There’s been a lot of press over the last few months about the lawsuit the Delaware North Company brought against the National Park Service over the use of certain names that the DNC quietly trademarked during its tenure as the park’s sole concessionaire. This comes on the heels of the DNC losing its lucrative contract (which grossed $146 million in 2014) in June 2015 to Aramark.
$146 million is a lot of money, so the DNC is understandably upset. But to quote Jack White, they are acting like “a little girl yelling at her brother ’cause she lost his ball.” In other words, the place names, among them such well-known and cherished icons as Ahwahnee, Wawona, and even Yosemite itself, were never the property of the DNC in the first place. These names are property of the American people and the DNC is holding them at ransom because they’re mad they got ousted-or so the argument goes.
But if we’re going to entertain the notion that the DNC has no rightful claim to these names (in spite of the fact that they do technically own their trademarks), it’s logical to extend the question of ownership a step beyond the NPS and “the American people” as well. After all, just which “American people” are we talking about? The ones that spoke those names (or at least their proper derivatives) as part of their language when they lived in the valley we now call Yosemite? Or those who come to visit now that the original inhabitants have been forcibly removed or killed?
Although the battle has raged between the NPS and the DNC, it also brings into high relief a time-tested tradition of excluding Native Americans, who arguably have the most valid claim to America’s public lands of any user group, from the discussion altogether.
Sadly, Yosemite’s sordid history is not the exception to a shining rule of fair treatment of First Peoples by the United States government. Nor is it the only example of the NPS’ routine dismissal of native concerns, culture, or values. Consider South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, for example. The Sioux people who once worshiped there certainly have causes for concern with this national memorial, among them that it was built on land the government took from them, the Black Hills in particular are considered sacred ground, and the monument celebrates the European settlers who killed so many Native Americans and appropriated their land.
National memorial, you say? Memorial to whom? It is hard to find any iconic national park, memorial, or monument in the United States without an underrepresented understory of oppression and abuse of native peoples. What remains are gift shop trinkets, the occasional feather-clad dancers performing for largely white audiences, an interpretive placard here or there, and a giant cheesy (at best) chief’s head to announce the entrance to Sequoia National Park. We can, and should, do better.
It’s easy to rant about the state of the world; it’s far more difficult to come up with practical solutions to deep-rooted problems. Yet in spite of those difficulties, people routinely make efforts to better the state of things, to move forward progressively, to improve upon historical embarrassments.
On October 15 last year, an intertribal coalition delivered a proposal to Barack Obama and Utah state representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz to establish a 1.9-million acre national monument in southeastern Utah. Under the conditions of the proposal, the management of that land tract would fall under the oversight of not just the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Forest Service (FS), and the NPS, but also representatives of the Navajo Nation, the Zuni Pueblo people, the Hopi tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Indian tribe, and the Uintah & Ouray Ute Indian tribes.
The proposal is not a one-and-done solution to an incredibly old and still rampant problem of mistreatment of native peoples. Opponents to the Bears Ears National Monument abound and include both Native Americans and Americans of European descent. Marie Holiday, who lives in Monument Valley, equates the establishment of the national monument with “closing the door to your own people.” She worries that her home in Monument Valley, which is included within the proposed monument boundaries, would no longer be open to traditional uses by native peoples. “We still get our wood from there”, she told a county commission in a meeting held last August about the proposal. “My grandmother went to get some herbal stuff, and I know where it is, and pinyon, too. If there’s a national monument, we are not going to have access to it.”
But Willie Grayeyes, a leader of the Utah Dine Bikeyah group who helped draft the proposal, disagrees. “Under any form of land designation,” he said, “Native Americans would have access under religious freedom.” The debate, per usual, rages on.
Would it be better if we could go back in time and simply undo all that European settlers and conquistadors have done to Native Americans in the western hemisphere? Arguably, yes. Is it possible? Of course not.
The problem we face now is not erasing or undoing the past, but forging the path for a better future. That better future needs to be inclusive of the opinions and feelings of Native Americans, it needs to take Native American concerns into account in the planning of new legislation about public lands, and it needs to provide reparations for historic mistreatments of Native Americans to an extent that they are afforded real opportunities to thrive in this world – not through forced assimilation “under the benign influences of education and civilization,” as Ulysses S Grant suggested at his second presidential inauguration in 1873; but in accordance with their own principles and fundamental values and beliefs.
Squabbling over rights, royalties, and ownership of a bunch of misappropriated names is a step backward. The kind of inclusivity we are seeing with the proposed Bears Ears National Monument is definitely a step forward. And while it may not be precisely the solution that we are ultimately aiming for, at least it gets us moving in the right direction.
Photo by Steve Corey