“The idea of a virgin American wilderness—an Eden untouched by humans and devoid of sin—is an illusion. The national parks are sometimes called ‘America’s best idea,’ and there is much to recommend them. They are indeed awesome places, worthy of reverence and preservation, as Native Americans like me would be the first to tell you. But all of them were founded on land that was once ours, and many were created only after we were removed, forcibly, sometimes by an invading army and other times following a treaty we’d signed under duress.”
In “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic's May issue, writer David Treuer makes a forceful moral case that, after centuries of staggering devastation and disadvantage inflicted on Indigenous tribes, the jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples. Treuer’s cover story is the cornerstone of a special series from The Atlantic launching today—“Who Owns the Wilderness?”—that seeks to help Americans see their wildlands anew.
More than 100 years after John Muir first made the case for the national parks in The Atlantic’s pages, in 1897, the new reporting series “Who Owns the Wilderness?” strives to reckon with the legacy of America’s wilderness as a place set apart from the human world. In an introduction to the series, deputy editor Ross Andersen calls the idea “a fine sentiment, except that Muir’s most beloved peaks, canyons, and forests were empty because they’d been depopulated by force within his own living memory.” Treuer’s cover story, Andersen adds, “will give readers a full view of the parks’ past, and a compelling vision of their potential future.”
For the cover, Treuer writes that while some Native Americans, like himself, remain near the parks, and are of the parks, the land is not theirs. “We live in a time of historical reconsideration, as more and more people recognize that the sins of the past still haunt the present,” he writes. “For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend—and protect and preserve—these favored gardens again.”
Ultimately, he argues, all 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States. “The total acreage would not quite make up for the General Allotment Act, which robbed us of 90 million acres, but it would ensure that we have unfettered access to our tribal homelands. And it would restore dignity that was rightfully ours. To be entrusted with the stewardship of America’s most precious landscapes would be a deeply meaningful form of restitution.”
“Return the National Parks to the Tribes” is accompanied by stunning photographs taken by Katy Grannan in March in Glacier National Park and on the Blackfeet Reservation, in Montana. In addition to Treuer’s cover story, two additional essays are published today as part of “Who Owns the Wilderness?” Michelle Nijhuis’s “Don’t Cancel John Muir” confronts Muir’s legacy directly, and an essay by Emma Marris, “The Wilderness in Nature Documentaries Is a Fantasyland,” takes on the distortions of high-tech nature documentaries, and how they alter the way people experience wilderness.
As Andersen writes, “John Muir gave Americans a new sacred story about the wild. His story did not recognize the humanity of America’s indigenous peoples, or the meaning of their long tenure on this portion of the Earth. And yet, it was in some ways remarkably indigenous in spirit. With this series, we hope to make notes toward a new synthesis, a more expansive story about the American wild and all those who have called it home.”
“Return the National Parks to the Tribes” is online at TheAtlantic.com today and on the cover of the May issue.