The Experiment Podcast: The Problem With America’s National Parks

The story of our national parks, sometimes called “America’s best idea,” leaves out a very big group of people. The Ojibwe writer David Treuer is trying to change that.

A black-and-white posed photograph of seated members of the Red Cloud delegation adorned in traditional regalia. Behind them stands a man in a suit.
Red Cloud (seated, center) and other Native American leaders visited President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, but failed to persuade him to honor existing treaties. (Bettmann / Getty)

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The national-park system has been touted as “America’s best idea.” David Treuer, an Ojibwe author and historian, says we can make that idea even better—by giving national parks back to Native Americans.

“By virtue of the parks returning to Native control, I would like people, when they’re standing at the foot of El Capitan, to look up knowing they’re on Native lands, to look up knowing that they’re standing on the graves of Native people,” says Treuer, who grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota as the nearby Voyageurs National Park was being established. “I would like, when people look up at vistas, like at Yosemite or at Yellowstone, that they’d look up as a way to look back at the history of this country.”

Treuer, who wrote the book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present, says that Native Americans are too often precluded from using the land in culturally significant ways that go back millennia. In his essay for The Atlantic, he makes the case that the U.S. should return control of national parks to its Native people.

Further reading: “Return the National Parks to the Tribes”


Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at theexperiment@theatlantic.com.

This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte and Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Matt Collette and Katherine Wells. Fact-check by Jack Segelstein. Sound design by David Herman.

Music by Laundry (“Films”), Parish Council (“Socks Before Trousers” and “Heatherside Stores”), h hunt (“11e” and “Journeys”), and naran ratan (“Trees etc.), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by John Charles Schroeder and Ross Taggart Garren (“Mournful Blues”) and Ken Anderson and Rebecca Ruth Hall (“Calliope - Underscore”). Additional audio from National Geographic, WNYC, PBS, and C-SPAN.


A transcript of this episode is presented below:

(The sounds of geese honking, then a cacophony of other animals cooing and roaring and screeching over organ music. Suddenly, the audio winds down and back.)

Julia Longoria: So, Tracie Hunte!

Tracie Hunte: Hi!

Longoria: What are you go—[Laughs, realizing she jumped right in.] Hi! What are you going to do this summer?

Hunte: So, I’m super pumped because this summer, me and my niece and my niece’s mom, we are going to the Grand Canyon. It’s going to be a girl’s trip. And I’m super excited because this is my first time going to a national park as an adult. And, you know, it’s such a classic American road trip kind of thing.

Longoria: (Chuckles.) It is. It’s, like, the kids whining in the back, like, "Are we there yet?” and then—

Hunte: (Laughingly.) Oh, yeah! No, she is not excited about going to the Grand Canyon. She’s like, “Can’t I just come to New York?”

Longoria: Yeah!

Hunte: And I’m like, “No! We’re going to the Grand Canyon!” (Laughs.)

(Repetitive, breathy keyboard music plays.)

Longoria: Oh my gosh. I remember my little sister being like—I think she was like 5 years old when we went to Yosemite, and we would hike to the top and she’d be like, [Robotically.] “We have witnessed its magnificence, and now we can go home.” [Both laugh.] She was such a precocious little kid.

(The melody grows more complex as the instrumentation grows more resonant.)

Hunte: Well, you know what? Maybe there is something about being an adult and, like, being old, or getting older, and witnessing the magnificence of a beautiful park.

Longoria: Tracie Hunte is a correspondent for The Experiment, and in anticipation of her big trip to the Grand Canyon, she talked to one of The Atlantic’s writers about visiting our national parks.

David Treuer: It’s grand, right? There’s some great views and some interesting, crazy stuff.

Hunte: This is David Treuer.

Treuer: I’m Ojibwe, from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.

Hunte: He’s a historian.

Treuer: And I’m also a professor of English and a writer of books.

Hunte: Last summer, while researching an article for The Atlantic, he went on a road trip to visit several national parks. His kids were with him for some of it, and they stopped in Yellowstone, where there are these huge, colorful pools steaming out of the ground.

