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Should Native Americans control national parks? Examining an argument for reparations

Trekking to and through a national park is one of the joys of an American summer. As COVID restrictions lift, millions are expected to explore the great outdoors. Now, a provocative article examines the deeper history of how these parks came to be — and their complicated legacy. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is one of the joys of an American summer, trekking to and through a national park. As COVID restrictions lift, millions are expected to explore the great outdoors.

    But now a provocative article examines the deeper history of how these parks came to be and their complicated legacy.

    Stephanie Sy has our conversation for our ongoing coverage of Race Matters.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    These national parks are beloved.

    In a phrase that's often repeated, writer and historian Wallace Stegner once called them America's best idea. But in a recent cover story for "The Atlantic," author David Treuer argues now is the time to return national parks to Native tribes, who were forced off the lands. He's calling for the return of more than 60 of them, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Joshua Tree.

    All told, it would include more than 80 million acres.

    David Treuer is a member of the Leech Lake Ojibwe Tribe in Minnesota and the author of "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present." And he joins me now.

    David Treuer, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    There were so many passages that stood out to me in your article, including the description of Yellowstone, which you write, from the perspective of history, is a crime scene.

    Describe how what happened there makes your case for returning national parks to tribes.

  • David Treuer:

    Yellowstone was created during the height of the Plains Wars between various Western tribes And the United States government.

    And in the middle of that battle, they created this park, which excluded and deprived primarily the Shoshone-Bannock and other tribes of access. They were forcibly removed, kicked out of the park, forbidden from hunting and gathering and using the park as — or that land, as they had for four centuries.

    Yellowstone is just one of many parks. And it's a pretty unique one. But we can see, even just by looking at Yellowstone, how fraught that place is with history.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Of course, Yellowstone was the first of the national parks.

    And you write specifically that there is no better remedy for theft of land than land. So that is your argument.

    But hundreds of millions of people visit these parks every year. And there are 574 federally recognized tribes. So, David, how would this plan work?

  • David Treuer:

    Well, that's the really great news, as — at least as far as my life is concerned, is that I don't have to have plans. I just have to have ideas.

    As parks were being created, over 87 million acres of parkland were being set aside for Americans, Native Americans were being deprived of and we lost control of over 90 million acres.

    So, I think it's high time that the United States did the right thing and returned land to Native tribes. And we would manage it on behalf of all Americans. This wouldn't be a place that sort of non-Native people would be excluded from. These parks would be open to everyone as before, but they would be managed, controlled and protected by us.

    And I think it's safe to say that we are much better, we are much better at encouraging and making room for our neighbors than the federal government and the majority of Americans have been, at least vis-a-vis Native people, for the past few hundred years.

    So, if this were to happen, if the parks were run by a consortium of all of the tribes of the United States and managed on behalf of all Americans, this would be good for Native people, of course, but it would also be good for American people and good for parks.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, I get what you're saying, that you're the ideas guy, not the policy guy, but you do mention a consortium.

    And this is a really big idea. I wonder whether the tribes are equipped to maintain that 20,000 trails, the recreational areas and the wildlife. Would there be some sort of agreement that would guarantee that the public could continue to access these parks?

  • David Treuer:

    What I propose is that there would be sort of covenants put in place that protects the parks and protect access to them.

    As to whether Native people are equipped, you know, we have, through long and difficult experience managing our own tribes by sort of fighting the United States government and trying to establish our own tribal governments, working with the United States to form our tribal governments, enduring the sort of paternalistic hand of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we have, through long experience, developed the perfect skill set.

    There is no one better equipped to manage parks than tribes. We have the experience necessary.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In the article, David Treuer, you lay out a lot of really indisputable atrocities that were leveled against indigenous peoples when this country was settled and founded.

    And yet many people would acknowledge those truths and say this is still too big a change at this point, generations later, and that it maybe goes both too far and in a way not far enough to really right the past.

    What do you say to those skeptics?

  • David Treuer:

    Well, I don't think you can ever sort of undo the past.

    But this country has a — has a fundamental problem in its persistence in believing the myth of its own innocence vis-a-vis slavery and vis-a-vis the theft of Native land.

    And in terms of not — going too far, would you rather have tribes run the parks or would you rather have the Park Service Administration inside the Department of the Interior run the parks? Parks are right now vulnerable to the shifting winds of federal policy.

    It's actually not a very radical idea to give them to tribes to protect, and not only to protect from sort of environmental degradation and overcrowding and all the other things that parks deal with, but to protect from the very government that created them in the first place.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You know, I'm reminded that it was another "Atlantic" cover piece about reparations for African Americans by Ta-Nehisi Coates a few years ago that really sparked a conversation about reparations. And now places are actually starting to pay out reparations for the descendants of slaves.

    David Treuer, do you see that path forward for Native Americans?

  • David Treuer:


    You know, and reparations to Native people need to be made in the form of land. That is fundamental. You know what? It's a really powerful thing to stand at, say, Yosemite and to look up. We are observing and being a part of an incredible thing when we get to go to places like that or Yellowstone or Glacier.

    It would be really, really profound as well to stand in those places and know that you're standing on Native land once again, and to look up at Half Dome or El Capitan, and know you're not just seeing a beautiful mountain, but you're actually seeing the practice of justice.

    And in this country, in this day and age, that is something we need. You know, nature might be able to heal the soul of the individual. The gift of the parks back to Native tribes to manage for all of us might go some way into healing the soul of this country, which is in pretty rough shape.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I think it would be hard for anyone who reads your article to ever look at those vistas out of Yosemite the same ever again.

    David Treuer, historian and author, thanks for coming on the "NewsHour."

  • David Treuer:

    Thanks for having me.

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