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Should National Parks Be Returned to the Tribes?

We’re very proud of our journal (which you can subscribe to, here) as well as our online stories, but every so often we run across something we wish we’d have commissioned. A recent article in The Atlantic, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes: The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples,” by David Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian from the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, is one such piece and we wanted to share it with you.

It’s a beautiful essay that moves easily from history to wilderness writing, to politics and sociology. That many of our most cherished national parks were once home to Indigenous peoples shouldn’t surprise many readers, but Treuer’s position, that Indigenous peoples have a claim to those places, and would very possibly do a better job managing them, is a thoughtful approach.

“Parks, as they’ve existed for 149 years, have done a decent job of preserving the past,” Treur writes. “But it’s not clear that today’s model of care and custodianship best meets the needs of the land, Native people, or the general public. Nor is it clear that the current system will adequately ensure the parks’ future. That’s something Indians are good at: pushing ahead while bringing the past along with us. We may be able to chart a better way forward.”

A simple, powerful idea.

“Placing these lands under collective Native control would be good not just for Natives, but for the parks as well. In addition to our deep and abiding reverence for wild spaces, tribes have a long history of administering to widely dispersed holdings and dealing with layers of bureaucracy. Many reservations are checkerboarded: Large parcels of reservation land are scattered and separated from one another. And much of the land within reservation boundaries is owned by a number of different interests—private, nontribal citizens; corporations; states; the federal government—that tribal leadership balances and accommodates. Through hard practice—and in the face of centuries of legal, political, and physical struggle—Indian communities have become adept at the art of governance. And tribes have a hard-earned understanding of the ways in which land empowers the people it sustains.

“Transferring the parks to the tribes would protect them from partisan back-and-forth in Washington. And the transfer should be subject to binding covenants guaranteeing a standard of conservation that is at least as stringent as what the park system enforces today, so that the parks’ ecological health would be preserved—and improved—long into the future. The federal government should continue to offer some financial support for park maintenance, in order to keep fees low for visitors, and the tribes would continue to allow universal access to the parks in perpetuity. Bikers and toddlers, Instagram models and Tony Hawk—all would be welcome. We would govern these beautiful places for ourselves, but also for all Americans.”

Read the whole article here, it’s a terrific piece of writing.

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