August 30, 2011

Indians left out at national parks

No Longer Circling the Wagons:  Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong

By Robert PahreBecause American Indians lived everywhere in this country, the NPS could tell Native stories at almost every site. After all, it has chosen to tell the stories of settlers at most park units. Unfortunately, the NPS usually leaves out the Native stories in the parks, letting Indians vanish from most park landscapes.

Too much of the NPS’s interpretation of our history is incomplete, and it usually leaves out the Native stories. And when it does tell a Native story, all too often, it is through the eyes of other people, the way it has been done it in too many movies. In Dances With Wolves, for example, Kevin Costner portrays the Lakota sympathetically, but through the eyes of a white military man who falls in love with a white woman who had been adopted by the tribe. A less benign example of that can be found at Indiana Dunes National Seashore, which tells of the Potawatomi tribe through the experiences of a white man, Joseph Bailly. A sign at the Bailly homestead explains that he bought beaver furs and other items from the Potawatomi in exchange for various trade goods. Another sign says the United States gave Bailly $6,000 for counseling the Potawatomi when they sold their land in the Chicago Treaty of 1833. That was a huge sum of money back then, but the sign doesn’t say what he did in those negotiations that made the U.S. government so grateful. Nor does the sign finish the story—the Potawatomi ended up on a “Trail of Death” westward, across the Mississippi.

That’s just one of many Native stories the NPS leaves out of its narrative. Drive across the Great Plains and visit the park units there. Except for Minnesota’s Pipestone National Monument and Knife River Indian Villages in North Dakota, the national park units on the Plains focus on a short period of settlers’ history instead of the much longer Native histories. They also tend to talk about the deeds of settlers instead of the impact those actions had on American Indians.

Visitors to Nebraska’s Scotts Bluff National Monument see a replica covered wagon along with part of the original Oregon Trail as it heads through Mitchell Pass. Across the parking lot, the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center tells the story of the emigrants who passed this way. The American Indians who lived here appear in an exhibit entitled, “The White Emigrants Met the Mounted Hunters of the Plains.” Again, the Native stories are told in relation to the experiences of the intruders.

That park has 62 documented archaeological sites, but you won’t learn that when you’re there. You also won’t be told how Indians used the site before the white man arrived. An oral tradition dating to Frank Kicking Bear says Crazy Horse chose Scotts Bluff for one of his earliest vision quests. He reportedly saw horses and thunder beings in his vision who told him how to prepare for war. But you won’t hear that story at Scotts Bluff. The people who wanted Scotts Bluff to be a national monument had a one-sided view of what made the site important. Telling the story of Crazy Horse preparing for war against the United States would contradict their story, that of peaceful emigrants on their way to Oregon.
National Parks that Best Tell American Indian Culture and HistoryThere are almost 400 sites in the U.S. National Park system, including parks, monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores and recreation areas. Not all of them have a direct connection to American Indian culture and history, but most do, and most aren’t doing a good job of telling those stories. But some are. Here’s a sampling of sites, roughly from the Great Lakes to the Rockies, that are doing a good—or at least better—job of telling the complete history of their site.


  • Badlands National Park, South Unit (South Dakota)

  • Cook Collection, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Nebraska)

  • Effigy Mounds National Monument (Iowa)

  • Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site (Montana-North Dakota)

  • Grand Portage National Monument (Minnesota)

  • Knife River Indian Villages (North Dakota)

  • Nez Perce National Historic Park (Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington)

  • Pipestone National Monument (Minnesota)

  • Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (Colorado)

  • Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (many states)
  • Comment:  This sounds like a case of stereotyping by omission. Omitting Native stories in favor of pioneer stories reinforces our founding myth: that America was uninhabited except for "wild animals and Indians." That God gave the land to "civilized" Euro-Americans to colonize, settle, and develop. That the "savage" Indians had no right of ownership and were soon to vanish like scared little critters that went into hiding.

    For more on national parks, see AIM vs. Fort Laramie and Uranium Mining at Grand Canyon.

    Below:  Nebraska’s Scotts Bluff National Monument.

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