Decolonize the parks.

Happy Tuesday and welcome back to the Anti-Racism Daily. There are over 85 million acres of land designated to the National Parks System across the U.S. But the conservation of this land came at a cost to the Indigenous communities that were displaced as a result. In today’s newsletter, Andrew reflects on what should be done to account for this harm.

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By Andrew Lee (he/him)

In his article “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” David Treuer reminds us that national parks are the result of Indigenous dispossession. Everglades National Park is Seminole land. Olympic National Park was created by a violation of a treaty with the Quinault tribe. The first white people to ever see what is now Yosemite National Park were members of a California militia, intent on slaughtering and driving Miwok people off the land and into reservations. “Native people need permanent, unencumbered access to our homelands,” wrote Treuer, an Ojibwe author and historian. “All 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States” (The Atlantic).

There are around 7 million Native Americans in the U.S. today. Native Americans have the lowest average educational attainment and the highest poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group (NCRC). This follows an institutionalized practice of genocide dating back to the Declaration of Independence, which cites the Crown’s support of “merciless Indian savages” as a reason for independence. In 1824, all Native Americans were declared wards of the state under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a part of the Department of War (Indian Country Today). In 1851, the governor of California called for a “war of extermination… until the Indian race becomes extinct.” And in 1864, the Colorado Third Cavalry murdered unarmed, sleeping Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children and mutilated their bodies – carrying out explicit orders to “kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians” (University of Nebraska). In 1973, federal agents laid siege to an American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee in protest of racial discrimination and conditions at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (History).

In the present day, Standing Rock Sioux tribe members were instrumental in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, a massive oil infrastructure project currently paused for an environmental review (MSN). Protestors convened to physically prevent pipeline construction and were met with pepper spray and attack dogs from the pipeline guards (Democracy Now). Police threw a grenade that nearly took off a woman’s arm (NBC). Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people are currently spearheading resistance to the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota (MSP Mag). Some tribal nations and Native American organizations are already leading the fight for sovereignty and against extractive industries. Giving the land of the National Parks back would undo part of the harm of settler-colonialism and be beneficial to all of us. Nobody would have to figure out individual land titles since their territory is already directly owned by the Federal government.

To give back the National Parks would also put an end to some of the racism baked into American conservation from the beginning. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Madison Grant was inventing the concept of a wilderness park as we now know it. He made sure the last California redwoods weren’t logged. He advocated for the creation of Denali, Olympic, and Glacier National Parks. He was also a raving white supremacist whose 1916 The Passing of the Great Race warned of the “racial abyss” awaiting America thanks to Black people, Irish, Syrians, Italians, “Slovaks,” and “Polish Jews” (Mother Jones). His Bronx River Parkway project was specially planned to displace Black and immigrant communities. And “his model of uninhabited national parks” of course required “forced removals of indigenous populations.”

There is precedent for settler-colonial states executing mass transfers of land they have stolen. In Australia, over half the Northern Territory has been returned to Aboriginal peoples, including Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock (The Atlantic). In the U.S., there was already a proposal to make the South Unit of Badlands National Park the country’s first Tribal National Park, administered directly by the Oglala Sioux tribe (NY Times).

It’s time to decolonize this nation’s parks.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. park system was created through indigenous dispossession and inspired by an active white supremacist.

  • Some advocate that all national park sites are turned over to Indigenous communities.

  • There is precedent for mass land transfers back to indigenous people, as in Australia’s Northern Territory.


7/7/2021 | Unpack the history of Indigenous boarding schools.

11/26/2020 | Support the land back movement.

1/25/2021 | Unpack “This Land is Your Land”.


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Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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