December 29, 2009

Indians in Going Home

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

The Scripture of Nature
The Last Refuge
The Empire of Grandeur

The fourth episode, Going Home, mentions Indians only in the context of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once again it's instructive to compare the episode with the PBS website.

Here's the narration from the episode:More than 5,500 people, mostly whites and Cherokees, lived within the borders of the proposed park. They too would have to leave, willingly or not. Some happily sold their land. Others refused, fought and lost in court, and eventually had to sell under condemnation proceedings.

Many were offered leases for up to two years as the park took shape, becoming tenants on the land they had once owned. As the isolated cabins and their small communities—Web’s Creek, Ravensford and Smokemont, Cataluchee and Cade's Cove—emptied one by one, Horace Albright, now in charge of the Park Service, assured the people that they would always be allowed to maintain the cemeteries near their now-vacant churches. It provided small comfort against the bitterness of removal. Their hearts were broken, one resident remembered, and most of them left crying.
And comments by historian William Cronon that indirectly addresses the controversy:I think the paradox of local resistance to the creation of national parks is a deep, deep paradox in American ideas of democracy. Because on the one hand, one of our visions is that people in a local place are the ones who best understand that place—are the ones who have its interests most at heart. And who really, ideally, ought to be the ones who vote about what should happen to that land, just as on a local school board.

And yet it is also true that these national parks are not in the local place that they are in. They are in the nation. They stand for the nation. And so, by that understanding, the democratic institutions that should defend them are not at the local level, but at the level of the nation. And this tension between federal control of our democracy, and local control of our democracy, is hard-wired into what we think democracy is.
And here's what the PBS website says:

The Race to Save the SmokiesHorace Kephart first came to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee in 1904, and soon started campaigning to save the forests that were being systematically stripped away by lumber companies. He was joined in his efforts to create a national park by George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who spent his time photographing the Great Smokies.

Stephen Mather supported their cause and in 1926, Congress authorized the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was one catch: Congress insisted that money to buy the land come entirely from the states or private donations. Local people--churchgoers, hotel bellhops, children raiding their piggybanks--rallied to the cause, but it was uncertain whether the required $10 million could be raised before the Great Smokies were completely logged.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. came to the rescue when he offered the remaining $5 million that was desperately being sought. But with the Great Depression devastating the country, people were unable to fulfill many of the pledges they had made to create the park. Inspired by the contributions of ordinary people, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to intervene, allocating $1.5 million in scarce federal funds to complete the land purchases. On June 15, 1934, the park was officially established. It was the first time in history that the United States government had spent its own money to buy land for a national park.
Summing it up: Heartwarming stories about children raiding their piggybanks, good. Heartwrenching stories about Cherokees getting kicked off their land, bad.

The only time the website mentions Indians is in a photo caption in this section:

The Ranger SystemAnother of Mather's critical tasks was to hire competent people to run the parks. In the past, political patronage had determined who got jobs, with some poor results. A well-connected employee at Glacier National Park was so inept that his patrols were restricted to following the railroad tracks to keep him from getting lost. The son-in-law of a Mesa Verde superintendent was caught looting precious artifacts from the cliff dwellings.

To remedy the situation, Mather began hand-picking new superintendents. He put Jesse Nusbaum, a professional archaeologist, in charge of Mesa Verde.

"Superintendent Jesse Nusbaum with Native Americans, Mesa Verde National Park, 1927."

Comment:  Nice of those Indians to disappear so we don't have to think about them (and what we did to them) anymore!

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


m. said...

This is so off-topic, but I'm commenting because that sort of caption in the bottom picture? ...all too familiar and depressing. Degendering the "Native Americans" in the photograph. (Not to mention, those WOMEN are...oh, gee, who knows??? Haha!) I have only seen this sort of captioning for Indigenous people (Indians and Pacific persons), NEVER anyone else. With other persons: 'man', 'young men', 'elderly woman', etc. Us? 'Native Americans', 'Aborigine', 'Indian', and so on.

Not like this is new, since the degendering of Indians isn't really relegated to non-Native-centric publications. But, you know.

Rob said...

Good point, M. I thought of that too. They're probably Navajo women, so someone should've tried to identify them as such.