Treuer: I was at Yellowstone—

(Rich sounds layer over the melody.)

Treuer: And we’re standing, looking at one of these prismatic pools, and my 13-year-old, he’s like—

(Suddenly, the music slumps, lurching into a trippy, half-speed version of itself.)

Treuer: “Nature’s tripping balls, man.” [Hunte laughs brightly.]—which is not how he usually talks, but it was pretty funny.

Hunte: He was at Yellowstone because he wanted to interrogate what’s often called [A beat.] “America’s best idea.”

(A montage of clips.)

President Barack Obama: Maybe America’s best idea!

Leonard Lopate: America’s best idea.

Ken Burns: It was the best idea we’ve ever had, and almost …

Obama: These spaces are sacred. They are for everyone, and not just for the few. And that we preserve them for future generations …

(The montage fades out, as does the music, to be replaced by a quiet, reverent hum.)

Treuer: The original mythology of national parks is very much one of these really concerned, brilliant white guys—like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir and George Bird Grinnell—saw that America’s sacred spaces, its mountains and its majesty, was being quickly eroded by an unruly, acquisitive Republic, and they needed to be preserved and protected [A beat.] from us so that we could continue to enjoy them, and that these are places we could go to as though they were places of worship.

Europe has cathedrals; we have Yosemite.

(Music fades out.)

Hunte: So it was this idea that we should preserve some of these areas so that future generations of Americans—like you and I—can cram our ungrateful kids [Longoria chuckles.] into the back of a car and make them go see it. (Both laugh.)

(Lilting, folksy music plays.)

National Parks narration: Our national heritage is richer than just scenic features. (A seagull’s cry echoes.)

Hunte: I did watch the Ken Burns …

Treuer: Mhm.

Hunte:National Parks documentary, years ago.

National Parks narration: The realization is coming that perhaps our greatest national heritage [A bird caws.] is nature itself …

Hunte: And I do remember, like, watching, being like, “This is so great. I can't believe that, you know, this country actually came together and did this thing and set aside these lands!”

National Parks narration: With all its complexity and its abundance of life.

Hunte: “Wow! We really, like, did this thing!” It actually makes you feel great.

(A few bright notes from a glockenspiel play, and then the music cuts out.)

Treuer: Well … (A long, pregnant pause. Then both crack up laughing.)

Hunte: You’re like, “Well, the funny thing about that, Tracie, is, uh …”

Treuer: Right? I mean, the Declaration of Independence sounds great too. And so does the Constitution! It just sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

(Lush lo-fi music creates a soft bed of sound underneath the conversation.)

Treuer: Parks seem like this great idea, and they are in so many ways. I’m glad they exist. But in instance after instance, Native people were removed, tricked, defrauded, silenced, and—in short—shoved aside to make those parks.

Hunte: And David says the way we’ve been running our national parks perpetuates this false story about them. So now, he says, it’s time for something different.

(A long moment with no narration. The music plays up.)

Longoria: This week, a conversation between Tracie Hunte and David Treuer about how to make America’s best idea better.

I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.

(Another long moment. The music travels, echoes, quiets.)

Hunte: David grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. It’s near what they call the Mississippi Headwaters Region, and it’s about 100 miles from the border with Canada.

Treuer: The border lakes are basically how we travel—and have traveled for centuries.

Hunte: For generations, Native people would use these waters to visit each other and trade among different villages.

          Treuer: It’s basically a highway—a watery highway.

Hunte: And when he was growing up, a new national park called Voyageurs was opening up right near there.

Treuer: Basically the park was plopped down in our yard.

Hunte: And David says that’s the way a lot of national parks were created all throughout history. You know, I think many Americans imagine these national parks were made out of these untouched, pristine natural landscapes. But that’s not true. People were living there first.

Treuer: Like, Glacier National Park was established exactly on Blackfeet homelands and the Blackfeet Reservation boundary was pushed off of what became Glacier. So they took the land directly away from Blackfeet, and the Blackfeet people weren’t allowed to hunt or fish or trap or harvest timber or worship within the confines of Glacier.

