Ethnic Cleansing and Continued Indigenous Erasure within the National Park Service

Yellowstone National Park (September 2019) – Visitors wait in anticipation, with cameras raised, to capture the Old Faithful geyser. (Photo credit: Abigail Keller)


Growing up I didn’t visit many of the U. S. National Parks, but I did look to them as paragons of the natural world. Watching the majestic Grand Tetons or towering redwoods flash across my television screen inspired awe and love for these places. I remember watching nature programs depicting fearsome brown bears feeding on bright red salmon in the pristine rivers of Alaska and packs of wolves and elk playing out the dramatic dance of life and death in Yellowstone. As a young person, these images and ideals stuck with me. I became a person who believed in the value of preserving these wild, untamed, untouched places, to let nature take its course without the influence of humans. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college when I understood the fallacy in my perceptions of national parks and the idea of wilderness. Growing up, not only was I being fed this constructed ideal of Nature but I was also indoctrinated with narratives of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Like many other U.S. children I was taught that European Americans struggled against the wild forces of nature and brought civilization and wealth to the West, and that they were the ones to truly appreciate this country’s beautiful wilderness and preserve it. Even now the government uses images like the Bald Eagle soaring over so-called wilderness to convey messages of the indomitable American spirit. Despite these lands having been inhabited and managed by Indigenous peoples for millennia, I was never taught to question why the gorgeous National Park landscapes were devoid of humans or how they came to be.

As I continue my studies in environmental sciences, the National Park or State Park Service is advertised to me as a possible career avenue at university events and even on Instagram. The Parks Service has employed many of my friends as scientists, rangers or seasonal labor. At face value it sounds like a wonderful opportunity to make a stable income and put my training in ecology to use by helping manage land and wildlife populations. However, I cannot ignore the genocidal and racist origins of the National Park system and how, in its current state, continues to operate on stolen land and perpetuate myths of American exceptionalism and “wilderness.

When I graduated from college my parents took me on a road trip from California to Yellowstone National Park, a place I had been waiting to see my whole life. I had some qualms before visiting, but they became glaringly obvious when we arrived. We paid our $35 entry fee and booked a night in a fancy log cabin hotel beside the Old Faithful geyser. At the visitor centers of the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park there was a short section about how people first came to these lands 11,000 years ago and that Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Crow, Flathead, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce, and Tukudika people were once present in the area. Then there were four sections about the various European American “explorers” and settlers who were instrumental in founding the national parks. Other than perpetuating the false claim that Native peoples did not use the area due to superstitions and fear of the geysers and other geothermal features of the park, there was no mention of Indigenous peoples’ contributions to managing the land for millennia or of what happened to the Indigenous people of the area. Similar claims are made of Native peoples not using the area in and around Mount Rainier, Olympic, and Zion National Parks despite archeological and oral history evidence contrary to this. [1]

Chief Three Bears of the Blackfeet Nation along with other tribal leaders meet with National Park Service Director Newton B. Dury, and Superintendent Howard Libbey at Glacier National Park between 1940-1951, 50 years after their people were forced to sell part of their reservation to the U.S. government which later became Glacier National Park. (Photo credit: NPS, no known copyright)


The reality of the situation is bloody and heartbreaking; all of America’s national parks are built on land that was first forcibly emptied of the people who called it home. Many Indigenous tribes are still fighting for hunting, fishing, and management rights to these lands. Yellowstone was the world’s first National Park, established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. The early history of the park was rife with violence against Native Peoples. In 1877 the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) were driven off their lands in Northeast Oregon to a reservation in Idaho. In an attempt to escape the 2,000 strong U.S. Army force pursuing them, the group, led by Chief Joseph, fled through Yellowstone National Park, eventually surrendering in Montana. In 1895, in order to protect Yellowstone’s image of unspoiled wilderness and remove all Indigenous people from the park, Jackson Hole residents entered the park and destroyed a Bannock settlement killing one and causing the disappearance of two children.[2] A court decision in 1896 nullified off-reservation hunting treaty rights for the Indigenous peoples of the area, further preventing Native peoples from practicing subsistence use of the national park and leaving them to starve from insufficient rations on reservations.

This continued violence and denial of Native claim to National Parks is also present in the history of California’s iconic Joshua Tree National Park. From the park’s own website it cites that when the Smithsonian first described the area in 1925 it stated “intrinsically, it is of little import who exercised sovereignty in this tract: to all purposes it was empty. The vanished people of the Oasis of Mara and its surroundings were the Serrano, the Chemehuevi (sometimes called the Southern Paiutes), and the Cahuilla.” The website goes on to describe how there is evidence that Indigenous peoples once cultivated and gathered food from the desert at Joshua Tree and that “the spirits of the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla are still with us in the rock formations, the pictographs and petroglyphs, and in the archaeological sites which dot the landscape,” completely ignoring that these people still exist in the area.

The website of the Twenty-nine Palms Band of Mission Indians (Chemehuevi people) tells a different story: that the Serrano and Chemehuevi people used and inhabited the land at the Oasis of Mara, a prominent site within the park. The website continues by saying that “early surveys in the 1850s noted native settlements at the Oasis that should have become reservation lands. However, in 1875, the state of California filed a claim on the entire Oasis, ignoring the natural rights of Chemehuevi and Serrano to their homelands. Shortly afterward, the state of California sold the Oasis of Mara to the Southern Pacific Railroad, all without the permission or knowledge of the Indian people.”

Joshua Tree National Park (July 2019) – The palms at the Oasis of Mara in Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo credit: Daniel Mayer, no changes made)


The apparent emptiness of the Joshua Tree area in the 1920s was not a coincidence but a part of the calculated genocide and land grabs perpetrated by the U.S. government against Native Peoples. The Chemehuevi and Serrano people did not mysteriously disappear; they were forced off their homelands and onto reservations.

November is Native American History Month, and to honor this, the National Park Service is featuring Native stories on their website. This is a step towards recognizing the history and rights that Indigenous peoples have to use National Park lands. However, this movement must go beyond hashtags and land acknowledgments. What does justice look like in the future of the National Park Service? Does it look like traditional use rights given back to Indigenous peoples, concessions made for tribal governments to be co-managers of these lands or the return of these lands? Should more parks take actions like Devil’s Tower National Monument did in 1995, to close the culturally significant Devil’s Tower to commercial rock climbing during June to allow for ceremonies (this move was prevented by climbers suing)? [3] Visions of justice look different for every cultural group and person who tries to hold the National Park Service accountable.

George Standing Eagle Bryan, an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) pipemaker quarrying pipestone from Pipestone National Park. He participated in the cultural sharing and traditional use program that still continues at the park to this day. (Photo credit: NPS, no known copyright)


Look out for a forthcoming interview with scholar and Colville Tribe member, Dina Gilo-Whitaker, who writes on this topic. I urge you that next time you visit a National Park or consider working within the system, think about the peoples whose land you are enjoying and how to support their campaigns for reinstatement of rights or reparations. While many of us have marveled at the beauty and found joy in America’s national parks, we must continue to question who and what purpose this constructed pristine landscape is meant to serve, and who is left without access.

For more information on this topic check out two texts, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks by Mark David Spence and As Long as the Grass Grows by Dina Gilo-Whitaker.

[1] Kantor, 2007

[2] Kantor, 2007

[3] Kantor 2007

Marin County, CA (May 27, 2019) – Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) at Point Reyes National Seashore. The Coast Miwok’s traditional territories included all of Marin County. (Photo credit: James Lee)