Return the National Parks to the Tribes?

From The Atlantic:

Return the National Parks to the Tribes

The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples.

Received this intro via email today….

By David Treuer

The national parks—sometimes called “America’s best idea”—were intended to be natural cathedrals, places of worship where visitors could seek spiritual refuge. But the story of their creation is far darker and bloodier than their serene vistas might suggest. The parks were founded on land that once belonged to Native Americans like me, and many were created only after we were forcibly removed by invading armies, or by treaties signed under duress.

Reparations for the losses that Native Americans have endured for centuries must take the shape of land. In my cover story for The Atlantic, I argue that the national parks should be returned to America’s original peoples—that all 85 million acres of federally protected land should be entrusted to a consortium of tribes.

Doing so would be a noble act. Despite America’s many sins, it still has the chance to make amends. Placing the national parks under collective Native control could be part of this reconciliation process, one that would benefit us all. This transfer isn’t just an opportunity for Native people to return to their ancestral lands. It is an opportunity for America to live up to its highest ideals—of dignity, honor, compassion—and to become a more perfect union.


31 thoughts on “Return the National Parks to the Tribes?”

  1. Seeing as none of the tribes occupying lands prior to the arrival of European settlers were the original inhabitants, and often those tribe associated with a place today acquired those lands via wars and genocide. And the people they stole the lands from took the lands from others, and they in turn on through many millenia, maybe we all might just try to get along and care for what little bits are left.

  2. I have long felt that way. Wilderness too. Why should a bunch of us descendants of European settlers be 99.5% of those wrangling over such non-issues as whether a wheel touching a Wilderness or NPS trail is some sort of sin? Let Native Americans manage Wilderness and national parks. If they say no bike access, fine with me. (But then I hope they remove the NPS roads too.)

  3. I have worked in the enviromental community for years, this is a REAL BAD IDEA..
    Not all Tribes are environmentally oriented, money and exploitation is the rule for some Tribes.

  4. This is a crock of s***!. And I’m sorry to say wouldn’t stand a chance if Trump was reelected, but now is a a good possibility with Biden … who I voted for!

    The history of humans is filled with one conquest after another … including Vikings, Romans, Greeks, Mongols, the Crusades. And American Indians constantly fought and drove other tribes away – stolen land. So if we want to “make things right”, where do we reset the clock?

    Almost every tribe in Montana today arrived here 300 years ago or less … the Blackfeet in the mid 1700’s.

    Tribes participate in clearcuts, coal strip mines, and thorough killing of native wildlife, and are demonstrably NOT environmentalists, at least no more than any other segment I the population.

  5. It’s been over forty years since attorney Mario Gonzalez filed the federal court case stopping payment of the Black Hills Claim award to the Oglala Lakota Nation. Gonzalez contends that the commission charged to make peace with tribes inserted language into the Fort Laramie Treaty signed in 1868 that Red Cloud had neither seen nor agreed to in negotiations. Today, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has passed resolutions condemning what they say are abuses of the General Mining Law of 1872 that led to the Custer Expedition’s discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

    The South Dakota Democratic Party should advocate for paying the tribes and settling the Black Hills Claim, dissolving the Black Hills National Forest, moving management of the land from the US Department of Agriculture into the Department of Interior in cooperation with Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Forestry and Wildfire Management. Mato Paha (Bear Butte), the associated national grasslands and the Sioux Ranger District of the Custer/Gallatin National Forest should be included in the move.

    Rewild it and rename it He Sapa or Paha Sapa National Monument eventually becoming part of the Greater Missouri Basin National Wildlife Refuge connecting the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge in Montana along the Missouri River to Oacoma, South Dakota combined with corridors from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon in the north and south to the Pecos River through Nebraska, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    • Larry, I spend a fair amount of time in eastern Co and western Kansas.. there’s lots of private land to purchase to have a corridor, but it’s an interesting idea. Is this plan and the how-to’s laid out somewhere?

      • Corridors over public and private land to the Fork Peck, Crow, and Northern Cheyenne nations then into Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grassland beyond to North and South Dakota merely takes the political will to do it.

        Northern Colorado has just added a bison herd. The Oglala, Pawnee and Comanche National Grasslands are not far away.

