“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.”