A Response To Treuer’s Atlantic Magazine National Parks and Tribes

Old Faithful is emblematic of Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner

A recent article Return the National Parks to the Tribes in Atlantic Magazine by David Treuer is worth a detailed review because it represents a common set of inaccurate assumptions and historical imprecision about the relationship of conservation, national parks and Native Americans. Rather than celebrate parks as one of the best ideas in America, Treuer denigrates them.

Themes similar to Treuer have appeared in other publications recently. Many in the WOKE social justice movement advocate the transfer of national parks to tribal entities.

There is no doubt that tribal people like all defeated humans throughout history were mistreated, misunderstood, and demonized. As a student of Native American history and culture, I am probably more aware than most people of the shortcomings and brutal treatment that many Indian people experienced. There were many injustices perpetrated upon the first human colonists of North America, but the creation of national parks is not one of them.

While Treuer’s piece was published in a prominent magazine, his ideas are not unique or particularly insightful, mainly relying on other earlier inaccurate accounts. Unfortunately, he relies far too much on misinformation and a general lack of context that would provide readers with a more complete understanding of the issues.

Throughout the piece, he recites the often brutal treatment of Indian people and conflates these actions with the creation of our national parks. The two are unrelated other than all parks, as well as all cities, farms, ranches, highways, and other lands in the United States were at one time part of some tribe’s or another’s territory.  Even the title is misleading because National Parks never belonged to any tribe. They have always been held in trust by the federal government on behalf of all Americans (including tribal people).

In his essay, Treuer attempts to weave a story that U.S. national parks were established by displacing tribes from their territories.  There is no doubt that tribes were often treated badly at times in their relationship with the federal government. However, Indian removal to reservations had no more to do with the creation of national parks than the establishment of San Francisco, Chicago or Denver.


Treuer throughout this essay is guilty of Faulty Cause Fallacy, where one assumes a correlation between two unrelated events. For instance, I can show that statically there are more drownings in summer than in winter. I can also demonstrate that more ice cream is sold in summer than winter. So I can conclude that ice cream causes drownings. It is that kind of unrelated correlation that Treuer utilizes throughout his essay to create a revisionist version of history that ignores many of the causal factors behind historic conflicts, or in many cases, had no relationship at all to the events.

The first problem with Treuer’s timeline is that nearly all western tribes were placed on reservations before a single national park was established or even the idea of national parks was discussed.

Tribal removal to reservations was done for a host of reasons, including to make the West safe for miners, loggers, ranchers, settlers, trade routes, and railroads, but the last thought in anyone’s mind at the time was to create national parks on former Indian territories. These two events are unrelated, except to the degree that yes, all national parks were at one time within the territory of one tribe or another.

So was every city, town, farm, ranch, timberland, and mine in America. Were the Chumash Indians who lived in Santa Barbara displaced so the city could be established there? Were the Comanche and Arapaho put on reservations so Denver could be created? Such assertions would be laughed at by anyone who knows the history of Indian wars or these cities, but somehow Treuer gets away with suggesting that reservations were created so that national parks could be established.

Another inconvenient fact is that in 1868, if not earlier in many instances, every tribe in the Rocky Mountains and nearby plains had agreed to treaties and were assigned to reservations. Many tribes signed treaties much earlier. The Crow Tribe’s first treaty occurred in 1825. The Blackfeet signed their first treaty in 1855. Why are these dates important? Because there was virtually no knowledge of Yellowstone and its wonders outside of a few itinerant fur trappers, and there was absolutely no discussion by anyone in America about creating a park in Yellowstone before the first expeditions in the 1870s. To try to suggest, as Treuer does, that creation of Yellowstone in 1872 and the relegation of tribes to reservations are connected demonstrates a real failure to understand historic events and the timing of those events.


The Yosemite Valley was occupied by Miwok Indians who were removed to a reservation after conflicts developed between gold miners and tribal members. Photo George Wuerthner 

In addition to mixing dates and historical events, Treuer appears to leave out important context to the events he describes that would likely change one’s understanding. In his opening paragraph, he describes the first white experience of what was to become Yosemite National Park. I will go into significant depth to tell the complete story of the Mariposa Battalion and their dealings with the Miwok tribe who resided in the Yosemite Valley because context may change people’s perception of events.

The most important date to keep in mind is that while the 1851 Mariposa Battalion were the first white men to enter the Yosemite Valley, Yosemite was not established as a national park until 1890, long after every Indian tribe in California, including the Miwok, had been placed on reservations. There is no connection between the removal of Indians to reserves and the creation of national parks.

