December 28, 2009

Indians in The Empire of Grandeur

In October I posted an overview of Ken Burns's documentary National Parks: America's Best Idea. The first and second episodes, The Scripture of Nature and The Last Refuge, included segments on Indians. So did the third, The Empire of Grandeur.

A segment on Glacier National Park begins with a Blackfeet Indian legend:Napi, the old man, came down from his home in the sun to help his people, the Blackfeet. When his work was done, he went up into the mountains, where he came to two lakes. There he said to himself, "I believe I will go up on that highest mountain and change myself into stone." In the crevice in the mountain, he lay down, with just his face peeking out, and turned himself into a rock. He is still there, watching for people to come looking for him.Peter Coyote's narration continues:On the border of Montana and Canada, in the northern reaches of the Rockies, where glaciers could still be found sculpting and polishing mountains rising 10,000 feet into the sky, and alpine cascades tumbled down to form more than 650 lakes, was Glacier National Park, established by Congress in 1910. For centuries the Blackfeet Indians had claimed the land as their own, but during a mining boom that brought in swarms of prospectors, they had been pressured into signing a new treaty, giving up the mountain portion of their reservation.

"The mountains have been my last refuge. Chief Mountain is my head. Now my head is cut off."

--White Calf
Mt. Rushmore superintendent Gerard Baker (Hidatsa-Mandan) gives us a Native perspective:When you walk into any natural national park, you're walking into somebody's homeland. You're walking into somebody's house. You're walking into somebody's church. You're walking into somebody's place where they lived since the time the Creator made it for them. And so you're walking into some place that has been utilized for generations upon generations in every form you could imagine. This was their homeland.Good stuff. Curiously, the PBS website doesn't mention any of it. According to PBS, The Empire of Grandeur is all about expanding the park system and making it accessible to the public. There's enough room on the website to tell about two brothers who helped publicize the Grand Canyon with their photographs, but not about the Blackfeet's plight.

The Blackfeet story

Another article tells us what the PBS website doesn't:

Book, exhibit highlight human stories in Glacier Park centennial

By Dan ElliottGlacier's centennial committee published a book, "A View Inside Glacier National Park: 100 Years, 100 Stories," with recollections from visitors, residents, park employees and others. The Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena, about 130 miles south, has an exhibit called "Land of Many Stories: The People & Histories of Glacier National Park."

Some of the park's stories are ugly. In 1895, under pressure from miners hoping to find copper and gold, the federal government pressed the Blackfeet into selling the government thousands of acres, land that would later become the east side of the park.

"They forced a sale upon us," said Jack Gladstone, a Blackfeet Indian singer/songwriter who specializes in Native American myth, legend and history.

But the land grab had a silver lining, he said. Had the area remained under Indian control, it might have been "sliced and diced and sold off" when federal law allowed tribal members to sell their individual land allotments. Instead, when no valuable minerals were found, it was kept intact.

"What was in the short-term a curse and really a debacle turned into probably about as good as it could have been because of the enhanced protection afforded by Glacier as a national park, a national treasure," he said.
Below:  "President Franklin D. Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt were inducted into the Blackfeet Tribe near Glacier National Park’s Two Medicine Chalet on Aug. 5." (Photo by Associated Press)

What PBS considers important

To its credit, The Empire of Grandeur notes the Indian origins of Acadia, McKinley (Denali), and Grand Canyon National Parks. But only the following notes made it onto the PBS website:

The Railways, the National Parks and the "See America First" CampaignOn every Great Northern Railway brochure and billboard were three words: "See America First." The slogan was part of a promotional campaign aimed at upper-middle-class white Americans from the East Coast who were collectively spending $500 million each year visiting Europe. The Great Northern promoted Glacier National Park as "America's Switzerland."

When World War I broke out in 1914, closing off overseas travel, the railroads saw their chance to promote "See America First" as never before. As a publicity stunt, the Great Northern arranged for a group of Blackfeet Indians to tour the East, performing war dances. They attracted huge crowds and wherever they went, the press referred to them as "the Indians of Glacier National Park."
Albright and the Creation of Zion National ParkDuring the war, Albright traveled to southern Utah to view a beautiful canyon of sandstone cliffs that had been set aside as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, and ignored by the federal government ever since.

For Albright, it was love at first sight. He was so impressed with the "towering rock walls, splashed with brilliant hues of tans and reds interspersed with whites," that he wanted it to be expanded into a national park. He felt that the name Mukuntuweap, from a Paiute word for "canyon" was too hard to remember; he suggested that it be changed to Zion, the name the local Mormons used for it. Albright's enthusiasm persuaded President Wilson and at the end of 1919, Congress created Zion National Park.
Comment:  Although it isn't blatant in the episode itself, the website gives us some insight into the thinking of Ken Burns and company. They're more into the positive, rah-rah aspects of the park system than its dark, destructive side. Gerard Baker discusses the parks' essential wrongness and Burns uses his comments, but there's no follow-up. Tourists are stomping all over the Indians' sacred land--oh, well...on with the story.

For photographs of my visit to Zion, see Colorado Trip Pix--Day 1 and Colorado Trip Pix--Day 2. For more on the series, see Review of Burns's National Parks and Burns on Our National Parks.

Below:  "Blackfeet Indians on promotional tour for Glacier National Park, 1924."


Anonymous said...

Hi Rob --

Do you have any opinions on Avatar? I was hoping to find a post from you on the subject...

a fan

Anonymous said...

Never mind! I found them -- but they didn't turn up using the search engine for your blog...

a fan

Sight Seer said...

I am taking a motorcycle trip to Glacier National Park in July. I can't wait!