The parks were set up in such a way as to deprive Native people of our homelands and our treaty rights. The parks were just another way of taking, at least from Native people.

Hunte: This pattern would repeat over and over again. Members of the Miwok tribe were murdered at the foot of El Capitan in Yosemite Park. The Everglades? Those were formed from Seminole lands that the tribe depended on for food. The creation of Olympic National Park in Washington meant that the Quinault couldn’t exercise their treaty rights in the park. And the Havasupai and other tribes lost a majority of their land when the Grand Canyon was established.

Treuer: And the story of their founding was “These are places outside the human experience, and so we’re going to exclude the humans who have drawn life from them for centuries.”

As Black Elk, the Oglala Lakota spiritual leader—late part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century—said, “Yeah, the government makes little boxes where they keep all the Indians. Those are reservations. They make little boxes where they keep all the animals, and those are parks.”

Hunte: Hmm.

Treuer: And he didn’t see much of a difference between the two.

Hunte: Wow. Yeah. In that idea, is that “we’re trying to preserve these parks in their natural state,” and that natural state, for some reason, doesn’t include Indians, even though Indians were there?

Treuer: Yeah, there’s this idea that that sort of natural state of nature is somehow not human. When, in fact, like, everything that we think of as being sort of [A breath.] unique about the American landscape—the virgin forests of the Northeast, these towering trees where you enter the forest and you don't see daylight, because the canopy is so complete—those forests were shaped by Native tribes for centuries before Europeans got here through controlled burns as a way to cultivate food sources. That sort of tree-dappled and flowery fields and glens of the Ohio River Valley or the American Southeast looked that way because tribes burned huge parts of the forest to extend prairie and grasslands.

So while Half Dome at Yosemite is really hard to shape—it is a huge rock!—the valley below it was shaped by the tribes of the area as they tried to cultivate acorns as a crop for centuries.

The way that Native people have related to land, you know, like, we understand that it’s not simply something for us to take from or to set aside, but that we have ongoing relationship with it—that we’re implicated in the landscape, and the landscape is implicated and changed by our presence on it.

(Slow, strange string music plays.)

Hunte: By removing Native Americans from those lands, park visitors were allowed to believe that the land was totally natural, untouched by humans. It also allowed park visitors to forget that Native Americans had ever lived there.

(The music fades out.)

Treuer: One of the stories that this country loves to tell itself is that Native people once were and are no longer. That we are, for all intents and purposes, gone. That we are relevant to this country only as part of its past and not as part of its present tense. We are sort of erased from America’s modern moment, conceptually and otherwise.

Every Native person who’s out and about in the world, you know, has a story like this, where people are like, “Whoa, what are you?”

“Well, I'm Native—I’m Native American. I’m from this tribe.”

And people say, “No, you’re not!”

You’re like, “Excuse me?”

“Like, no, you can’t be!”

“Why can’t I be?”

“Well, because we killed all of you.”

That's been [Emphasizes each word.] said to my face.

Hunte: Hmm.

Treuer: And I said, “Well, obviously you missed one, ’cause I’m talking to you.” [Hunte chuckles.] And they’re like, “Well, not really. You’re not real.” You know what I mean? Every Native person has gotten that.

It’s very shocking for people to hear the fact that there were over—I think the number is closer to 7 million people today who identify as Native American. There are twice as many people who identify as Native as those who identify as Muslim American. And there are as many people who identify as Native American in this country than there are those who identify as Jewish.

Most people go through life feeling and believing that we don’t exist, because they’ve never met any of us, or they think of us as existing only in abject poverty on some dusty corner of some reservation someplace.

(Quiet and melancholic, a piano melody slowly meanders.)

Treuer: We’re a big part of America’s myths about itself and its self-conception, but it’s important—for those myths to work—that we not function as part of everyday, modern, evolving America. That's crucial to sort of American self-regard. And we can see that in the way George Bird Grinnell and Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir sort of all did this stuff together.

(The pedals of the piano thump gently as the music envelops the words that follow.)

