Icons of White Supremacy: Our National Parks by J.P Barringer

“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”.[1] These are the headlines that accompanied the centennial celebration of the formation of the National Park Service in 2016. All across the nation, people celebrated the conservation efforts of the NPS. What was neglected in these celebrations, something often neglected in national conversations, is the role national parks played in the theft of Indigenous land, and the continued role they play in obscuring the history of conservation in America. In order to correct this injustice, national parks must start recognizing Indigenous treaty rights on park land, and work with these nations to cooperatively govern and manage these areas, prioritizing the historical inhabitants of the land.

In 1872, Yellowstone became “The first national park in the world”.[2] It became a symbol of “Untouched American Wilderness” and is often still described as the last piece of true wilderness in the lower 48 states. This is often how mainstream American society views our national parks, as the last pieces left of what was once vast and empty nature. What they neglect to mention and contend with is that this is a pure fable, a myth created, spread, and upheld for the benefit of white supremacy.

These lands, these pieces of “wilderness”, were never empty or unpopulated. They contained cities, civilizations, villages, homes, farms, and fields.[3] They contained histories, stories, legends, and sacred sites.[4] They supported Indigenous nations, villages, and tribes for thousands of years. That was until white settlers decided to support “conservation” and the idea of a national park was born.

The U.S. government then decided to curate this “wilderness” to show to the rest of white America this brand-new idea of “conservation”. Local Indigenous tribes were coerced to move off future park land with promises and treaties guaranteeing their rights to hunt, fish, and trap inside park boundaries.[5] Needless to say, these promises were not kept, and treaty rights were ceded.[6] 19th century conservations and environmentalists visited areas to study and promote American wildernesses, decreeing that there were still places where nature was “untrammeled by man”, forgetting that in some places genocidal policies had forcibly removed native peoples not 20 years prior.[7] Without Indigenous nations present, the government was able to be market these lands as pristine examples of nature to the white public. Historical and sacred Indigenous sites, if put under NPS control, were marketed as “ancient cultural sites of a vanished people”, all the while those same “vanished” people and their direct descendants sat a short distance away on their government mandated reservations.[8] Indigenous nations also still come into direct conflict with the NPS concerning the management of some national parks. The Blackfeet Nation, for example, has never ceded its treaty rights to the land currently held in Glacier National Park.[9]

Even after parks were built, they still existed to uphold white supremacy. They were always tailored to white Americans, and often heavily segregated when they first opened.[10] Take Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which maintained segregated facilities even though it bordered the reservation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, home to one of the largest Indigenous populations on the East Coast.[11] Many other national parks also have a long history of segregation, barring Black communities from experiencing nature in the same way whites were able to.

So no, national parks are not our best idea. They have often been sites of incredible violence against Indigenous and non-white populations. They have been built and curated for the benefit of white Americans, and continued occupation only worsens the land as time goes on. A clear example of this is how, after decades of a hands-off approach (an approach directly tied to the white supremacist idea that these areas were always “wild” and didn’t need human management), the NPS finally started to institute policies like controlled burns to prevent massive forest fires.[12] Controlled burns were not a new idea, they had been performed by Indigenous people for thousands of years, but it took decades for the NPS to come around to the same practice.[13] This only goes to show that white supremacist narratives are damaging to people and ecosystems.

This illustrates that parks, like many American institutions, have emerged because of (and not in spite of) American racism. It is impossible to pursue justice and equity when our parks (something often seen as objectively good) rest on rotten foundations. It is impossible for complete accessibility to occur when parks have always been designed to exclude certain groups. What does this mean, then, for the future of national parks?

The National Park Service should immediately move to incorporate Indigenous nations and their treaty rights into their management of park lands. This should start by acknowledging existing treaty rights with Indigenous communities. For example, the Blackfeet Nation should be allowed to use park land as they are legally allowed to, and nations that have ceded their treaty rights to areas should be allowed to request their original rights back. This is only fair, as the previous paragraphs show that these rights were often wrongly coerced from the original people. This is only a start, however. Whenever and wherever possible, local Indigenous communities should be allowed to help and consult on the local governance of parks and they should be asked how they want to move forward with the park system. Parks should work to accommodate Indigenous wishes, and this should be their highest priority. This is only a bare minimum start, and continuing conversations should follow to pursue justice for these communities, always centering the Indigenous nations and communities involved.



[1] Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (PBS) <http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/>.

[2] Mike Finley, ‘Yellowstone: Biosphere Reserve Information’ <http://www.unesco.org/mabdb/br/brdir/directory/biores.asp?code=USA+26&mode=all>.

[3] Isaac Kantor, ‘Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks’, 28, 25.

[4] Kantor.

[5] Kantor.

[6] Kantor.

[7] Kantor.

[8] Kantor.

[9] Kantor.

[10] Kurt Repanshek, ‘How The National Park Service Grappled With Segregation During The 20th Century’, 2019 <https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2019/08/how-national-park-service-grappled-segregation-during-20th-century> [accessed 5 June 2020].

[11] Susan Shumaker, ‘UNTOLD STORIES FROM AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS: SEGREGATION IN THE NATIONAL PARKS’, PBS, 15–36 <https://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/media/pdfs/tnp-abi-untold-stories-pt-01-segregation.pdf> [accessed 4 June 2020].

[12] Bruce M Kilgore, ‘Origin and History of Wildland Fire Use in the U.S. National Park System’, The George Wright Forum, 24.3 (2007), 31.

[13] Kevin C Ryan, Eric E Knapp, and J Morgan Varner, ‘Prescribed Fire in North American Forests and Woodlands: History, Current Practice, and Challenges’, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11.s1 (2013), e15–24 <https://doi.org/10.1890/120329>.

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