American Indians in National Parks

Until the late 1990s, there were thousands of books about American Indians, a considerable body of literature on national parks, but almost nothing linking the two.  Two monumental works on government Indian policy, Federal Indian Law by Felix Cohen and The Great Father by Francis Prucha, contain one passing reference to national parks between them. The Smithsonian’s Handbook on Indian-white relations does not mention parks. Similarly, John Ise’s Our National Park Policy, published in 1961, only brings up Indians three times. It references the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) twice and comments once on the Nez Perce in Yellowstone. Ise mentions Navajo Mountain, Navajo Bridge and Navajo National Monument, but not the Navajo Indians. Thankfully, in 1997 Theodore Catton released Inhabited Wilderness, the story of Alaska’s national parks and their native inhabitants. A year later University of Arizona Press published American Indians in National Parks by Robert Keller and Michael Turek. Two volumes followed – Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark Spence, in 1999, and Philip Burnham’s Indian Country, God’s Country, in 2000. A subject given light treatment by earlier scholars, has now achieved the spotlight it deserved.


These major volumes cover nearly the whole gamut of situations in the paradoxical relationship between American Indians and national parks. Each demonstrates how Native Americans faced differing circumstances as a consequence of their ancestral land becoming a national park. Native Americans and National Parks, Dispossessing the Wilderness, and Indian Country, God’s Country all detail what might be considered the classic example of natives’ relationship with the NPS – forced off their homeland and onto a reservation through deceitful land seizures. The example of the Blackfeet, who thought they were selling only the rocks of what became the eastern portion of Glacier National Park, mirrors the method utilized by the U.S. government in taking over Indian land throughout the history of the nation. The Blackfeet ceded the land to the government, only after being falsely assured that the tribe would retain its hunting rights. To the contrary, all Blackfeet rights to the land ceased with the setting apart of Glacier National Park. Dispossessing the Wilderness relates a completely different situation in NPS-Indian relations, that of the Yosemite Indians being allowed to stay after the park’s designation. Inhabited Wilderness arguably presents the greatest anomaly of natives’ relationship with national parks. In nine out of 10 Alaska national parks the NPS allowed the natives to stay and hunt on park lands.

Catton, a historical researcher at HRA Gray and Pape LLC , explains clearly that national parks are not untouched and uninhabited. Instead, they are the homes and work places of native peoples.  He details how Alaska national parks’ acceptance of subsistence use forced a critical evaluation of two long-standing national park tenets – forced Indian removal and parks as bastions of uninhabited wilderness. Unlike national parks in the continental 48 states, the NPS did not mandate Alaska’s natives to cede their lands and move to reservations. The native Alaskans lost their original land title, but maintained subsistence use of public lands.

Alaska national parks demonstrate the evolution and continuing adaptation of the NPS by its recognition of the rights of occupation and use by natives. Catton’s narrative suggests Alaska national parks provide a glimmer of hope that the NPS is slowly coming to its senses concerning the importance of ecological management. For example, the Park Service realizes that prohibiting hunting in Alaska preserves would disturb the natural conditions the national parks are intended to preserve. To the managers of Alaska’s parks, native hunters are simply another predator in the food chain that has existed for centuries.

Though the Park Service has allowed Alaskan natives to remain on park lands, the relationship between the two parties is not completely promising, Catton explains. For instance, the NPS and the Nunamiuts, natives of Gates of the Artic National Park, were supposed to be co-managers of the land, but the Park Service, firmly entrenched in traditional mandates, has treated the tribe as intruders in its own homeland. The NPS drafted regulations of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) without even consulting the Nunamiuts. Both sides now live in fear and suspicion of one another.

In contrast to the tolerated relationship between the NPS and Alaskan natives Inhabited Wilderness portrays, Keller and Turek, in American Indians and National Parks, explain how early national park leaders felt pressure to conform to popular ideals of nature. These ideals excluded Native Americans. Expelling natives from national parks fell decidedly against the notion that parks were for the use and enjoyment of all Americans. National parks, though claiming to be created for every American, shunned the first Americans.

