President Donald Trump poses for a photo during a signing ceremony for H.R. 1957 "The Great American Outdoors Act," in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Washington.
( AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Brigid Bergin: I'm Brigid Bergin filling in for Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway. President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law earlier this month, a bipartisan piece of legislation funding the maintenance of our national parks, as well as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. All this week, we'll be talking about our national parks and public spaces.
Later in the week, you'll hear more about the Great American Outdoors Act and the future of conservation of precious natural places in the US. Today, we start at the beginning when many of our national parks were created by kicking Native Americans off their own land. Tanzina recently sat down with Len Necefer, assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona. He's also the CEO and founder of Natives Outdoors. Tanzina and Len talked about the history of national parks and American Indian communities.
Len Necefer: I think the broader discussion is how we created public lands with westward expansion and manifest destiny. Many tribes were being displaced from their homelands. With the removal and the acquisition of these Indian lands, there was this competing, basically, tension to, how do you manage this in light of all the settlers that want to come West?
The federal government developed what we know as the federal public land system that we have now, which includes the national parks and national forest and Bureau of Land Management and the many other agencies that have landholdings. Alongside of that was the creation of the federal Indian reservation system known as federal Indian trust land. One of the big things that occurred after that is that there was a lot of laws that prohibited Indian people from returning to their ancestral homelands and what was now national parks.
Tanzina Vega: When Native peoples were removed from this land, what happened to them? Where did they go?
Len: Many died either through warfare, disease, and some were placed into internment camps. Like my people, the Navajo, we were placed into an internment camp in Eastern New Mexico and others were moved to reservations. Sometimes in Oklahoma, sometimes in the lands that were not predisposed for farming or other sorts of productive activities. Often tribes replaced alongside other tribes that were their enemies. The intention there with the US government was actually to just foment warfare and expedite the extermination of Native people.
Tanzina: In the beginning of the late 1800s, the majority of national parks already began to prohibit hunting and fishing. How did that affect Indigenous Americans?
Len: It's a multitude of ways. It wasn't just-- hunting and fishing was one of the ways in which they saw-- the US government saw man and nature as separate. Native peoples were not seen as a piece of these places either. Of course, the hunting and fishing element obviously had undertones to keep Native people out, but it was also practicing traditional religions as well. It wasn't until 1978 in the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that Native people were actually even legally able to practice their traditional religions on public lands.
In many ways, these laws and policies that were implemented by national parks and other sorts of public land systems were intended to keep Native people out. The impacts were pretty severe. I grew up a couple of hours from the Grand Canyon National Park. I never went because it didn't seem like a place that was there for me. It was another way in which the connections that we had as Native people to these places were often severed.
Tanzina: The First Amendment ensures religious freedom in the country, but did the creation of national parks affect that religious freedom of who are Indigenous communities?
Len: Yes, totally. One of the arguments that a lot of-- Jeez, up until 2009, there was a court case over forest service management that basically said that giving preference to any sort of Native religions on federal land is a violation of the establishment clause, the separation of church and state. The First Amendment definitely did not apply. In many cases, it still does not apply to Native people in this country. Yes, it was definitely in how parts are managed, how the different laws that kept Native people out. Definitely, it was an element that violated our rights as citizens of this country as well.
Tanzina: A lot of the history of what we know as our national parks and even more broadly of nature conservatism has often a bit led or documented by white Americans featuring white Americans. One of the things that we're exploring here on The Takeaway is the erasure of people of color from the history of the founding of many of these parks. Is there any recognition of the history that Native Americans or American Indians have in their relation to the national parks or has it all but been erased?
Len: It's pretty spotty. There's some national parks near reservations that highlight those histories pretty well and employ folks from the tribes in the area. There's others that I've been to where I know that there's 10,000 years of human history. I talked to a superintendent one incident and they said, "Well, we're not a human history park." It's very spotty and very mixed. The thing is, is that many of these landscapes were shaped by Native stewardship. You can look at Yosemite.
In the valley floor, the Ahwahnechee people actually would burn the valley floor in order to increase the productivity of oak trees because acorns were their main source of food. Now, the relic of that is that we have these huge open meadows and that iconic landscape that John Muir described as a park. He said there was no hand of Native people in this sort of beauty. In reality, you have 6 to 10 to 20,000 years of interaction that history is just written into the landscape. I think there could be a lot more done to highlight that history as well.
Tanzina: We've also been experiencing a moment in the United States. I say more than a moment. It's been at least a couple of years now. Particularly, this summer, we saw a renewed interest in examining and, in many cases, removing statues and other landmarks in this country of people who committed atrocities in the United States. Many of the landmarks within Yellowstone and other national parks also have names of men who committed atrocities against Indigenous populations. What do we know about whether or not those remain and whether or not there is an effort to remove them or rename them?
Len: The history of all of this becomes even more complex when we talk about Indian removal. In cases like Yosemite or other places, the buffalo soldiers were actually a critical component of Indian removal. In case of like the Apache, they had a lot of pitched battles and wars to remove them from their homelands. That becomes like this complex piece of this puzzle of like, "Who do we remove and who do we keep?"
I think that's where one of the discussions around, say, Yosemite where the buffalo soldiers were very key to basically being the first park rangers. The question then begs of like, "Who are they keeping out?" The other thing is that you can have other folks that have-- You can basically go up the gradient of spiciness when it comes to this and you have folks like Kit Carson who are memorialized in different places. Kit Carson, for example, was the general that led the removal and basically placed my people into an internment camp for close to five years.
Those are just histories that are just dotted through all the landscapes. Nearly every high point or peak in every state has some name that points to some sort of military general. In terms of the discussion that's happening around that, I had a couple of discussions with some senators from Oregon about the potential of looking at, what are problematic names and can they be changed? I think that's an important step. I would say right now at this point in time, it's fairly nascent. Actually, not much has happened comparatively with, say, Civil War or Confederate monuments.
Tanzina: The Trump administration has, essentially, in many ways, gutted a lot of the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management has been affected. Many of the environmental laws that were put into place or policies that were put into place under President Obama and other administrations have been at least temporarily halted under this administration. When you see all of that, are you concerned about the future of not just our environment, but also these national parks and the disconnect between the real history and what we know today?
Len: I actually testified to a House of Committee last summer on some BLM leasing stuff. One of the things that I was sure to mention is that Native people have-- we've been through quite a lot. One of the sentiments I've heard from a lot of Native folks is like, "We've been through very worse than what we see with the Trump administration now. We're going to survive and come out the other end." What we see now in the short-term is incredibly bad.
I think it's creating alliances between groups of people that, historically, have not worked together. Basically, the coalition-building that's happening between large players in the outdoor space, whether it's companies or professional athletes or/and other marginalized communities, it's just growing stronger in light of this. I think once this storm is over, I think there's going to be a big shift to creating the future that we wish to see. In the short-term, it's scary. I think there's a lot that can be done to set things on a stronger course in decades to come.
Tanzina: Len Necefer is an assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona and the CEO and founder of Natives Outdoors. Len, thanks so much for being with us.
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