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Ancestral lands: native Americans seek to restore treaty rights to worship and hunt in many national parks.

ASK THE OJIBWE to tell you about the legends of Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, or the Miwok to recall their ancestral roots in Yosemite, or the shy Havasupais to describe prayers they still offer spirits in the Grand Canyon. Ask them, or dozens of other Indian nations across the United States, to articulate their connections to national parks, and all will reveal the same answer: Native Americans do not need national park boundaries to remind them that certain places are holy and inviolate. They know this as part of their religion.

"Kinship with all creatures of the Earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle," Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota Sioux said in 1933. "The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man's heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too. So, he kept his youth close to its softening influence."

For tens of centuries, Indians throughout the country worshiped and subsisted on lands that are now included within national parks, and today some of those tribes want to restore rights to more actively use the sites for religious and other purposes.

Michael Turek, a land-use historian who has investigated past relationships between Indians and the National Park Service (NPS), says some tribes carry a festering resentment about insensitive treatment at the hands of NPS as well as the federal government. Among the more prominent examples of mistreatment was the banishment from Yellow-stone of aboriginal peoples when the world's first national park was created.

Though few would argue that past relationships with the government have been ideal, kinship with the land and spiritual fulfillment are not the only reasons Indians are seeking to expand rights to use the parks. According to Turek, the majority of tribes with claims to park sites believe these lands could yield opportunities for co-management, operation of lucrative concessions, and perhaps the chance to bargain for a share of the money generated through gate receipts. Some tribal activists see the assertion of land claims within national parks as one means of improving the standard of living at reservations, which are among the poorest communities in North America.

In 1992 the Blackfeet of northern Montana filed a lawsuit against the Park Service and the Department of the Interior, asking to restore the tribe's rights as outlined in an 1895 treaty. The Indians have sued to regain the ability to hunt, fish, log, and graze livestock, as well as to operate tourist ventures in Glacier National Park, which abuts their reservation. The lawsuit, which is still pending, could have ramifications for many Western national parks, where treaties never clearly stated what would happen to Indian land if it became part of the National Park System. In the past, Congress has had the authority to change agreements made in these treaties. According to Natural Resources & Environment, a journal of the American Bar Association, "An established principle of Indian and non-Indian law alike is that governments have the power to change their minds; treaties may be abrogated by one side acting alone. [However,] that is not to say that abrogation of Indian treaty rights imposes no liability on the government."

The Park Service potentially could be dealing with as many as 120 different Indian tribes, and a ruling that favors the Blackfeet could open a Pandora's box for the agency. Although the Park Service generally has prevented Indian subsistence and development activities on parklands in the lower 48 states, subsistence is legislatively permitted on most parklands in Alaska.

"At the time national parks were established, no one foresaw that there would someday be conflict," says Turek, who studied the issue for the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. "Late in the 19th century, when the groundwork was being laid for national parks, it was assumed by park architects that Indians were a vanishing race and wouldn't be around long enough to argue with the taking of their land."

But Indians, Turek says, have proved the government wrong. By visiting Indian reservations bordering parks, Turek found that many tribal societies have continued using these areas as spiritial sites, to harvest native plants, and to hunt. "Hunting goes on secretly in a number of parks. It's as much a part of tradition as it is necessity."

Some people contend that the National Park Service should face up to this issue squarely. John Cook, NPS Southwest regional director and the highest-ranking Park Service administrator with Indian blood, has suggested that NPS issue regulations to permit limited Indian use of park resources. Cook delivered an address during a George Wright Society conference last fall suggesting that such a proposal was well meaning. "However, [NPS] must carefully weigh any proposal that lessens the protection afforded the resources of the National Park System."

For the Indians, regaining use of parklands concerns more than policy or economics. It is a matter of maintaining a culture that has been assailed relentlessly for the past three centuries. Tribal elders say that religion cannot exist without access to sacred homelands, such as those contained within parks, and without religion, native rituals and languages will not survive into the next century.

Some rituals involve collecting plants for medicines and herbal remedies. Native Americans have used plants in medicinal mixtures for thousands of years, and the parks--which, for the most part, have escaped cultivation and the use of herbicides--are among the few places the plants thrive. They play an important role in preserving Indian culture, not only because of their healing power, but because each carries an Indian name, providing a link to the language.

"There are close ties between our languages, our religion, and the land. If we don't have our languages, we can't sing our sacred songs and practice our religion," says Patricia Locke, a member of both the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Language Institute.

The Worldwatch Institute estimates that one-third of all native languages in North America have disappeared, most of them since the beginning of this century. Some ethnographers suggest a connection exists between the loss of language and the forced removal of the Indians from homelands. Of the 187 remaining native languages, 45 are "in a state of morbidity," Locke says. "There may, in some cases, be only three elderly speakers left and once they die the language is gone forever. We think we may be losing as many as six languages a year."

The U.S. government did not actively engage in exiling native peoples from Western lands until 1872 when Yellowstone became a national park. During the three decades before that, the government established a series of treaties with the Blackfeet, the Shoshone-Bannock, and the Crows, guaranteeing each tribe the right to hunt and subsist within parklands. For many years, the only reminders to visitors of the indigenous peoples who once inhabited park areas were cheap goods sold in gift shops, such as war bonnets and rubber tomahawks.

Another, more troubling, issue for Indians has been the exploitation of places they perceive as sacred. Indian activists consider Mount Rushmore National Memorial--where stone visages of four U.S. presidents are carved into a granite mountainside--a desecration and an insult. The Black Hills of South Dakota, where the memorial is located, are considered by the plains Indians to be the center of their religion. "That was really like pouring salt into an open wound," said Tim Giago, a Sioux Indian and publisher of the Lakota Times.