        The relatively small distance between the Canadian River and the Rio Grande reminded me again how the earliest humans, thwarted by glaciers, the dire wolf, and Smilodon on everything north of the Sangre de Cristos terminating at Santa Fe, blazed the Pecos Trail from west to east into The Great Plains to find an inland paradise teeming with prey. Human successes likely contributed to the extinction of those two species and most camelids some 11,000 years ago.

        After the herds reach sustainable levels agreed upon by the stakeholders allow private and other public herds like the one at Wind Cave National Park with microchips to join the public herd and be harvested according to the market or population pressures. Hybrid herds should be assessed on a case by case basis and some individuals could join the main herd.

          • Yes, it’s my hope property owners will lease ground for corridors rather than having the federal government buy it or take it through eminent domain. My efforts are focused on the northern portion first then expand southward as the political will supports it.

            • This might be an idea to propose as part of the different state’s 30 x 30 initiative. The (the feds) are probably going to need to dream up some vehicles to incentivize private landowners to conserve.

  6. If you’re talking about things that might get 60 votes (any?) in Congress, I don’t think this is one of them. But if it did, it should include putting a conservation easement on the land (held/enforced by the federal government) to limit future development activities and guarantee public access.

  7. The only reason this idea is even being entertained is that leftwing environmentalists seem to consider Native Americans basically a captive demographic that has thoroughly bought into their preservationist ideology. It is therefore assumed that if federal lands are turned over to the tribes, the tribes will do with it exactly what the preservationists already want, without ever having to worry about having to secure majority support in a democratic society or deal with inconveniences like laws that give other views an equal voice.

    The fact that this article only proposes handing over the national parks once all sorts of restrictive covenants mandating preservation have been imposed clearly shows that the true motivation behind this proposal has nothing to do with righting historical wrongs. Rather, it is just an attempt to circumvent democracy by transferring ownership of our most valuable federal lands to tiny fraction of the population who happen to already agree with them, while at the same time implementing safeguards to ensure the tribes can’t do anything with the land that the preservationists don’t like.

    An actual transfer of land would make it the tribes’ property to do with as they please. If they want to make it all a giant wildlife refuge, fine. But if they want to drill for oil, strip mine for coal, or build the world’s biggest casino in the middle of Yellowstone, they have to be able to do that too, or else it’s not really their land. Imposing all sorts of restrictive covenants and then giving it over to the tribes to manage would just be white colonists deciding what to do with the land and then making indians do all the work of implementing it. Which is all they really want.

    This is also ridiculously hypocritical. When a Republican (William Pendley) supported transferring small amounts of federal lands to the states, there was a colossal outcry from environmentalists. Yet those same folks who were screaming about “keeping public lands public” now wholeheartedly support giving away all our most valuable federal lands to the indian tribes to be managed for the sole benefit of approximately 1% of the US population. Something tells me we won’t see nearly the same kind of outcry about this proposal.

    • Well stated.

      It’s interesting to see the high-handed comments here, stating that the indigenous savages are too primitive and/or greedy to be entrusted with their ancestral lands.

      Meanwhile, a mile-long line of RVs waits to enter Arches National Park, and the road through Zion is like Los Angeles’s San Diego Freeway at rush hour, i.e., crawling. Forests burn because forestry experts and environmental wizards for a long time understood nothing about the role of fire before European settlement.

      No wonder the word “environmentalist” has become sufficiently awkward to use around the retrograde masses and their evil barbecues and lawns that it’s being replaced with “conservationist,” “preservationist,” etc.

      • To be clear, I do NOT support this proposal. Personally I believe that federal lands (especially National Parks) should be managed by the federal government for the benefit of all Americans, not just 1% of the population whose ancestors happen to have been living here before most of ours. I grant the indians were treated terribly, and that a lot of their land was taken in unjust ways. Some of it was freely sold, though whether those transactions were made under duress is a matter for historians to debate.

        In the end, it’s the same thing as slavery reparations. No one living today was around when that land was taken, and those lands should be managed prospectively based on what is best for our country today, not looking backwards. So I completely oppose transfering National Parks or any other federal lands to indian tribes out of some misguided attempt to atone for our country’s past sins. The past must stay in the past.

