Supplementary Reading: American Indians and National Parks

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Growing up on the East Coast made national parks a difficult concept for me to understand. A friend used to tell me about spending summers at her grandmother’s home in Grand Junction, Colorado, where her grandmother’s backyard was the Colorado National Monument. I only understood the word ‘monument’ as in a memorial, such as the Washington Monument, and was confused about why anyone would care to live near it, until I saw this picture:[1]


My ignorance about the West also extends to national parks. Reading American Indians and National Parks by Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek helped me understand the scale of national parks in that part of the country (Keller and Turek do not study only western parks, but most of the parks they study are in the West). For example, Glacier National Park in Montana is made up of 1,012,837 acres and contains 762 lakes.[2] While it may seem that there was enough land in the West for both parks and Indian tribes, Keller and Turek demonstrate why that is a myth and expose the complicated story of the United States government’s appropriation of tribal land. What Keller and Turek do for Indian tribes, Karl Jacoby does for “common folk” more generally in Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. After explaining Keller and Turek’s book, I will consider their history in light of Jacoby’s study.

Keller and Turek tell the story of the changing relationships between the Indian tribes who lived in or around the parks and the National Parks Service (NPS) and environmentalists between 1864 and 1994. They fill a void in scholarship by examining the formation of national parks through the perspective of the native people who lived in or around the parks in the United States. The authors assert that, though scholars have studied national parks and American Indians separately, the connection between them has largely been ignored, to the detriment of both fields. Keller and Turek focus their research on what they call the “crown jewels” of the parks system—including Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park—nearly all of which have had disputes with native peoples concerning ownership and use of park land.[3]

Keller and Turek tell a hopeful story about the relationship between the NPS and Indian tribes; though the NPS has not always understood or treated American Indians well, policy and “awareness and sensitivity” have improved since the 1960s. Keller and Turek tell a less hopefully story about the relationship between conservationists and native peoples. By the end, the authors conclude, “honest dialogue can help idealists realize that protecting land is no simple matter.” Keller and Turek seek to “dispense with stereotypes of the Indian-as-ecologist/Indian-as-victim, and cease seeing tribal members as colorful, nostalgic versions of environmentalists themselves.” By understanding the culture and history of Indian tribes and the history of Indian tribes’ relationships to national parks, Keller and Turek demonstrate that fair policy is possible in theory: policy that takes into account not only the environment, but also the people who lived on and off of the land prior to the establishment of national parks. They also acknowledge that this is rarely, if ever, realized in practice.[4]

For sources, Keller and Turek rely on individual national parks’ archival sources, government documents, and a series of interviews the two authors conducted with Native Americans. The history is largely a bureaucratic one: the NPS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian tribes—not individual people, but institutions—are the actors in the story. However, since Indian tribes were underrepresented politically, Keller and Turek gave them a collective voice by interviewing individual Native Americans.[5] The book’s focus on bureaucracy, though, makes reading American Indians and National Parks dull; quotations from the interviews are among the few highlights of the book.

In the conclusion to American Indians and National Parks, Keller and Turek list several general phases of relations between national parks and Indian tribes. The first phase started in 1864 with the beginning of the federal government’s seizure of land for parks and continued for fifty years after the establishment of the NPS in 1916. Keller and Turek note that this period was characterized by unfettered appropriation of land and “little genuine concern for native rights.” Next, there was a phase that was marked by Native American success in promoting their political interest, from the 1960s to the 1980s. Finally, the period beginning in 1987 with the NPS formulation of the Native American Relationships Management Policy, the service adopted a policy promising to “respect and actively promote tribal cultures as a component of the parks themselves.” [6] Although these stages indicate tidy progress in NPS and tribal relations, it was not a period of strictly upward progress. Keller and Turek emphasize the differences between each tribe and park, and include backward moments. No two situations were the same, but the authors tell a story of eventual progress. It would have been helpful if Keller and Turek had split the chapters into sections so these phases were clear from the beginning. Since they only explained the phases at the end of the book, the independent chapters had no context and it proved difficult to reconstruct Keller and Turek’s argument while reading the book.