Hunte: George Bird Grinnell founded the first Audubon Society. He considered himself a “friend” to Native Americans, but also said they had the mind of a child in the body of an adult. Teddy Roosevelt hated Natives, and once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are.” And John Muir, often called the “Father of the National Parks,” never really thought of Native people at all.

Despite their different attitudes toward Native Americans, they all agreed that this vision of this idyllic natural space didn’t include Native Americans.

(The piano line slowly fades away.)

Treuer: I want us to have new fantasies, you know?

Hunte: (Curios.) Hmm?

Treuer: Like, as sweet as it may be—and, you know, that drips with sarcasm—as sweet as it may be that Muir and Roosevelt can hang out in commune in Yosemite Valley not more than 50 years after [A cat purrs in the background.] the tribes of the Valley were butchered, as sweet as that may be, that they can sort of have this near-religious experience going there, I would like a different fantasy.

Hunte: David’s fantasy? Give the parks back.

Treuer: If Native people were given the opportunity to control all the parks, you know,  well, hopefully we’d do a better job!

Hunte: Is it really just that simple? Is this just more like, “We should just try.” [Laughs.] “Why not?”

Treuer: (Lightly, with humor.) Yeah! [Chuckles.] It’s not that simple, of course. But we have a lot of practice in how to manage—and I don't mean sort of historically or spiritually or sort of, you know, in a sappy, mythological kind of way, that we’re natural stewards of the land, but we have a lot of experience.

(High notes play trepidatiously on a piano.)

Hunte: How Native control of national parks could change them, after the break.

(The piano player finds the chords. They’re short and light, and then they resolve.)

(The break.)

(A bird call twitters, then settles into a deep bass note and fades under narration.)

Hunte: You did interview representatives from different Native tribes about this idea. Is this something that Native tribes want to take on? I'm just, you know, as much as [Laughs lightly.] you can, like, extrapolate how hundreds of different tribes in the United States all feel about this one thing [Treuer laughs.], this is a huge ask, I think, for any—

Treuer: Yeah!

Hunte: —community.

Treuer: (After a pause.) I have to start by inserting a whole bunch of caveats, right? [Hunte laughs.] That—

Hunte: Right. Yes, yeah.

Treuer: I speak for no one other than myself. Of course, there are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States. And so [Laughs.] you’re going to get, you know, way more than 500 different opinions on any one thing.

Hunte: (Laughs.) Right!

Treuer: That said, as I floated this idea, my impression is, you know, people are like, “Oh, hell yeah. Yes. Yes. That seems like a great idea.”

One person I was talking to was like, “You know, but to do that, we’d all have to get along,” recognizing that there’s been lots of rivalry and conflict, not just between us and white folk, but between us and other tribes, you know, inter-tribal warfare for centuries. And my response was “No, we don’t. I mean, look at Washington now. Like, white people don’t get along. We’re mature people with lots of experience. We can get it done. We can work an alliance. We have before. We can always do that. We’re not any less capable than anybody else. And, in fact, in some ways, I think we’re more capable.

For example, like, my tribe. [The cat purrs again.] For us, one of our principal and staple foods is wild rice. And it’s still both a big cultural and spiritual activity as well as a way that we get a lot of our food for the year is by going out in canoes and harvesting wild rice.

When I was a kid, my parents forced me—and I say forced, because I hated doing this stuff when I was a kid—they forced me to go harvest wild rice along with my siblings.

And then, I was talking to my mom sometime after college, but I was like, “Mom, you hate riceing.” Because it’s uncomfortable, it’s exhausting. You’re covered in spiders and rice worms and rice beards, which are incredibly itchy. It’s very, very uncomfortable work. And I’m like, “Mom, you hated this stuff. Why did you make me do it? I could tell you hated it, too!” And she said, “Well, I wanted you to go out in the world and be able to get an education and get a good job. But I also wanted you to know sort of how to do the things that helped our people survive for all the centuries before school. And if the world fell apart, or if you fell apart, you could come back here and you would know how to live on and off of the land in the way that our people have done for centuries.”

(Lightly percussive music plays over the sound of running water.)

