Camping at seven national parks this summer, I began to perceive, alongside the beauty and grander, a shadow side of the national park concept. My unease crystallized in Glacier National Park when I heard the park introduced in a Visitor Center film as “an intact eco-system”. Were not the peoples who had originally occupied the land part of the eco-system? I began to understand that the national park purpose of ‘preserving the wilderness’ actually creates a false sense of what wilderness is. Those who occupied Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet and Salish and Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai peoples, were forcibly removed in order to establish that ‘intact eco-system.’
(If this post sounds like one you already read because I based it on a previous one, skip to the end for the brand new information.)
The narrator of the National Park Service film at Glacier states brightly that Its history is our history! In a Visitor Center exhibit, however, one can hear a contrasting view when watching a documentary inside the Teepee exhibit. A native man in the documentary states, This is not your back room, It is our front room…a living creation, not a playground. The landscape we tourists call pristine is what the Blackfeet call the Backbone of the World , where the spirits of their ancestors occupy their homeland, where ancestors’ bodies have become the earth, so that wherever we visitors walk in the park, we tread on the dust and soil made up of their ancestors’ bodies.
At Triple Divide Peak in Glacier, waters flow in three different directions: to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Pacific, and to the Hudson Bay. Here the Blackfeet honor all the waters as sacred waters, and honor the heads of the waters at Triple Divide as a living being, and honor the landscape as the origin of their oldest ceremony, the Beaver Bundle. The Blackfeet say there is a Presence here, that all the spirits that occupy the world are bound together in this very place. Yet the national park concept of wilderness preservation excludes the land-based cultural and spiritual practices of the original Blackfeet inhabitants.
The Blackfeet still today contest the Agreement of 1895, arguing it was not a sale but a ninety-nine year lease. They say, also, that the scope of the lease was mineral rights only. In the Visitor Center documentary, one Blackfeet woman states the following about the Agreement of 1895: “Another chunk was taken out of our full existence as a people.” The Blackfeet believe they retain their ancestral rights to hunt their food and gather their medicine plants in Glacier National Park. The only concession the government has made, however, is to now allow tribal members the right to enter the park without paying admission.
On one of my evenings in Glacier National Park, a ranger spoke on the History of Park Rangers. He mentioned that an early part of the job was to locate and remove squatters. I’m sure he didn’t realize it, but he was insulting, and at the same time making disappear, those peoples he did not respect with their names: the Blackfeet, the Kootenai, the Salish and the Pend d’Oreille.
The NPS made a positive gesture in featuring the documentary testimonies in Glacier National Park St Mary Visitor Center, but it isn’t enough. Each national park needs to tell the truth about the peoples who were put out of their lands so that the park could be created. Each national park needs exhibits that respect the histories of those peoples, and each national park needs to credit them as the original preservers of the wilderness.
The peaks in Glacier National Park were shrouded in clouds the day I left. A deep state of meditation settled upon me, awe in the presence of Divinity. The beauty of Glacier marked my soul. The bittersweet story of the original peoples deepened my appreciation of this beauty, and led me to explore further.
Below is a link to an article on the Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Pope granted European explorers the right to the bodies and lands of native peoples worldwide. I hope you will be shocked to learn how US Chief Justice Marshall in 1823 affirmed that US property rights are based on the Doctrine of Discovery.
Another link will give you insight into the movement to get the US Government to make a formal apology for the Boarding School Era and other atrocities (as Australia and Canada have already done for indigenous people in their countries). “The boarding school wounds have been passed down the generations and are still responsible for the disparities between Native communities and the rest of Turtle Island,” according to a recent article by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker in Western North Carolina Woman. Quoted in the article is Patty Grant, local Cherokee/Lakota: “Pain and atrocities linger,” Patty reminds us. You can help the healing by signing a petition at the following link, asking President Obama to publicly make this much needed apology.