This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the National Parks Service. Tourists from around the world vacation to American national parks, to marvel at the wonders of our natural world. And yet, those national parks are so much more than beautiful lands and the breathtaking works of our Creator. They are some of the most sacred spaces to Native Americans, and each space, carries our stories, and our teachings.
I’ve been to a handful of these beautiful parks, and had the tremendous privilege of breathing in the clean air that comes down off of the mountains, or rushes through the valleys of places like Yellowstone, or Glacier National Park. And when I breathe in that air, I think of my ancestors who that very land was not only just as beautiful to, but to them that land was powerful, and inextricably linked to their wellbeing as indigenous people who were connected to every element of our surroundings.
Yellowstone National Park. Courtesy Russ Finley, yellowstone.net.
Those national parks, today, remain some of the most pristine and beautiful lands in the country. Lands that once were and still are sacred to so many. Lands where ceremonies of thanks giving took place long ago; places of regeneration and community healing.
These lands are sacred to all indigenous people, and I know it in my bones. This is how I know.
Growing up, my family would take annual excursions into the mountains, or deep into the Owyhee Canyonlands of southern Idaho. My dad seemed to know all of the best places to camp, but more importantly, he knew the significance of all these places. He made sure to tell us the stories, and in doing so, he instilled a deep sense of reverence for the many places we visited. Every place was sacred.
My dad pointed out landmarks. He told us about battle grounds, and the Bannock War, hiding places of our ancestors in war times with the U.S. cavalry, and places of prayer during those tumultuous times in our history. He told stories about his dad, traveling and hunting those same lands and mountains. He walked us up to sacred sites, and we visited those places of prayer, places marked by rock formations or petroglyphs on rock walls.
It was magic. This is how he connected us to place.
Even on car drives, as we would drive by distinct buttes on the land of white ranchers or potato farmers, my dad would tell us, “My girls, that’s a sacred place right up there.” As we passed by, I would watch that passing butte in wonder.
I wondered, longingly, what happened there? Which of our ancestors walked up that butte, and when they got there, what did they pray for? What did they do? What songs did they sing, and what did they see?
Early on, I was made to feel appreciative of land and to always think of our connection to it. And to always be conscientious of what that land must have meant to our ancestors. And if it meant something to them then, so much that their lives paid for it, so much that they made songs about those places, made annual pilgrimages to those places, to gather, and pray, and harvest food and medicines — those places must still be sacred.
As I looked upon those lands, as a young girl, I realized that they are forever marked by the footsteps and essence of my ancestors. My mind and heart were changed forever.
My mother would likewise point out significant sites as we passed by them on the highway, like the hot springs where her grandmother would go to bathe and pray. Those hot springs, as we passed by them while my mom shared story, were obviously now within the boundaries of white landowners. Those lands were off limits to us, but still sacred, no matter how out of reach. I would look at the steam rise off of the hot springs in the distance, and imagine my great grandmother there, praying in our language.
As I grew older, I remember traveling to new parts of the country, and almost immediately upon recognizing the beauty of the landscapes which were new to me, I knew, this land was once sacred to someone. It must still be. Who was it sacred to? Who walked here?
Forever changed. Forever seeing through the lens of reverence for land and those connected to it, longing to know, who exactly was this land sacred to, and what is their story?
Well the simple answer that I know intuitively, wherever I go, is that all of this land is sacred, and it was just as sacred before to indigenous peoples, just as it is now. Indigenous peoples whose stories tie them to each and every land mark, each plant, each animal, and each body of water, and each part of creation, carries with it a multitude of lessons about life. This is why place, is sacred.
And as it turns out, the national park boundaries often encircle some of the most distinct, and the most powerful of our sacred places. The highest mountain peaks, the most breath taking and jagged mountain ranges, the most pristine valleys, bubbling hot springs that smell of medicines deep within the Earth as the steam rises off of the water surface, natural geysers that peak our deepest curiosity, deeply carved canyons with brightly colored rocks, astounding rock formations, waterfalls, and prairies of flowers.
Those lands are our most sacred spaces. And because those are now federal lands, our access to them, as indigenous people, our access is limited.
I wonder, longingly. I wonder when I drive through Yellowstone, what did my ancestors call this place? How did they explain this natural phenomenon, this utter inexplicable beauty? Many of our stories are lost, or at minimum, hidden by layers of colonization and forced assimilation. But I want to know. I want to find out. What was our story?
My heart aches, equally in appreciation, and still a longing for the health and wellbeing that our people once had when they were connected to this land. And as I look around at the majesty of Yellowstone, and then I consider that today, our communities struggle with both physical and spiritual poverty, my heart is sad. Yellowstone. Bitter sweet, for me, a Native American woman.
Chief Tendoy, second from right, and Bannock of Indians, whose homelands consisted of what is today, Yellowstone National Park. Courtesy yellowstone.net.
Visiting American national parks stirs up those bitter sweet emotions, each and every time. And don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that these lands are protected today. Grateful that I get to experience their wonder, perhaps with the same visual experience of ancestors. And yet I’m torn, conflicted, and sad. Such is the nature, often, of being a 21st century Native American. Complicated, but committed to becoming stronger. We have a purpose.
More bitter of the bitter sweet, is that these lands are just not accessible to indigenous people today in the same ways they once were to my ancestors. And at the time that the pristine lands of national parks were torn away from my ancestors, 100 years ago this year, is probably when my ancestors needed them the most.
When many of our ancestors, as indigenous people, were confined on reservations in the early 20th century after forced removal, they were disconnected from the sacred sites that healed them, disconnected from their way of life, struggling to adjust to life in virtual prison camps, where nearly each move of life was dictated by oppressive Indian agents and assimilative federal Indian policies, a time when children were forcibly taken from families and placed in abusive boarding schools, and a time when depression and alcoholism set in, deep, for Native people. And at the very same time, 100 years ago, America was cheering for the National Parks Service, lands my ancestors’ hearts wept for.
Torn. Saddened. Bitter sweet, confusion. Yet always grateful, for our resilience as human beings. We are still here, however tattered and struggling, we are a determined people. But let us not be too jaded by sadness or misled by naïve optimism. Native people are struggling, and there is no easy fix. There are things that American society must be willing to speak of, honestly, and the history of national parks is one of those things we must speak truth and power to.
I have no doubt that each visitor to any one of the national parks surely comes away with powerful understandings. It is just that way. There is goodness and power there, without question.
Yet somewhere, in the confusing understanding of our beautiful national parks, lies the potential of reconciliation and healing for all of America. The stories are there, and they can’t be unwritten. They can’t be untold. And if we can be honest about the history of these most splendid places, and talk about them honestly with reverence and understanding as the lands of indigenous people who today are broken and battling for life and wellbeing, at the very same time that privileged tourists enjoy what we lost … I hope, and I can only hope, there is healing and reconciliation for us.
Deeply enveloped in the landscape of American national parks lies more than just a majestic escape, more than the spiritual awakening afforded to many of the privileged tourists that can afford the vacation that is so out of reach for the poor and broken. Deeply within each fracture of a canyon, and wrapped into each fragrance rising from the Earth at American national parks, lies our stories, and our healing as indigenous people. In each flower that blooms within the valleys of the most beautiful national parks, blooms another prayer of our ancestors. These are our most beloved lands, our ancestral homes.
As indigenous people, we want to feel that healing and renewal today, too. I wonder, if the visitors of those parks ever think of this. That beautiful land claimed by the National Parks Service, this is where my ancestors loved, prayed, cried, and gave thanks. Remember them. This is where their hearts lie.
Sarah Sunshine Manning
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.