Treuer begins his diatribe accurately with the paragraph: “in 1851, members of a California state militia called the Mariposa Battalion became the first white men to lay eyes on Yosemite Valley. The group was largely made up of miners.”

But from then on, important context is missing from the discussion. In the next paragraph, he says: “the Mariposa Battalion had come to Yosemite to kill Indians. Yosemite’s Miwok tribes, like many of California’s Native peoples, were obstructing a frenzy of extraction brought on by the Gold Rush.”

The first important fact to note is that the Mariposa Battalion was a militia consisting of miners, not regular U.S. Army soldiers. This distinction is important because many of the most brutal and barbaric encounters between whites and Indians such as the infamous Sand Creek Massacre were between regular frontiersmen, not government Armies.

Treuer makes it sound like the miners had nothing better to do than hunt down Indians to kill them.  The miners felt threatened due to Indian depredations and attacks (probably as much as the Miwok felt threatened by the miner’s presence).

There is important context that Treuer leaves out of the narrative. Indians began attacking mining settlements and trading posts and killed some workers.  The formation of the Mariposa was in response to several Miwok attacks on miner supply outposts and the murder of a number of trading post clerks and the plundering of supplies.[i]

One might sympathize with the Miwok alarm over the swarm of miners in the Sierra foothills, and given the same circumstances, if I were a member of the Miwok tribe I probably would have been among those attacking trading posts and miners. However, the Mariposa Battalion would never have been formed nor would they have followed the tribe to the Yosemite Valley had not the Indians attacked the miners.

To avoid bloodshed, the Battalion commander, James Savage, told the Miwok Chief Tenaya (Tenaya Lake in Yosemite is named for him) that his tribe had to sign a treaty, or his people would face harsh consequences.

Savage was not inherently anti-Indian. He established several trading posts among local tribes, learned their language, and even married native women from local tribes.[ii] Indeed, he appealed to the local Indian leaders not to fight the whites because they could never overcome the white man’s technological superiority and numbers. Once again if Savage or his battalion wanted to do nothing but “kill Indians” Savage would not have been arguing for a peaceful solution.

In an effort to capture the individual Miwok responsible for the attacks on miners and their settlements, Tenaya, the Miwok chief led the Mariposa Battalion to the Yosemite Valley.[iii] Upon entering the valley and finding the remainder of Tenaya’s band gone, the battalion reprisal for the theft of their food and other supplies, was to burn the Indian encampment and food stores.

While this may seem harsh treatment, one must not judge the past by today’s cultural standards. In the West, and among Indian tribes themselves, the Old Testament an eye for an eye was the common response to any insult, theft, or killing.

Tenaya and some of his band were later captured by a second expedition in May of 1851. They were taken to a reservation near Fresno. Note that the miners could have easily slaughtered Tenaya’s band if the goal was to “kill Indians” as Treuer implies. Instead, they were relegated to a reservation. Homesick and unhappy with the loss of freedom to move about, Tenaya appealed to the Indian Agent in charge of the reserve and asked if his band could return the Yosemite Valley. Tenaya’s request was granted.

Again, if the goal had been to “kill Indians” Tenaya would not have been permitted to return to the Yosemite Valley much less if anyone were proposing to make Yosemite a national park.

But things were not to remain peaceful. In the following year, 1852, some Miwok killed two miners. We do not know the circumstances, and perhaps the Miwok had a legitimate reason for the murders, nevertheless, a detachment of regular Army troops was sent to the valley to punish the culprits. Five Indians were captured and executed allegedly for their involvement in the murder of the miners. Once more had the goal been to simply annihilate the Miwok, the Army could have done so.

Ironically Tenaya and some of his band managed to escape from the soldiers but were killed a year later by the Mono Indians. This is yet another important point of fact. Intertribal warfare across the West was likely responsible for far more Indian deaths than anything the US Army or even the vigilante groups could affect.

Treuer ends his history of Yosemite by saying: “By the time the militia’s campaign ended, many of the Miwok who survived had been driven from Yosemite, their homeland for millennia, and forced onto reservations.”