According to Keller and Turek, the National Park Service, throughout most of its history, has treated American Indians as museum pieces suspended in time – colorful, nostalgic versions of environmentalists. In books about national parks, even as late as 1989, Native Americans were seen as artifacts and scenery more than people. NPS interpretation included sparse references to Indians. For example, Mesa Verde National Park’s programs exclude Ute history, largely because of ongoing disputes with the tribe over land issues. Early park directors and superintendents knew little about natives. Today’s rangers say little about contemporary Indians in their interpretive presentations to visitors.  National parks’ landscapes include Native American names, but many of their meanings are mute to visitors. Gratefully, in the past decade the NPS has increased its awareness and sensitivity towards American Indians, but bitterness still prevails as past wounds slowly heal. Keller and Turek clearly see their work as a step to correct the oversight of missing information about Indians, showing that natives are important both historically and culturally, and that their presence in national parks should not be treated lightly.

Dispossessing the Wilderness contains much of the same information as American Indians and National Parks in telling the story of the National Park Service removing American Indians so that the landscape in each park could be more “natural” and fit the common perceptions of nature. Spence contends that the conception of wilderness without natives was so powerful that early preservationists dismissed or ignored evidence of native use and habitation. For instance, Yellowstone National Park management of the 1870s and 1880s felt that the Native American threatened game even when government surveys revealed game numbers were on the rise.

Most national parks expelled Indians early in their history. Yosemite, in distinction, allowed its natives remain. Spence chronicles the tale of the Yosemite Indians, who are an abnormality in early NPS-tribal relations. Unlike their counterparts in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Yosemite stayed long after establishment of the park. Early park management felt Yosemite Indians had a moral right to stay. Tourists expected and enjoyed viewing Indians in their “natural” state. For nearly 20 years the park gloried in its Indian past by hosting an “Indian Field Days” festival. The Indians made a living from tourists by selling their wares and working for the NPS and its concessionaires.

After relative peace with the Park Service for over 50 years, the Yosemite Indians became a victim of the growing sentiment that creating a “natural” setting in national parks meant excluding natives. Yosemite management effectively forced the natives to vacate their ancestral village site and move to small cabins. At the new residential area, the NPS exercised near dictatorial control. When each family left, its cabin was destroyed to prevent another family from laying claim to it. In effect, relocating the Indians to the cabins was a long term-plan to wield more control over the Indians and slowly expel them in a way that would not raise commotion among Indian advocates. The plan succeeded when the last Indian families vacated the cabins in the 1960s. Fortunately, Spence notes, the Yosemite Indians still have a presence in the park, in the form of an Indian cultural center on the site of the former cabins.

Hal Rothman chronicles the plight of a group of Native Americans seeking identity and a tribal homeland in a park that historically gave them little thought. The NPS, just like in Yosemite, allowed Death Valley National Park’s Timbisha Shoshone to remain in the park when Congress created it, first as a national monument, in 1933.  For nearly 70 years, however, the Timbisha lived in obscurity, without any tribal land and in a tenuous legal position.  The NPS reneged on its original promise to supply the Timbisha with 40 acres within the park, hating to see any of its land taken away, even a miniscule portion. Park management restricted their hunting rights and curtailed their livelihood of raising and selling horses and burrows. The NPS did built a village for the Shoshone, but not in the location the tribe wanted. Park management charged rent and utility fees, which was an insult to the tribe, who felt they should not have to pay for something that was rightfully theirs and submit to park policies. In the 1950s Death Valley management instituted a plan similar to that of Yosemite. If a Timbisha family could not pay the rent or vacated the dwelling, as they often did in the summer, the NPS destroyed their house.

The Timbisha’s only recourse was to remain on the land, no matter the circumstances, and hope for good tidings in the future. Good tidings finally did come in 1983 when they received legal tribal status. Then, in 2000, the tribe received nearly 8,000 acres of their own land, but only after organizing themselves and mounting a campaign to bring their plight to public attention. Rothman’s account brings to light yet another tribe mistreated by the Park Service, but thankfully he chronicles positive strides made in American Indian-NPS relations that the other volumes hardly discuss.

In Indian Country, God’s Country Burnham details how tribes still present in national parks endure a blighted existence. Native Americans, he argues, are usually considered an embarrassment in national parks – embarrassing because they are poor. They suffer low economic status because in most cases they have been ostracized by the National Park Service, stripped of their land and livelihood and relegated into menial labor. NPS policy has led to deep resentment among Native Americans, which continues today. The story of American Indians’ relationship with national parks, depending on which side taken, can be summed up as a costly triumph of the public interest or a bitter betrayal of America’s native people, Burnham contends.