Treuer: Our relationship to the land is cultural and spiritual. And it's deeply frustrating to be told—frankly, and I'm just speaking about myself, personally—it’s deeply frustrating to be told by a white Park Ranger in a really pointy, cute hat how I can and how I cannot interact with the land that’s been mine far longer than it’s been a National Park, and far longer than it’s been American land.

(A moment of just music and water.)

Treuer: You know, we have the experience and the will to protect land, I think, in ways that other people don’t. (The cat purrs.)

(More music and water.)

Hunte: So if Native people were running, say, Yellowstone, how would my experience change, going to visit?

Treuer: Well, imagine, you know, if a visitor is going to Yosemite, and they cross onto the park and a tribal person is [Laughs lightly.] checking their IDs to let them in, and they know that the park has been returned to Native people, and they’re looking up at El Capitan or Half Dome, and they also know that Miwok Native people were murdered right where they’re standing, and they understand that they’re allowed to be there because this land has been returned to Native control in recognition of everything that has happened over the past few hundred years, it’s gonna shape [Emphasizes each word.] what they see. They’re not going to be just gazing at Half Dome or at El Capitan; they’re going to be gazing at the face of America itself in a sort of honest way that doesn’t elide its dark and troubled history—or its dark and troubled present.

And I really think—in my “What if?”—I really believe that if you are standing, looking at Half Dome, and you are standing in awe of this physical thing, this incredible, beautiful, natural wonder, and you recognize that the only reason you’re being allowed to stand there is because that land has been given back to Native control for very specific historical reasons, you're going to be able to look at that as not just a natural wonder, but you’ll be able to look at it as though you’re looking at the face of this country with a kind of honesty—impossible if we continue business as usual.

(The music emotionally crescendos.)

Hunte: David told me that the Park Service is making a lot of progress in including Native voices in its programming and staffing.

Treuer: And I can’t tell you what a thrill it is for me now to sort of—on my trip—to see Native Park Rangers, like, walking around in the funny hats. [Hunte laughs.] That means something to me!

Hunte: And, also, we did just swear in our first Native American secretary of the interior.

Vice President Kamala Harris: (Speaks to be repeated.) I, Debra Haaland …

Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland: (Repeats.) I, Debra Haaland …

Harris: … do solemnly swear …

Haaland: … do solemnly swear …

Harris: … that I will support and defend …

Haaland: … that I will support and defend …

Hunte: A congresswoman—a former congresswoman now, Deb Haaland—she was just named to the Cabinet. And a big part of her job is gonna be managing our national parks.

Haaland: I will honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America’s story. And I’ll be a fierce advocate for our public lands. I believe we all have a stake in the future of our country …

(The inquisitive melodic line from the earlier crescendo returns, but without the orchestration. It’s stiller now, more introspective.)

Longoria: So, Tracie, what did you think of David Treuer’s idea? Like, how likely is this to happen? Would he give back the national parks on, like, a case-by-case basis? Or is it, like, wholesale, “Give all the national parks to all the Native peoples and they’ll figure out what to do with them”?

Hunte: So, I'm gonna be honest and say that, no, he doesn't really have [Both laugh lightly.] a lot of the details worked out on this, like, granular level.

But, you know, when the national parks started, that also seemed like something that was this big idea that probably wasn’t gonna work. There were too many things standing in the way—for one thing, capitalism and big business and all that stuff. But we still did it! And so I think that's what he wants to do by presenting this. Like, we're gonna have this big idea, and we’re gonna get behind it [Laughs.]—hopefully—and then we’ll work out the details later. You know? So I think that’s what he’s trying to do.

(The music continues for a long moment, joined by the chattering sounds of animals and a woodwind accompaniment.)

Matt Collette: This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte, with editing by Katherine Wells and me, Matt Collette. Fact-check by Jack Segelstein. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels.

The team also includes Gabrielle Berbey, Emily Botein, Julia Longoria, Alvin Melathe, and Natalia Ramirez.

You can find David Treuer’s full essay, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” at our website: http://www.theatlantic.com/experiment. And while you’re online, swing over to Apple Podcasts and leave us a review.

The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.

(The music, surrounded by quiet animal noises, stops as the episode ends.)

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