And Mount Rushmore is not an isolated example. The rights of native peoples over homelands have been ignored for a long time by a variety of official agencies around the world. According to an article by Alan Thein Durming that appeared in Guardians of the Land: Indigenous Peoples and the Health of the Earth, a Worldwatch publication, "Few states recognize indigenous peoples' rights over homelands, and where they do, those rights are often partial, qualified, or of dubious legal status."

As recently as six years ago, the National Congress of American Indians--the oldest and largest organization of Indian peoples in the country--attacked the Park Service for not addressing matters of religious freedom, particularly in protecting graves and artifacts on federal land. The National Parks and Conservation Association has also pressured the Park Service to be more responsible in interpreting Indian culture, involving Native Americans in planning and managing the parks, and in protecting Indian spiritual interests.

Similar issues are being raised around the glove, generating enough attention among world leaders that the United Nations has declared 1993 "The International Year of Indigenous Peoples."

Although the Park Service's record on Indian relations may not be exemplary, attempts have been made to improve them. Park Service officials say more than 40 park units currently feature as a primary theme Native American culture, which is highlighted at many more sites through interpretation.

Throughout the park system, examples exist of increasing cooperation between the Park Service and Indian tribes. In the Grand Canyon, the superintendent has a special liaison to Native Americans; at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, Navajos constitute specialized work crews that repair Anasazi ruins; and in Everglades National Park in Florida the Seminoles have been partners with NPS and environmentalists in defending the park's water rights.

The Park Service also has made efforts to hire more Native American rangers, involve Indians in planning and management, develop programs to accommodate Indians who want to use parks for religious worship, and aggressively prosecute vandals who damage or desecrate sacred sites. Otis Halfmoon, a member of the Nez Perce tribe, says sentiments between the Park Service and Indians have vastly improved within the past decade. As a youth, he heard stories about the agency refusing to heed warnings from Nez Perce elders and bulldozing a road through a tribal graveyard.

Halfmoon was recently hired as a ranger at Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana, where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce succeeded in driving back the U.S. cavalry sent to move the tribe to a reservation. "It's about time that we have Indians here to help interpret these sites," he says. "There have been some emotional bruises and black eyes, but I have become impressed with the Park Service because it is helping us save our history."

For Michael Turek, the idea of bringing together national parks and native cultures goes back 160 years. In 1832, painter George Catlin imagined the lands west of the Mississippi River serving as a refuge where indigenous peoples "were preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the Native Indian." Although Catlin's vision was dehumanizing because it sought to turn Indians into living artifacts preserved in a vast outdoor museum, it nevertheless conveyed the inseparability of native peoples and the land.

Four years ago, 40 Park Service rangers, many of them Native Americans, founded the Council for American Indian Interpretation to try to meld the differing philosophies of the Park Service and the various tribes. "The mission of the Park Service is remarkably parallel to the attitudes of the Indian people," says Ailema Benally, a Navajo and a ranger at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico. "But there needs to be greater awareness of who the Park Service is. Many Indian people see it as merely another layer of government bureaucracy."

NPS Southwest Regional Director John Cook is part Cherokee, and under his charge the Southwest region hired the first NPS Indian liaison officer. "A lot of people say this country was founded on liberty, and they suggest the best idea America ever had was [its] national parks," says Cook. "But for the people who occupied the continent when Columbus arrived, it has taken a long time for them to experience liberty and to truly enjoy the national parks."

Of the 41 park units in the sprawling Rocky Mountain region, every one holds some historic significance to some 51 different nations that occupy the inner West, says Robert Baker, NPS regional director based in Denver, Colorado. Baker says his agency is sincere this time in its attempt to acknowledge Indian needs. To back up his promise, he recently hired Barbara Booher, former superintendent at Little Bighorn National Battlefield Park in Montana, to serve as a liaison to tribal governments. A Ute-Cherokee, Booher is the highest-ranking Native American woman in the Park Service. "She is a role model who makes the parks more accessible to Indian people at a time when they sometimes feel left out," says Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.).

As a park superintendent, Booher was instrumental in persuading Congress to change the name of Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn National Battlefield Park. Although the battle at the Montana site was a legendary triumph for the Indians, the battlefield was named in honor of General George Custer, who along with many in the Seventh Calvary, was killed here. Despite resistance, Booher and Campbell--himself a Cheyenne whose great-grandfather fought in the battle--took their pleas to Congress. NPCA supported the name change, which Booher and Campbell say is a small step toward making amends.

As part of a continuing move toward redress, the Park Service recently completed a $120,000 study at the request of the Lakota Sioux tribe to outline options for managing Wounded Knee in South Dakota as part of the park system. At this spot in 1890, the U.S. cavalry killed more than 300 Sioux in a tragic episode widely regarded by historians as a seminal event in American history. Legislation to establish a cooperative NPS-Sioux park site has been introduced in Congress.

"Wounded Knee could be a model for NPS-tribal cooperation in a national park," says David Simon, NPCA's natural resources program manager. "It's an opportunity for the tribe to decide what happens at this extremely sensitive place and to capitalize on the expertise of NPS and the prominence of the National Park System to help preserve Sioux culture."

Sen. Campbell says he believes the cooperation begun during the past few years will become even more evident in the future. "I'm absolutely convinced you will see more thoughtfulness with regard to Indian issues than what we have seen during the Reagan-Bush years. There will be an open-door policy for Indians in the White House," Campbell says. "I think national parks can be helpful tools. In many ways, it's a rare chance for tribes to control their own destiny."
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Author:Wilkinson, Todd
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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