        Once you start trying to right every historical wrong, there’s really no end to it, as another commenter pointed out, with trying to figure out which tribe is the “true” owner of a given piece of land since the tribes regularly conquered each other and seized territory long before Europeans ever showed up. This proposal mentions are consortium of tribes, but how would that work? Have a bunch of tribes (ie. separate and distinct ethnic groups) that historically might have been enemies or never even had any contact with each other jointly manage land just because they all happen to be grouped together under the moniker of American indians?

        Beyond all that however, I simply don’t believe this proposal is a genuine attempt to pay for past injustice, but a cynical ploy to circumvent democracy to ensure these lands are managed in a way that does not have widespread popular support. My previous post was to point out that if this proposal was intended to genuinely right historical wrongs, the land should be given to the tribes free and clear to do with as they please. That it’s not doing this but is instead placing a bunch of preservationist conditions on the proposed transfer, is more of exactly the same kind of hypocritical, condescending paternalism that indians have been subject to for ages.

        • Fair enough. It seems that I partly understood your point, but only partly.

          It is a conundrum. I bridle at the ahistorical and simplistic trappings of much wildlands rhetoric (“America’s best idea”; “the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable”; etc.). I’m not impressed by the cults that have accreted around federal land designations, nor by organizations that think forests are better managed by lawsuits than by millennia of accumulated knowledge.

          But I don’t want America’s wild areas to be ruined. I wish for something different from the current bureaucratic arrangements and the regulatory capture of federal agencies by campaign groups, but lack both the expertise and the confidence to articulate my own vision of what it would be.

          I would only say that indigenous peoples seem to have done casinos tastefully enough, and unlike some here, I don’t automatically distrust them to do the same with forest preserves.

          • I don’t know whether you both missed the fact that the author claims native identity. While we can’t assume he speaks for all of them, you can’t claim these “preservationist conditions” are something being foisted on the tribes by liberal environmentalists either. In the author’s words: “the transfer should be subject to binding covenants guaranteeing a standard of conservation that is at least as stringent as what the park system enforces today, so that the parks’ ecological health would be preserved—and improved—long into the future. The federal government should continue to offer some financial support for park maintenance, in order to keep fees low for visitors, and the tribes would continue to allow universal access to the parks in perpetuity.”

            • I would guess he is adding those stipulations because that’s the only way the proposal would be palatable to anyone at all. And I don’t think he speaks for everyone or even most people who support this movement. I’ve read a number of other sites associated with the so-called “land back movement”, and most others are calling for the outright closure of national parks and transfer to native ownership, particularly Mount Rushmore which seems to be an especially high priority target. They would close them all and lock everyone else out if they could.

              So I highly doubt access conditions and these other conservation measures are something they support on their own. If they do, well, there is a reason leftist environmental groups believe they have thoroughly captured native support, because they largely have. Doesn’t make them any less pawns though.

              • Have you ever considered that native ppl are not a monolith and have many varying opinions on the subject? Native ppl were explicitly banned from national parks for decades. I think a lot of ppl here are simply afraid that we will be treated like they were treated by our institutions. But so many native ppl have specifically said that they those are colonizer policies, which they are against for obvious reasons

            • Jon, it seems to me that Tribes and their members have all kinds of views and don’t always agree.. if it seems that more Tribal members think one thing (preservation) perhaps that is not what people think but what the media reports.
              For example, the views of the organizational Tribal folks on the BLM oil and gas review webinar – their organizations supported “all of the above for energy.” I did not see those views covered in media reports, but perhaps I didn’t see all the reports.

  8. I haven’t read the article yet, so this is a generalized response to what’s contained in this thread….

    Reparations and reconciliation with America’s Indigenous people is absolutely needed and long overdue, IMHO. But taking the only places in the country where all animals lives are respected and habitat destruction is supposed to be illegal, and turning it over to people who may or may not continue that, is just offloading the price onto nature.

    Which is a very colonial thing to do.

    But if the people making this argument want to walk the walk and give up their own homes and property to Indigenous people, I’ll listen much more generously to what they’re saying.

    • If you read the article there is a stipulation that the same standards of conservation would be held.

  9. Pileated, it seems to me that the only non-colonial thing to do is to ask the Tribes which land they want back and let them do with it as they will.

