The Unintended Consequences of Returning the National Parks to the Tribes

Readers respond to David Treuer’s May 2021 cover story.

Photograph of the cover story of the May 2021 issue, "Return the National Parks to the Tribes"
Katie Martin

This article was published online on June 22, 2021.

Return the National Parks to the Tribes

The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples, David Treuer argued in May.

David Treuer suggests that the tribes deserve to have the parks under their management. As a former public servant on national-park and forest land, I believe his suggestion misses the National Park Service’s core mission “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The best stewards for the country’s jewels are not one group, but Americans of all colors and creeds who are dedicated to those principles.

Sean Murphy
Berthoud, Colo.

The promise of liberalism, of the Enlightenment, was the concept of universal rights and responsibilities based on the individual—not on race, not on tribe, not on religion. While I can see the poetic justice of suggesting that Native Americans become the caretakers of the national parks, I am saddened at the notion of a tribal definition of those caretakers.

Kate Adams
Mountain View, Calif.

The National Park Service is doing a pretty good job. Let’s instead review and make right the multitude of treaties and agreements reached with Native American tribes that we have almost universally ignored. A great deal of good can come from an effort in that direction.

Peter Thompson
Former U.S. National Park Service employee
Hobart, Wash.

As a veteran environmental reporter, I have to push back against David Treuer’s proposal. The effort to privatize—and profit from—public lands in the West is never-ending. That includes Indian lands. Modern tribal governments were established in 1934 by the Indian Reorganization Act. The councils designated to deal with federal authorities often had little relationship to tribes’ traditional leadership. The history of many tribal councils is riddled with corruption. The legacy has been environmental destruction on a massive scale, including coal mining and dirty power plants on Navajo and Hopi land in the Four Corners region as well as the recent fracking boom on Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) land in North Dakota.

The cultural center on MHA land that Treuer speaks so highly of was constructed with funds from oil development. The center cost roughly $30 million, but the real price was far greater: widespread contamination from fracking wells. There turned out to be far less money for most tribal members than there was for a handful of well-connected Native and white people, including the tribal chairman.

While there are impressive efforts by a new generation of leaders on tribal lands, the old guard hasn’t given way. The immense power of extractive industries in the West would make Treuer’s utopian vision a memory as bitter as the terrible history of exploitation and oppression that he describes so movingly in his essay.

Susan Zakin
Twentynine Palms, Calif.

David Treuer’s proposal to return the national parks to the Native American nations and tribes who once lived there is a refreshing idea. It is long past time that the country faced a serious moral and political reckoning with its history of Indian dispossession and physical assault.

Stephen Wertheimer
Boca Raton, Fla.

If Native Americans were to gain control of the parks, should they find revenue sources to pay for all the deferred maintenance by increasing fees or building new lodging, amusement parks, and even casinos? Or should they take the backcountry approach and just let the parks return to nature?

Richard Hanners
John Day, Ore.

David Treuer replies:

I suggested a transfer of the parks and monuments to a consortium of tribes to manage on behalf of all Americans (and, by extension, international visitors). How they would be funded is a technicality: They would continue to be funded by revenue from concessions and access fees and by more stable and more fulsome support from the republic that stole the land in the first place. I also mentioned that such a transfer, as I see it, would be bound by covenants that would prevent exploitation and development.

The promises of liberalism and of the Enlightenment and the concept of universal rights were underwritten by exploitation and the categorization of entire racial and cultural communities as “less than” or even subhuman. The Enlightenment was funded by its evil twin of colonialism, in Africa, Asia, South America, and yes, the United States. It could be argued that the much more ignored value of the “common good,” also an important part of Enlightenment thought, would be a better thing on which to place our focus and our faith.

How Will We Remember the Pandemic?

In May, Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the science of how our memories form—and how they shape our future.

March 16, 2020, was to be my first day back from maternity leave, but instead, as the director of a public library, I had to seal up the doors and attempt to work from home. Now that I’m back in the library, I spend a bit of time every day scanning the shelves, wondering the same things. When will the memoirs get published? Will fiction be created to capture this time? What will the scientists write? The politicians? And then I realize how many stories won’t be collected at all. But we are the living story.

I thank Melissa Fay Greene for reminding all of us that we have a unique story to tell, and I’d like to remind everyone to get out there and share yours.

Michelle Conners
East Waterboro, Maine

The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In June 2020, Michael Holtz began a nearly six-month stint working the line at the Cargill meatpacking plant in Dodge City, Kansas (“Pulling Count”). Just before he started the job, he learned that his grandfather Patrick Reilly had been a longtime employee at a beef-and-pork plant in Topeka, beginning in 1939. Reilly worked for John Morrell & Company, cycling through various posts on the plant’s loading docks and eventually becoming a foreman. In 1951, flooding ravaged northeastern Kansas, killing dozens of people and causing more than $760 million worth of damage. Morrell’s Topeka plant—one of the biggest employers in the city—was forced to close, and more than 1,000 workers lost their job. Reilly went on to work in real estate.

Kansas has only expanded its meat production since then. Meat processing has always been physically demanding work, but the industry has changed radically over the years. From the 1930s into the 1970s, working conditions and pay improved. But by the 1980s, Human Rights Watch reports, unions had weakened and evolving assembly-line processes had begun to transform the industry. In the space of two decades, the pace of line work more than doubled in some plants, and many workers’ wages became a fraction of what they had been. By the early 2000s, rates of injury and illness in meatpacking were more than twice those of the broader manufacturing sector, as fast-moving, repetitive line work became the norm.

Will Gordon, Associate Editor

Behind the Cover

In his profile of Boris Johnson, Tom McTague takes readers inside the controlled chaos of 10 Downing Street, depicting a prime minister who is shrewder than his disheveled appearance suggests. Johnson is attempting to lead his country through a period of radical transformation, in part by projecting a sense of forward momentum that is fueled by his signature impulsiveness and exuberance. Our cover borrows punk-rock elements from Sex Pistols album covers to convey the deliberately anarchic spirit Johnson brings to the job.

Oliver Munday, Design Director

This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”