December 31, 2009

Indians in The Morning of Creation

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

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

The sixth episode, The Morning of Creation, gives us only a few Native tidbits:

Stewart Udall and the Expansion of the ParksIn West Texas, Udall oversaw the creation of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in an area that had once been the home of grizzly bears, wolves, and buffalo–as well as the Mescalero Apaches before they, too, were driven out.Alaska: America's Last FrontierAfter Alaska was granted statehood in 1959, a federal law was passed to settle the claims of Alaska's native peoples, including the Inupiaq and the Tlingit, the Aleut and the Athabascan.

The land was to be divided up: some for the state to open for development if it wished; some for the tribes; and a portion to be withheld in the "national interest" for all Americans. As the discovery of vast oil deposits and the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline demonstrated, the stakes were enormous.

The fight over what to do with the federal lands would quickly become a national battle. Powerful commercial and industrial groups allied themselves against the Alaska Coalition, a collection of fifty environmental groups that ultimately represented 10 million Americans. It was the largest grassroots conservation effort in U.S. history.
And:Mount McKinley National Park, which had been in existence since 1917, was nearly tripled in size. The park was officially designated a wilderness, granting increased protection to the land and wildlife, and its name was changed to Denali, the Athabaskan Indian name for the tall mountain at its center.A Shift in FocusIn the last decades of the 20th century, more historic sites were saved–including reminders of painful episodes in American history, set aside on the belief that a great nation could openly acknowledge them. These new national historic sites included:

Sand Creek and Washita on the Great Plains, where peaceful Cheyenne villagers were massacred by American soldiers in the 1860s.
Comment:  The interesting thing about the Alaska story is the ending, which the website doesn't address.

Alaskans complained about the taking of their land to create national parks and monuments. They bitched and moaned about what a terrible burden, loss, and tragedy it would be.

As usual, the conservative naysayers turned out to be wrong. They were wrong about anti-trust and labor laws, Social Security and Medicare, and civil rights, and they were wrong about preserving Alaska's natural heritage, too.

In fact, the boom in tourism made the parks and monuments a big financial success. Finally, the anti-government crybabies had to admit the feds knew what they were doing.

Back to the series as a whole. Once again we see that Ken Burns and company are better at remembering our tragic past than explaining our conflicted present. You have to read between the lines to infer that Indians are still a presence in the parks and in America.

Who has been at the forefront of commemorating Washita and Sand Creek...incorporating a Native perspective at parks such as Yosemite and Mt. Rushmore...and protecting parks such as the Grand Canyon and the Everglades from exploitation? Yes, Indians.

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

Below:  "Mt. McKinley above Wonder Lake, evening, Denali National Park, Q.T. Luong photograph."

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