A belated post for Indigenous Peoples Day

My first actual post claimed that my next, non-introductory writing would discuss the murder of Sylville Smith. That was a lie. Since yesterday was Indigenous Peoples Day, what follows is more apt.


After miles and miles of flatlands, the majesty of the Rocky Mountains coming into view while driving west on Highway 2 in Montana is something I’ll never forget. Continuing west, 20 miles before reaching Glacier National Park, you pass through the town of Browning in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. That is also something I won’t forget. I didn’t know it at the time, but it is a town where the unemployment rate is 69%, per the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. [1] It wasn’t unexpected due to my remembrance of the state of disrepair most of the buildings were in and litter. The town is not very prominent in the various tourism-oriented websites for Glacier despite its proximity to the park.

The National Park Service turned 100 this past August. They are widely considered to be both good and fun. My only experience so far is with Glacier, which was both good and fun. I knew little about the history of the NPS until immediately prior to driving on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. At the park’s visitor center, we learned about how the Blackfeet Indians were forcibly removed from both sides of the mountains in the name of conservation. Moreover, when the Road was completed the Blackfeet were mortified by what they saw as the scarring of their sacred lands. Needless to say, that really bummed me out. But like a good American, I was able to push such thoughts out of my mind temporarily. It was not hard – Going-to-the-Sun Road is breathtakingly spectacular. After, I got out of the car, put my hand on my heart, and sang The Star Spangled Banner with tears rolling down my face.

Native American bigotry, still infuriatingly widespread, was shared by such paragons of American conservation as Henry David Thoreau (“What a coarse and imperfect use Indians and hunters make of nature! No wonder that their race is so soon exterminated.”) [2] and John Muir (describing the Sierra Miwok of the Yosemite as “dirty, deadly, and lazy” and “had no right place in the landscape.”). [3] The “pristine” lands wanted by wealthy whites in places like Glacier, Yosemite and Yellowstone were anything but, being inhabited by peoples for millennia. These “savage” peoples presence marred the otherwise pure wildness in the eyes of racist whites.

There are different narratives about the minutiae of the processes of land requisition and the associated justifications for what happened. One can read accounts of different ways in which bigotry was manifested besides the more conventional actions of forced removal, from proposing the idea of leaving the natives in situ (like an Americanized proto-safari replete with actual humans), to coercing the natives to perform shows for tourists for meager wages. [4] Colonial regimes, while congratulating and hailing themselves as benevolent civilizers, have always been exceedingly willing to further humiliate the defeated. This is something the dominant imperialist cultures tend to neglect or gloss over in their self-serving hagiographies for obvious reasons.

Once the removal was complete, as par for the course with American/Native American relations, promises to let the native people use the ceded portions of the Parks for hunting and timber were eventually revoked. They were increasingly forced onto marginal surrounding lands and divorced from their traditional ways of life. With no mechanisms in place for large or small scale integration into American society, they were left on reservations to watch their social superiors visit their ancestral lands for recreation and leisure. If one attempts even the slightest amount of empathy, it sounds pretty horrible, right? From an article in Scientific American:

“In July 1929 a frail, elderly woman quietly processed acorns on the floor of the Yosemite Valley. Her weather worn face appeared thin, yet firm like crumpled paper. She was a living record of the trials her people had suffered ever since they were herded into open air prisons at the point of a bayonet. As she sat, pulling back broken shell from acorns like damaged fingernails, a curiosity-seeking tourist offered her a nickel if she would serve him. ‘No!’ she cried. ‘Not five dollars one acorn, no! White man drive my people out — my Yosemite.’ Her name was Maria Lebrado, but she had once been known as Totuya. She was the granddaughter of Chief Tanaya of the Ahwahneechee, a revered leader who had attempted to shield his tribe from harm only to witness the murder of his son and the loss of everything he held dear. Now one of the last remaining members of her tribe, Totuya had returned home in order to die.” [5]

Seriously, imagine that’s your grandmother.

Colonialism under the guise of conservation is something that has not gone away in the 21st century. As documented by Survival International, typically well thought of organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund advocate for and monetarily support state entities that expel indigenous peoples from regions of high biodiversity. For example, in Cameroon the WWF is alleged to have provided funds to so-called anti-poaching squads that forcibly evicted the native Baka. Once clear, the land is open to wealthy foreign tourists for safaris and big game hunting or, even worse, logging and mining. [6]

To stick with the above example, what follows is a short examination of two of the entities in this complex scenario.

Poaching is awful and big game hunters are despicable but for different reasons. I can understand poachers who kill as part of their livelihood. It’s horrible and devastates already endangered animal species, but if there aren’t other vocational opportunities it’s easy to see why people do this. One has to feed, clothe, and shelter their family somehow. Wealthy big game hunters who want to kill things justify it, if they do at all, by pointing to the money they’re pouring into local economies. But as Dereck Joubert of the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative says: “Hunting in the big hunting countries contributes less than 0.27% to the respective national GDP’s” as opposed to eco-tourism, which brings in far greater revenue with much less impact. [7] From a conservation perspective (because big game hunters care so much about things like that), The Humane Society in a February 2016 report found that “over the decade studied, American trophy hunters imported nearly 32,500 trophies of the Africa Big Five species…demonstrating a significant impact on these species, most of which are threatened with extinction.” [8] That number doesn’t take into account the total numbers of slain endangered animals for sport, which is easily in the millions over that time span.

Caught in the mix of are indigenous peoples trying merely to exist – peoples who for millennia existed with now endangered species without decimating their numbers. It’s extremely difficult to tease out the desires of the different groups of which I’ve only mentioned a couple (and could include state and local governments; international corporations; farmers; pastoralists; various crime syndicates; local warlords (depending on the country); the mosaic of human rights organizations and conservation oriented NGO’s, etc.). Such desires vary spatially and temporally, enhancing the probability for coercion, exploitation, violence, and environmental destruction. All of which is to say my short summary of the different players in this byzantine situation is entirely inadequate. Globalization has ensured that such scenarios are fraught with a multitude of diverging and antagonistic interests. Historically, in such situations, even ones that aren’t nearly as complicated such as the creation of the National Park System, native peoples lose big.

I will probably go to more National Parks. They are awesome and I recommend going. Far be it from me to tell anyone what to do, but if you go, I think one should do a little research beforehand (which I didn’t do). It’s a bummer. While I know the knowledge likely only changes the perspective in between one’s ears, I think it’s worth knowing that something so beautiful and awe-inspiring is inextricably connected to human misery. And that misery is continuing to be perpetrated on extant indigenous peoples in different contemporary contexts. In some instances, the justifications used are similar to those used in the creation of the NPS a century ago.

1. https://lmi.mt.gov/Portals/135/Publications/LMI-Pubs/LocalAreaProfiles/Reservation%20Profiles/RF13-Blackfeet.pdf

2. “Thoreau and the American Indians,” By Mark Sayre

3. “Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks,” by Mark David Spence
4. Ibid.

5. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/how-john-muir-s-brand-of-conservation-led-to-the-decline-of-yosemite/

6. http://www.survivalinternational.org/campaigns/wwf

7. http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/conservation-hunting-cecil-lion

8. http://www.hsi.org/assets/pdfs/report_trophy_hunting_by_the.pdf

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