December 30, 2009

Indians in Great Nature

In October I posted an overview of Ken Burns's documentary National Parks: America's Best Idea. Here are my postings on the first four episodes:

The Scripture of Nature
The Last Refuge
The Empire of Grandeur
Going Home

The fifth episode, Great Nature, begins with the series' last significant Indian story. As Peter Coyote narrates:In July of 1929, a 90-year-old woman returned to the Yosemite Valley in California. She was called Maria Labrado, but 78 years earlier, as a young girl, she had been known by her real name: To-tu-ya, the granddaughter of Chief Tenaya, leader of the Ahwahneechees, an Indian tribe who for centuries had called the valley their home, until in 1851, a battallion of white men had driven them out at bayonet point.

To-tu-ya was the sole remaining survivor of that sad moment. This was her first time back. Half a generation after the Ahwahneechees’ expulsion, the federal government had preserved the beautiful valley permanently as a national park. Still, everywhere she looked, To-tu-ya was reminded of how much things had changed.

In a broken mixture of English, Spanish, and her own ancient language, she told her escorts that the valley floor was now more wooded and brushy than in her day. Her people had regularly set grass fires to keep the meadows open and the trees and shrubs at bay.

Then, she looked up at the rock walls of the valley. The great monoliths and the majestic waterfalls stood unchanged. Turning toward Half Dome, the cleft rock she knew as Tis-sa-ack, she stretched out her arms and raised her voice in a strong, clear, high-pitched call that echoed off the granite walls. It was, she explained, the call her grandfather Tenaya had once used to summon his people together. Until that moment, she had been the last one to hear it.
I gather that the ululation that follows, and the anecdote as a whole, are supposed to be a farewell to Indians. By the time of the Great Depression, their role in our national parks was over--at least according to National Parks and its website.

The episode offers one more noteworthy bit--this time about the Everglades:Because of its trackless impenetrability, the Everglades became something of a sanctuary for people too. In the 1800s, when the Seminole Indians were driven out of Florida, small groups escaped, and found refuge deep in the cypress trees and sawgrass, along with the Miccosukee tribe and hundreds of runaway slaves.Indians ignored on website

Once again, however, the PBS website glosses over this history. In its historical overview, it doesn't mention Florida's Indians. It offers only a couple Native notes:

George Melendez Wright and the Balance of NatureWright also supported the call to establish South Florida's Everglades as a national park, warning that if action was not taken soon all the wildlife there would become extinct. Thanks to the efforts of landscape architect Ernest Coe and journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, as well as the support of Horace Albright, Everglades National Park would become the first national park to be created solely for the preservation of animals and plants and the environment that sustains them.Roosevelt Expands the ParksHe created Isle Royale National Park in the northwestern corner of Lake Superior, and used his authority as president to create numerous national monuments that would eventually be elevated to park status. Among them:

Capitol Reef in Utah, where the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold exposes a panoply of differently colored rock formations that the Navajo Indians called the "Land of the Sleeping Rainbow."
The Battle for Olympic National ParkIn 1937, Franklin Roosevelt and Harold Ickes entered into a park controversy that had been raging for 30 years. On the Olympic peninsula west of Seattle, verdant rain forests contained the largest specimens of Douglas fir, red cedar, western hemlock and Sitka spruce in the world. For centuries, the area was the homeland of native tribes like the Makah and the Quinault, the Hoh and Skokomish.Comment:  The overall theme of National Parks regarding Indians is now clear. Indians once owned and occupied the land. In a few unfortunate cases we had to remove them from "our" parks, but mostly they just disappeared. Now all that's left is their colorful names and history.

What could National Parks have said? Well, Indians are still involved in Yosemite, Everglades, and Olympic National Parks today. In fact, several articles about Indians and each of these parks appeared in 2009.

Instead of sentimental stories about couples spending their lives visiting the parks, tell us the parks' recent history. With all the controversies over the years, hold the feel-good stories about how the parks made people happy. Clearly the parks didn't do much for the Indians expelled from them.

For more on the subject, see Review of Burns's National Parks and Burns on Our National Parks.

Below:  "Seminole Indians with dugout canoes, Everglades National Park, 1921." From a separate section on the Everglades, not from the series overview.

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