A True History: The Birth of Our National Parks

Getty Images

The creation of our beloved national parks has a more conflicted story than is usually ever told. Now it’s finally coming to light.

When Alisha Deegan of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation started as a young park interpreter at Mount Rushmore in 2005, the prospect of giving her first talk about the history of broken Indian treaties to the mostly white visitors filled her with trepidation. For Native Americans, Mount Rushmore is one of the most tragic sites in the entire national park system: The Lakota Sioux were violently evicted from the Black Hills of South Dakota in violation of an 1868 treaty and herded onto remote, dismal reservations. The new white “owners” carved the faces of four presidents onto the sacred mountainside in the 1930s, as if in mockery. It was not the noble, patriotic saga that many in Deegan’s audience expected at the iconic site. “There were violent reactions,” Deegan recalls today. “Some visitors complained. Some just walked away. Others cried. People didn’t want to hear it. They said, ‘That’s not what America is!’ But it’s a huge part of the story.”

Over time, Deegan discovered, visitors became more receptive to the Indian perspective at Mount Rushmore, as they did at many national parks, which were created on lands taken from their original owners, often with bloody military campaigns. “It’s a hard history to hear but people are more open to it now,” she says.

Related: Top Luxury Travel Itineraries in the U.S. National Parks

Since the summer of 2020, there has been a burst of energy behind retelling the story of national parks from a Native perspective, even within the park system itself. “I’ve noticed a change just in the last few months,” says Deegan, who is today the acting superintendent of Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota. “Black Lives Matter has helped push forward these stories we’ve always wanted to talk about. Visitors are asking more questions. The National Park Service is thinking, how can we do things better? There are discussions about tribal history throughout the parks.”

“BLM has given everyone an opening,” agrees Gerard Baker, a Mandan Hidatsa who became one of the first Native American superintendents in the park service in 1993 and was managing Mount Rushmore when Deegan was cutting her teeth. (He is now retired, but remains vocal.) “It’s good for Black people, it’s good for tribal people, it’s good for Hispanic people. Young folks are fired up. It’s really positive.”

Back in the 1970s, the American Indian Movement brought the dire situation of tribal people onto national headlines by occupying Mount Rushmore and Alcatraz prison and by attempting to land on Ellis Island in New York Harbor. At the same time, historians were reassessing the bitter story of settlement in the U.S. West. (Dee Brown’s groundbreaking Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970.) The national parks were an inseparable part of the gloomy history: The establishment of the first, Yellowstone, in 1872, was followed by the exclusion of the Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow, who had used it for centuries. Other beloved Western parks had similar origins: The Blackfeet were removed to create Glacier, the Yosemite Indians from Yosemite. The popular image of the parks as “uninhabited wilderness” meant ignoring Native Americans.

When Gerard Baker joined the NPS in 1974 as a summer worker at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota, he found that “Native American history in most parks just didn’t exist,” he recalls. “The staff didn’t know how to talk about it. I never saw Indian people in the service, or visiting. It was a pure white organization, as far as I was concerned.” Other parks openly rewrote history. Otis Halfmoon of the Nez Perce in Idaho, who spent 25 years in the NPS and became a top tribal liaison officer, remembers reading old texts from Yellowstone when he first started: “It used to make me laugh. It said Indian people didn’t go there because they believed it was a ‘place of devils.’ They were afraid of the geysers and mud pools. What a bunch of nonsense! Indian sacred sites were all over the region, and the Native people used them for rituals.” The reservation system made it easy for mainstream culture to forget about Native Americans, Halfmoon adds. “Back in the 1970s, four words summed up our message: We are still here! In the national parks, Indian culture was categorized under anthropology or prehistory, something that occurred long ago, in the distant past.”

A few parks became natural flash points. Some white history buffs were furious in 1991 when the name of Custer Battlefield National Monument—scene of the West’s most famous battle, where General George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were wiped out by Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho—was changed to the more inclusive Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. “I wasn’t leaving out Custer—he’s obviously part of the story,” says Baker, who was superintendent there soon after. “I was opening the door, bringing in Indian people to explain what the battle meant to us.” He added, “It still affects us. A hundred and fifty years later, we’re still living in reservations.” Similar outrage erupted in 2003 when an Indian memorial was opened some 50 yards from Last Stand Hill, with a metal sculpture depicting Spirit Warriors on horseback—although today, like the name change, it is accepted, according to Baker.

“Even today, a lot of white people assume that ‘history’ began when European colonists arrived,” says Deegan. Many visitors to the Mandan villages in her park, Knife River, are amazed to learn that they were built in the 1300s. “We need to change the narrative.”