Burnham explains how the NPS sometimes forgets that today’s natives are nothing like the Indian warriors of the past. Instead, natives have assimilated into society. Unlike their predecessors, contemporary natives use modern technology and are as passionate about football as anyone. Park visitors want to hear about the idealistic natives of the past, not their contemporaries, most of whom live in poverty. For example, the Blackfeet look across the border to Glacier National Park and see affluence – jobs that they do not have themselves. They feel they deserve NPS employment. In the past tribal members did hold jobs in the park in the capacity of performers, dancers, greeters, and drivers. Today’s Blackfeet look back at those times with resentment, feeling their employers, usually the railroads, exploited them. In Blackfeet-NPS relations, Burnham recounts one of the many ironies of NPS history. The Blackfeet demand jobs, but disdained the tribe’s past employment. Currently, the Park Service lauds its “progress” in Mesa Verde by employing more American Indians than any other park. Unfortunately, natives fill only lower-rung NPS jobs with no administrative authority. The Park Service seems determined not to empower natives with stewardship over their ancestral lands again.

In his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness” found in Uncommon Ground, William Cronon writes how the myth of the wilderness as virgin, uninhabited land has always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who once called that land home.  Indians were forced to move elsewhere, so tourists could safely enjoy the illusion that they were seeing their nation in its pristine, original state. The original inhabitants were forced out and their earlier uses of the land were redefined as inappropriate or illegal. The removal of Indians created “uninhabited wilderness,” but uninhabited like it never was before. Leaving the land to its truly natural state, would have actually included Native Americans. Richard White’s essay “From Wilderness to Hybrid Landscapes” in the Fall 2004 edition of The Historian explains that books such as Inhabited Wilderness and Dispossessing the Wilderness emphasize how cultural views of nature vary with class and locale. “Who gets to define nature is an issue of power with consequences for the lives of working people, Indian people, and residents of areas defined as wild,” he concludes. Unfortunately for Native Americans, in most instances the NPS defined nature under flawed, idyllic and popular constructs.

American Indians as they were before white settlement would have been “natural”, but once Indians became part of the white economy, that “naturalness” faded. Every volume mentions that the NPS at times forgot contemporary natives were not as they were in the 19th century. The NPS even had the gall to say it would allow natives to hunt in park lands, but only if they used the methods common before the white man’s arrival.  This was, of course, absurd as Native Americans had adopted modern technology and saw no reason to revert to more primitive, less-effective methods. Every piece of scholarship on the subject matter expounds on a myriad of examples of American Indians surrendering to modernity and losing their cultural identity in the process, as Rothman’s essay clearly demonstrates.

Inhabited Wilderness provides a look at parks that fully include Native Americans, which is refreshing considering that most literature in the field details the consequences of Indians being expelled. Catton’s narrative also varies with the other scholarship by explaining NPS-Indian relations in parks other than the “crown jewels” such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier on which there is an abundance of information. Volumes containing the history of lesser-known parks are a welcome addition to the scholarship in the field.

In historical context, American Indians and National Parks, Dispossessing the Wilderness, and Indian Country, God’s Country tell essentially the same story in various parks, that of Native Americans being exploited and excluded at the hands of American ideology, bureaucracy and capitalism. Elliot West’s bibliographical essay “Thinking West” claims that the work of historians such as Catton, Keller, Turek, Spence, and Burnham is redefining conquest by questioning the dream of wilderness as savage land brought under human dominion. West points out that Indians lost their independence in the imposition of a national fantasy, that of uninhabited wilderness. Native Americans, in West’s mind, had the bad luck of living in an “imagined Eden” and like Adam and Eve, were expelled when it was decided they had no business there.

Dispossessing the Wilderness is particularly strong in the visual aid department. Mingled with the narrative are excellent photos, illustrations and maps with thorough explanations in their captions. One such illustration fully demonstrates the bad blood that existed between the Blackfeet and Glacier National Park administrators by depicting then NPS director Horace Albright kneeling within the boundaries of the park with sharp claws extended trying to grasp the Blackfeet reservation. The book’s scope is narrow. It only covers Indian-white relations in Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite national parks. Spence’s epilogue does contain a brief summary of Indian situations in Grand Canyon National Park, Death Valley National Park, and a few parks in Alaska.

