her name tag, saw that it was Latina, and said “GRASSY-ASS” then walked away.”
“I was like alright I’m not even going to trip about this because there’s obviously there another thing going on; She’s bothered by my ethnicity,” the tour guide says.
Visitors react this way because parks are seen as apolitical spaces, so it’s jolting to talk about racism today. This park ranger deals a lot with this kind of feedback. But she wants her visitors to see how the traumas of the past have been passed on throughout generations.
“When we’re talking about these kinds of issues of diversity in the parks, it has everything to do with race. You cannot ever say that it’s isolated from it. That’s what this place was built off of,” she says.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing back history. It’s not about bringing in emotions, it’s not about bringing in opinion, it’s about bringing historical facts and being like ABCDEFG this is what happened in the past. It’s not a surprise that it’s happening in the present.”
“We have to keep talking about it even if it’s painful to talk about so that it doesn’t keep happening,” she says.
While she feels her superiors at the park support her decision to approach controversial topics, she says that sometimes, other tour guides may hesitate.
“I can easily get 200 ppl on an escape program so I’m just going to do that,” they say to her.
The fact that people who come here and only hear the story of how people escaped from Alcatraz is exactly how erasure works. It’s like the native American occupation never happened. You only hear this fun story instead.
Gee says that often times, people only tell the history that makes them look good.
“They are embarrassed or ashamed of some history so they often want to cover it up or they don’t want to acknowledge it,” Gee says. “You just have to frame it the right way to digest it.”
“Never in my wildest dreams that I’d be interpreting a prison site. I didn’t get why people were laughing and taking selfies in the cell house. And I understand that people wanna have fun and want to have a good time, but I think they could also have an enjoyable, rewarding experience that’s a little bit different and just as memorable, and even more transformative. So they may go out thinking they’re gonna hear all about Al Capone and this gangster history that’s been really glamorized in the media and movies.
Instead, Gee wants the visitors to leave the park feeling a little different.
“We actually talk and relate Alcatraz to what is going on today: why is there such a high level of prisoners in the United States versus other countries, what is mass incarceration and who are we locking up and for what reasons.”
Gee is all for dropping truths. But she feels that it has to be done in a somewhat gentle way.
“We don’t want to force-feed information about a resource or about a structure, a site, down people’s throats. History is difficult to hear,” Gee says. “How it relates to today and current issues are difficult to hear.”
Often time when people talk about going outdoors, they talk about escaping society. To shed all the social dilemmas and political events that weigh on our shoulders, and to feel free, away from the complication of being amongst people.
I get it, life is hard right now and it can be exhausting. But the way to get through all this is to deal directly with it. The parks services in San Francisco is trying to use the park’s reputation as a comfortable space, to talk about systemic problems today.
On the next episode, we travel a little further from the city to a place called the John Muir Woods. Did you know that both the founder of this park, and the guy they named the park after were blatantly racist? The park rangers’ efforts to address this legacy, doesn’t exactly translate into a higher turnout of people of color. This park is an ancient protected forest, and it’s far far away from the city. So is re-telling stories enough, or is there more to be done? The rather unsurprising answer and its complexities, coming up.
This has been Neutral Grounds. Thanks for the listening.