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History | Sacred Wonderland

Are national parks really America’s best idea?

I’ve been thinking lately about Wallace Stegner’s famous declaration that national parks are “the best idea we ever had,” a sentiment given wide circulation in Ken Burns’ magisterial documentary about the national parks that emphasizes parks as democratic spaces. The claim is debatable—I can think of many more momentous American ideas, such as equal rights under the law. And although I agree with Stegner that the creation of parks ranks highly among America’s laudable achievements, I don’t think that the legacy of democracy will hang solely on this one idea.

Contested Places

The claim of “America’s best idea” becomes more difficult for me when I think about the groundbreaking work of David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal on American sacred space that emphasizes the contested nature of places regarded as sacred. It seems to me that regarding national parks as places of conflict rather than as exemplary democratic spaces seems more true to the history of the parks ideal. From their inception, parklands have been sites of constant conflict, whether it be the struggles between conservationists and developers in the early days to the current pressures for oil and gas extraction near to and sometimes inside parks. Indeed, not a day has passed without some controversy hanging over the management and best uses of America’s national parks.

In fact, national parks originate in conflict. They were not empty places begging to be preserved for the recreational enjoyment of earnest tourists. These locations had complex cultural meanings and uses for centuries before “civilized” people arrived to introduce new meanings and uses of the land. In this regard, the first step in creating national parks involved the violences of conquest, displacement, and domestication.

No one knows this tragic truth better than indigenous peoples whose cultural traditions and in some cases their very lives were disrupted by the establishment of national parks. From the destruction of Ahwahnechee settlements in the Yosemite valley in 1851 and the removal of the indigenous band of Shoshone people thriving in Yellowstone in the 1870s to the desecration of such places as Mato tipila renamed Devil’s Tower, cultural displacement has been a prerequisite in the making of our national park system.

Ancient Puebloan ruins, Canyon de Chelly (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2008)

Resisting conservation

A few years ago the indigenous rights group Survival International staged a “Stop the Con” campaign to draw attention to how indigenous peoples have been “violently evicted” for the sake of conservation.They launched the campaign with a protester dangling from the face of El Capitan high above the Yosemite Valley. This breathtaking act of defiance aimed to bring attention to the violence that conservation brings to the lifeways of indigenous cultures.

The “Stop the Con” campaign gave me a new way of rethinking Stegner’s claim about parks as “the best idea we ever had.” Stegner was most interested in conservation, especially the preservation of undeveloped spaces as wilderness. But hidden from view in his understanding of parks is the removing and erasing of earlier engagements with these lands.

Transforming sacred places

America was not an empty place when white people brought their cultural understandings across the sea. Thousands of cultural groups inhabited these western continents, and virtually all of these indigenous peoples had identified places of special and unusual value that they honored as sacred touchstones in their cultural traditions. Many of these sacred places would become national parks in the cultural traditions of white industrialized society, a “best idea” that involved eradicating the previous meanings and uses of these places that had sustained indigenous cultures for centuries.

The idea of national parks carries a brutal past, an inconvenient historical detail that the claim of “America’s best idea” tends to overlook. A historically accurate interpretation of parks cannot ignore the violence involved in displacing the people who had prior claims and eradicating the sacred meanings they held of these special places. And I’m having a hard time accepting that this is the best idea of the American nation. ♨

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