    • Back in 2020, the BLM issued this info….

      BLM Releases Final Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act Decision

      Portland, Ore. – Today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released the Decision Record for the reclassification of public domain lands as part in one of the final steps of the implementation of the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act.

      The Act, signed into law by President Trump on January 8, 2018, directed the BLM to transfer 14,708 acres of public lands to be held in trust for the benefit of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, and 17,812 acres to be held in trust for the benefit of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. Of these conveyed lands, 31,132 acres were lands managed under the Oregon and California Lands (O&C lands) Act of 1937.

      In addition to transferring these lands into trust for the Tribes, the Act also required the BLM to identify and convert public domain lands to replace the conveyed O&C lands. Reclassifying these lands as O&C lands will allow 18 western Oregon counties to share in a portion of receipts from timber sales on these lands.

      The selected alternative in the Decision Record ensures that BLM will meet the requirements of the law by converting lands of approximately equal acreage and condition. This will ensure that these converted lands have the potential to provide approximately equal timber receipt payments to O&C counties as the conveyed O&C lands would have.

      The selected alternative will also reclassify plots to best match the condition of the conveyed O&C lands that were transferred to the tribes. This means that the selected alternative will also match the estimated average annual payments to O&C counties from timber sales on reclassified lands that the O&C counties would have received from timber sales on the conveyed tribal lands.

      The reclassification of public domain lands to O&C lands does not change the management of the land, which is governed by the 2016 Northwestern and Coastal Oregon Resource Management Plan and the Southwestern Oregon Resource Management Plan.

      • And I believe these tribes plan to have robust timber sale programs. They already have casinos. But I think our national parks are important to all peoples.

  10. Reparations that would have more practical benefits to the tribes would include some portions of federal lands that have desirable attributes for agriculture and resource management as opposed to traditional national treasures that have become accepted by all Americans, to belong inherently to everyone, due to their uniqueness. Emotionally, this could perhaps be considered a compromise. The main thing here, is giving the kind of land that any one of us would like to own. It would include some kind of connection to the original tribe.

  11. Patrick, to me also that makes so much more sense than repatriating parks with all the associated requirements, expectations and infrastructure. Much of the Atlantic article was about history.. then Treuer goes on to say that Native Americans should be in charge of keeping things wild-ish.. that is National Parks with lots of visitors (the largest threat). It seems to me that it could be a set-up for drama between Tribes and managing hordes of Non Native Americans. Plus they continue to get $ from the government (to keep entry fees low?) and have to follow all the existing rules. It doesn’t sound like repatriation to me, it sounds like giving them hospitality concessionaire status.

    Meanwhile, lots of Tribes are doing a great job with managing their own lands for a variety of purposes, possibly better than the feds, depending on how you measure it. E.g. Yakama, Warm Springs and so on..
    They also have oil and gas, coal and so on… so the natural match for repatriation to me would be multiple use lands.

    How do we know if what Treuer says is what Native Americans would really want? Does he speak for them ? If we go back to (some of) their elected officials, for example Sharp and Borromeo in the Oil and Gas Review, it could be quite the opposite.

  12. This idea is a very interesting and important one! I do wonder how management/ownership would look since there are so many native nations/tribes and only some national parks (especially wrt tribes not recognized by the fed gov). I think if it was managed by indigenous ppl given the opportunity to learn data collection, more “formal” envisci wrt chemistry, etc this would be a really positive thing for everyone! By this, I mean that indigenous land management is v important and historically has tended to be better than western conservation methods, but that to continue with data records and such it would be important to have that academic background as well, which many native ppl are not given access to.
    As an environmental science major in conservation and restoration, I think this is a good idea. Historically, white ppl in conservation have barred indigenous ppl from land management and even going to national parks, which has led to the forest fire issues on the West Coast, (among other issues). The rhetoric around it was often that native Americans don’t know how to take care of the land, that they are destructive, etc, which is really echoed in these comments unfortunately.
    I do have a question: would non-native ppl be allowed to work at the parks under guidance of native management? It doesn’t change my support of this initiative, but if not then I would shift career paths to work with local forest preserves instead, in support of this initiative.


Leave a Comment