Keller and Turek begin the book with the hopeful chapter ,“‘A Lucky Compromise’: Apostle Islands and the Chippewa,” about the 1970 victory of the Chippewa in protecting their reservation’s land on the national stage.[7] This chapter is contrasted with the next: “From Yosemite to Zuni: Parks and Native People, 1864-1994,” which presents a bleaker picture of relations between tribes and the NPS. In its infancy, the NPS was a flawed institution, according to Keller and Turek. The NPS “bequeathed distortions and ignorance about native history” in founding and maintaining its parks.[8] These chapters set the scene for the case studies that compose the rest of the book.

In summary, chapter three addresses the paradox of artifact preservation coinciding with ignoring the living native peoples through the example of the Utes in Mesa Verde National Park. Chapter four deals land usage rights among the Blackfeet in Glacier National Park. Chapter five explores the relations between Paiutes and Mormons in controlling Pipe Spring. Chapter six attends to the problems that arose because of multiple tribes in a locale, as demonstrated in Olympic National Park and the surrounding area. Chapters seven and eight examine the tensions between conservationists and native tribes in using and controlling the Grand Canyon. Chapters nine and ten tell the stories of the Navajo and the Seminoles, respectively. Though these chapters are full of information, the text wants a more analytic voice to drive the argument. As it is, Keller and Turek are content to describe, and rarely argue.

Since Crimes against Nature studies the case of the Havasupai in the Grand Canyon, I will summarize Keller and Turek’s history of the Havasupai in Grand Canyon National Park in chapter eight as a reference to compare the stories told by the two books (though they address different periods). After giving a brief history of the Havasupai in the Grand Canyon area, Keller and Turek describe the Congressional bill transferring land to the tribe. From 1974 to 1976, a political fight broke out between the Havasupai and environmentalists who opposed the measure. Environmentalists were concerned that “the Havasupai, being poor, would place economic development ahead of preservation” and that the Grand Canyon was a national park in that it belonged to the American people, not the Havasupai. The land transfer bill eventually passed, but it stipulated that “transferred land ‘shall remain forever wild’” without an indication of what “forever wild” meant. Keller and Turek analyze the relationship between native tribes and environmentalists. The authors posit that conservationists believed that “The Grand Canyon … transcends humanity,” which means that no humans, not even native tribes, belong there. Second, Keller and Turek debunk the “Indian as Environmentalist” myth, arguing that it “freezes Indians as an idea and artifact” instead of treating them as a dynamic people. Finally, Keller and Turek acknowledge that the Canyon could have been better preserved if environmentalists had their way, but that situation would have made it “no longer be an Indian community or homeland for its people.”[9] The authors reveal their belief in the impossibility of reconciling the interests of native tribes and environmentalists.

American Indians and National Parks addresses themes that Jacoby also addresses, including the concept of “national” parks versus local spaces and environmental versus social justice. Where Jacoby’s stances are clear, Keller and Turek’s must be teased out of the text. Analogs to Jacoby’s opinions can be found in American Indians and National Parks, though. “Americans have often pursued environmental quality at the expense of social justice,” Jacoby claims. [10] Keller and Turek’s book also demonstrates this: though the NPS has improved its policies since 1916, conservationists have resisted deeply considering human interests in forming policy. The idea of local versus national control is present in both books. Jacoby demonstrates this by contrasting common Adirondack land use practices with how wealthy sportsmen and the state of New York used the land. In Keller and Turek’s view, this played out through the NPS control of native tribal lands. In both, there is an implicit recognition that local control was often superior to national in terms of environmental health. This directly counters Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, which is necessarily a national story of “Americanization.” Finally, Keller and Turek agree with Jacoby about man’s place in nature: both books include humans as an unavoidable, if not ideal, part of the natural world.



Jacoby, Karl. Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden
History of 
American Conservation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Keller, Robert H. and Michael F. Turek. American Indians and National Parks. Tucson:
The University of Arizona Press, 1998.


[1] Sally Bellacqua, Monument Canyon,

[2] Glacier National Park Fact Sheet,

[3] Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek, American Indians and National Parks (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998), xv, xii-xiii.

[4] Keller and Turek, 232-240.

[5] Keller and Turek, 241-242.

[6] Keller and Turek, 233-234.

[7] Keller and Turek, 3-16.

[8] Keller and Turek, 17-29.

[9] Keller and Turek, 164-184.

[10] Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 198.

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