A Centennial of Possibility – The National Park Service Turns 100

A Centennial of Possibility – The National Park Service Turns 100

One lesson I learned as a small child was this: the American land did not hate. People did. These were the late 1960s, when riots ignited cities across the nation. These were years when journeys with my parents introduced me to national parklands.

Yellowstone. Grand Teton. Badlands.

Sequoia. Kings Canyon. Zion and Bryce. Grand Canyon.

Postcards collected by my seven-year-old self lie within reach as I write these words. Top right drawer of my desk:

grizzly creek falls roaring river falls kings canyon zumwalt meadows general grant tree middle fork & south fork kings river mojave desert amboy crater cronise mountain soda lake joshua tree oasis of mara towers of the virgin zion canyon bryce canyon kaibab forest point imperial bright angel point colorado river lake powell gunsight butte painted desert petrified forest

The card edges are frayed after more than two-score years. Most images show no people.

Western parks and monuments were my refuges from what seemed to be a hate-filled world that made little sense. By the age of ten I wanted to be a ranger, to wear the uniform and hat, to tell stories about this land. But I began to wonder whose stories mattered and whose “public lands” these were. Rarely did I see brown-skinned people like me. Rarely were people of color lead actors in park narratives told to me. Custer Battlefield National Monument presented a story of the United States losing a battle but winning the war against an “Indian” other. At times I felt betrayed by the parklands I loved.

In this centennial year, it seems just as necessary to face the fraught history of the National Park System as it is to celebrate the parks and their civic value. But how do we recognize a system that contains some of the nation’s most significant historical, scenic, geological, and ecological areas? A few of my friends plan to add to their checklists of units visited, the goal to “bag” every one. I want to acknowledge more. Park service holdings are among America’s most prominent sites of memory. From iconic “wilderness” parks to monuments, memorials, battlefields, historical parks, and more, their making—and the elements preserved within them—are crucial pieces of this nation’s still unfolding history, pieces tied to often unspoken and unexamined narratives about what and who we are.

Wilderness, as an idea and as preserved land, never existed apart from human experience or from policies that bounded land and people. Consider Yellowstone. In 1872, Congress made it the first national park, a “wonderland” removed from the grasps of private interests and set aside as a “pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Yet the park lay within ancestral homelands of Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, “Sheep Eater,” and other tribal groups. Their presence and intimate knowledge of this volcanic landscape contradicted a public myth voiced even today: that “Indians” so feared geysers and hot springs they avoided the area. The U.S. Army would remove these peoples to reservations. And the park’s first superintendent would declare, “Yellowstone is not Indian country.”

Whose country was it? After visiting from Great Britain in 1874, the Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl declared Yellowstone “accessible to all who have leisure, money, and inclination to travel.” Yet touring travelers of means also encountered African Americans—not as privileged visitors but as servants, as hotel waiters, and as Buffalo Soldiers whom a segregated military preferred to restrict to remote posts. Black troops of the 25th Infantry Regiment even bicycled 800 miles round trip between the park and Fort Missoula in 1896 as part of an army experiment to determine if cycles could be used for military purposes.

And Indigenous peoples would be displaced again and again. The Ahwahneechee and related groups were pushed out of Yosemite Valley at different times, starting in 1851 by a California militia. In June of 1864, following three years of Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, giving the valley and nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” Bit by bit, after Yosemite became a national park in 1890 to well within in my lifetime, Native residents would be forced out of the valley even as they tried to use the courts to acknowledge their land rights. While a physical Indigenous presence decreased, public narratives in this and other parks began to invoke a “vanished Indian.”

Buffalo Soldiers were there, too, a century and more ago when the U.S. Army administered Sierra Nevada parklands. About five hundred African American troops mainly from the 9th Cavalry and 24th Infantry regiments patrolled Yosemite, Sequoia, and what would become Kings Canyon National Parks. One of them, Charles Young, was the third African American to graduate with a commission from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He would briefly serve as acting superintendent of Sequoia. While posted in the Sierra parks these troops kept illegal stock grazing, timber cutting, and poaching in check. They fought forest fires. They built the first park trail to the top of Mount Whitney, highest point in the lower forty-eight states. They completed a wagon road to Sequoia’s Giant Forest, giving visitors access for the first time. Yet their achievements as park stewards went unheralded until recent years—thanks to efforts of people like Shelton Johnson, an interpretive ranger at Yosemite.

In the last few decades the National Park Service has added broader contexts and a range of voices to existing units. The now renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument presents more sides than Custer Battlefield did when I first visited as a child. Additional sites have been established to recognize the heritage, history, and culture of Native Americans, African Americans, “American Latinos,” Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. The home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass became part of the park system in 1962. The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail was added in 1996 to trace the momentous 1965 civil rights march. César E. Chávez National Monument was designated in 2012 to honor this leader of the farm worker movement. There are many more.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, dedicated in 2007, is the only park service unit with “massacre” in its name. It recognizes an early November morning in 1864 when Colorado volunteer soldiers attacked a large Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment there. Troops and territory settlers would memorialize what happened as a glorious battle against hostile foes. To survivors it was a massacre of about two-hundred companions, mostly women, children, and elderly. The park service plans to develop, in partnership with Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, inclusive programs to help visitors understand still contested histories and continuing repercussions of violence that “changed the Great Plains forever.”

And Manzanar War Relocation Center, in California’s Owens Valley, served as one of several camps that interned Japanese American citizens and resident “aliens” during the Second World War. Manzanar National Historic Site is the first of the camps to open (in 1992) as an interpretive center under the park service. The site tries not only to preserve stories of internment and earlier relocations but to “serve as a reminder to this and future generations of the fragility of American civil liberties.” Manzanar still stirs deep emotions.

Inhabiting the same time, sharing a past, doesn’t mean sharing common experiences or points of view. No single narrative can ever claim authority as the American story. In this centennial year of the National Park Service, I will acknowledge the origins of the park system. But it’s also crucial to honor the agency’s recent work and promise. More comprehensive approaches to presenting the American experience are leading visitors to think about the contexts and consequences of sometimes painful histories. And I think the park system as a whole offers a collective possibility to help us, the public, recognize legacies of the past that live in our present. With such lessons we might come to know each other and our place in this land a little better.

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