National Parks’ horrific story needs to be scrutinized

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

John Muir

Peter Matthiessen’s powerful 1984 book Indian Country laid bare the genocide and ecocide that had taken place across North America for two centuries. “To judge from the ruthless treatment of ‘the wild men’ and the wasteful and destructive exploitation of the continent,” he wrote, “the view of primordial nature as a wilderness to be tamed and dominated has persisted in North America to the present day.”

The American Civil War was presumably fought to end slavery and prejudice, but its raison d’être was ultimately to permit all peoples to embrace a truly democratic republic. There are so many grim repercussions as a result of its failure to achieve that lofty goal. From the establishment in the northwestern United States in 1872 of Yellowstone National Park (and of Banff National Park, Alberta in 1885), the legacy of the national parks, which were stolen from Aboriginal societies and then called a ‘gift’ to other races, has been tainted by racism, colonialism and marginalization. Good intentions, some would suggest, were lost in whites-only exclusivity, and white people still appear to have an almost exclusive playground in the parks.

In a move called ‘fortress conservation’ by many critics, national parks were billed as protecting pristine lands against all humans. Please see tinyurl.com/parks-theft-indians for a closer look at these histories of exclusion.

Ever since the first national parks were announced in the western US, their Indigenous inhabitants have borne the brunt of their foundation. Throughout Africa, Australia, India, China, Sri Lanka, the USA, Canada – including Québec – to name just a few areas, forced evictions have been the norm. From the forest dwellers of the Amazon to the Pygmies of central Africa, numerous people have suffered enormously. Additionally, the ‘rewilding’ of forests without their consent and inclusion has become a nightmare for them.

The history of conservation racism goes back to the early 1800s. It is disturbing to realize that many famous naturalists and conservationists ‘owned’ slaves. John James Audubon used slaves to gather bird specimens for his paintings, and he was critical of efforts to emancipate black people from slavery. In 1834, he said that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously” in freeing enslaved people in its West Indian possessions.

When John Muir, the son of a Scottish immigrant, arrived in California in 1868 and built a small cabin in Yosemite Valley, he felt that he had entered the Garden of Eden, and throughout his life that garden included few people besides him. Open vistas, spectacular waterfalls and mountainous terrain were what mattered to Muir and other naturalists. A later photo of Muir with US president Theodore Roosevelt shows only a depopulated human landscape in the background. A decade before Muir entered the valley, white people had pushed out the Ahwahneechee people, killing many.

Thus had begun in the west the forced removal of Indian settlements that had been a part of a well-balanced ecology for a thousand years.
In the east, US president Andrew Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, culminating in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people. Muir and others who had no clue about the stewardship role played by the Indians in their territories desired that the new national parks be free of human settlement, and although there were those who thought Aboriginal peoples should stay, they were ultimately not listened to. Though I have read many of Muir’s essays and a major biography, nowhere can I find in them any reference to appreciation for Aboriginal peoples’ culture and deep knowledge of ecological matters. This lack of understanding limited Muir’s breadth of involvement in a larger focus on humanity’s place in Nature. He could have made a definitive difference for the reconciliation of cultures.

The national parks, as beneficial ‘gifts’ to the world by governments after the American Civil War, could have become windows of opportunity opening onto the wisdom of Aboriginal peoples who continued to prosper on their ancestral lands, creating a bridge of goodwill and tolerance for a new peace among nations. Instead, most of the parks forbade native groups to return, with a few places such as Wood Buffalo National Park exceptions.

The great tragedy continues in 2020, with 370 million Aboriginal people whose ancestral homes are in these wilderness places finding themselves under constant threat of becoming refugees (tinyurl.com/survival-conservation-refugees). Greed and abject racism have been the two main motivations for their continuing expulsion.

There have been some attempts in Canada in recent years to include First Nations communities in a Parks Canada policy dialogue, but judging by recent events those First Nations have little trust in the government’s intentions. See unistoten.camp/no-pipelines

It would surprise those ‘conservationists’ who praised the expulsion of Aboriginal people in the name of bringing back a resplendent wilderness of fauna and flora to know that much work has been done that repudiates such claims. In 2005, Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom and her colleague Tanya Hayes published a study, Conserving the World’s Forests: Are Protected Areas the Only Way?, which found that areas with the direct involvement of local and Indigenous populations had significantly higher vegetation densities than those without, regardless of their protection status.

White people’s domination of Nature accelerated with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The colonization of the world by western European countries with the rise of capitalism brought enormous suffering and the collapse of ancient cultures. Climate breakdown and unprecedented biodiversity loss, which began 180 years ago, could be halted were it not for the scourge of greed, and will undoubtedly cause the greatest hardship to those who have the least to do with those unethical and ignorant actions. If we are to survive, social justice must actively permeate all that we do.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.”

Mahatma Gandhi

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