In his introduction, Burnham acknowledges Keller and Turek’s, Spence’s and Catton’s scholarship in the field then explains that his volume focuses on government policy towards each tribe. Burnham has a Ph.D. in American Studies, but writes the book in a more journalistic style. He enriches his narrative with his travelogue, which provides fascinating anecdotal information. Relying heavily on primary documents and interviews with natives, Indian Country, God’s Country provides a colorful account that depicts the human side of the issues more than the three previous volumes on the subject. Overall Burnham paints a near-tangible picture of how Indian tribes in close proximity to national parks live and how they feel about the bureau administering the land. Of the four major volumes on native relationships with the NPS, Indian Country, God’s Country is the book non-academics would most enjoy.

The recent flurry of work dealing with Native Americans and the National Park Service can be attributed in part to the New Western History. With formerly taboo subject areas such as gender and sexuality coming to the forefront in the last decade, the time has been ripe for critical inspections of lesser known and more controversial historical events and issues. As Keller and Turek attest in their preface, before these four volumes, scholarship on NPS-Indian relations was sparse. The eradication of former inhibitions and a lack of detailed work in the field provided motivation for scholars passionate about national parks and natives to delve into research and produce groundbreaking narratives. Keller and Turek are clearly enthusiastic about their subject matter, even to the point of encouraging any reader with the desire to add to the body of work on the natives’ relationship with the NPS in their preface. Clearly, these four volumes will not be the last on the topic.

The body of work on the subject is not without shortcomings. Most literature on NPS-Indian relations details few positive strides the Park Service has achieved towards better relations with Native Americans. Historians undertaking further research on the subject might want to focus on the more recent past by showing resolutions to NPS oversights towards natives and the strengthening of relationships between park management and tribal leaders, as Rothman does in his chapter about the Timbisha Shoshone.

Leo McAvoy issues a call to scholars to learn more about modern American Indians and their issues and values in his article “American Indians, Place Meanings and the Old/New West” in the Winter 2002 issue of Journal of Leisure Research. Many tribes are now exercising their sovereignty status and asking that they be considered as co-managers for recreation lands on and near reservations. Indian gaming has improved the economic status of some tribes, helping them become more relevant to the political, social and geographic realities of the New West, McAvoy argues. A recent essay by David Rich Lewis, editor of the Western Historical Quarterly, corroborates McAvoy’s assertions. In the past, tribes near national parks have lived in obscurity, as detailed in Burnham’s and Rothman’s accounts. Now many tribes are turning the corner to greater significance, like the Timbisha Shoshone. This is one of the many reasons oral histories of today’s Native Americans should be a vital part of future scholarship. Rothman’s addition of quotes from Pauline Esteves, a Timbisha tribal member, provides needed perspective from the Indian point of view. A better understanding of contemporary natives could help historians and park administrators alike and possibly assist in forging compromises between tribes and NPS management.

Hopefully Burnham and Rothman have constructed the first few miles of the trail in the direction the scholarship will go. For a more objective and fascinating story, information gleaned from interviews with Native Americans, NPS administrators and even residents and business owners in national park gateway communities should be included in the text of books and articles of the future. This would lead to a more interesting, objective story and better understanding of contemporary Native Americans and their continued dealings with the National Park Service.


Works Cited

Burnham, Philip. Indian County, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks. Island Press: Washington, D.C. 2000. xvi, 383 pp.

Catton, Theodore. Inhabited Wilderness: Indians, Eskimos and National Parks in Alaska. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997. xxi, 287 pp. 

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; of, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1995: 69-90 (479-482).

Keller, Robert, and Micheal Turek. American Indians and National Parks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998. 319 pp.

Lewis, David Rich. “Still Native: The Significance of Native Americans in the History of the Twentieth-Century West,” in Clyde Milner II, ed., A New Significance: Re-envisioning the History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. vii, 318 pp.

McAvoy, Leo. “American Indians, Place Meanings and the Old/New West.” Journal of Leisure Research Vol. 34, No. 4 (2002): 383-396

Rothman, Hal. Death Valley Administrative History

Spence, Mark D. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. viii, 190 pp. 

West, Elliot. “Thinking West,” in William Deverell, ed., The Blackwell Companion to the American West. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2004: 25-50.

White, Richard. “From Wilderness to Hybrid Landscapes: The Cultural Turn in Environmental History.” The Historian Vol. 66, No. 3 (2004): 557-564.

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