While this is accurate up to a point, he neglects to provide context. During the 1800s, most progressives and pro-Indian people thought reservations were the only viable alternative to the outright extinction of native tribes. At the time, the progressive people in the United States believed the only way to “save” Indian people was to get them educated, teach them to farm or other skills, and incorporate them eventually into American culture and citizenship. Starting with President George Washington, the creation of reservations was seen as the only alternative that would ensure the survival of tribal people.  Progressives could not imagine that Indians would prefer the freedom and uncertainty of their lives to an opportunity to become “civilized” and “enlightened” members of the American experiment. We can recognize that such goals were misguided and naive, but they were not intended to be retribution or brutal. If America wanted to wipe out Indian tribes, the US Army could have done this easily, but the general goal was to try to persuade, coax or force Indians to adopt American values.


Next Treuer quotes one of the members of the Mariposa Battalion who he reports said: “Any attempt to govern or civilize them without the power to compel obedience, will be looked upon by barbarians with derision … The savage is naturally vain, cruel and arrogant. He boasts of his murders and robberies, and the tortures of his victims very much in the same manner that he recounts his deeds of valor in battle.”

The reason for the quote is to demonstrate the racist attitudes of the miners, which, no doubt existed.

However, the quote accurately described Indian attitudes towards war and their enemies whether other tribes or white people. it was common for tribal people to boast about the people they killed, the horses, or other booties they collected on raids. Indeed, Jarred Diamond in his new book The World Before Yesterday discusses how warfare was the dominant occupation of most tribal entities until pacified by colonial powers.

Indeed, in many tribes, your status was based on the ability to collect scalps, and you could not marry in some tribes if you were not a good “warrior” which was defined by your ability to kill others. Torture was a common feature of Indian warfare. Tribes regularly mutilated and tortured their enemies, and it was expected that if you were caught by your enemy, they would do the same to you.

One has to understand that young men were taught to kill their enemies and there was no sense of guilt or moral outrage. One must keep this context in mind. What may seem barbarous to us today was no different than how the Roman felt about watching gladiators cutting each other apart in the Collesuem.

For instance, Rachel Plummer, a woman who was captured and held captive by Comanches on the Texas frontier described her ordeal which was not uncommon. Beyond the usual beatings and torture, she gave birth to a child which the Indian grabbed, tied a rope around its neck and dragged the baby through picky pear cactus until its body was shredded.[iv]

In Scalp Dance, Thomas Goodrich describes the fate of a frontier family: “three little children who had been taken by the heels by the Indians and swung around against the log cabin, beating their heads to jelly. Found the hired girl some fifteen rods from the ranch staked out on the prairie, tied by hands and feet, naked, body full of arrows and horribly mangled.”

In a description of Indian brutality in Black Hawk’s War in which the young Abraham Lincoln participated, “The Indians: they had Killed Davis & Pettigrews family—Hall’s 2 girls gone with them: they were young women. We Saw the Scalps they had taken—scalps of old women & children. This was near Pottowatomy villiage—faming place. The Indians Scalped an old Grand Mother—Scalped her—hung her scalp on a ram rod—that it might be seen & aggravate the whites—They cut one woman open—hung a child that they had murdered in the woman’s belly that they had gutted—strong men wept at this—hard hearted men cried.”[v]

In Month of the Freezing Moon Duane Schultz describes the attitude of the Cheyenne with regards to brutality. To the Cheyenne, anyone who was not their own tribe was an enemy… scalping might be just a way of keeping score, but mutilation was also practiced out of tradition and habit.  It was not uncommon for a Cheyenne warrior to cut off the arms of an enemy and preserve the gruesome fate. Captives were stripped and spread-eagled over anthills, their hands and feet lashed to pegs driven deep into the ground. There they were abandoned to go blind from staring at the sun, insane from hunger and thirst and eaten by ants and wild animals Sometimes the Indians heaped twigs and branches atop their victims and burned them alive.”

I am not cherry-picking the most extreme examples as there are numerous descriptions that could be given describing the brutality of Indians in their dealings with their enemies, including other tribes.

It’s important to note that most tribes had no sense of shame or morality about what today we would consider barbarous behavior. We cannot judge their actions by today’s standards. Within their cultural values, it was how you treated your enemies which were all considered to be sub-human. Nevertheless, it is also easy to understand how white settlers could conclude that Indians were cruel given they had a different set of cultural values.

I hasten to add that such atrocities can be found in all cultures. Dropping fire and nuclear bombs on Japanese cities near the conclusion of WW11 could easily be considered far more barbaric, but all people rationalize such treatment of people they perceive as their “enemies.”


Next Treuer attacks Sierra Club founder and conservationists John Muir and the general idea of wildlands. Treuer writers: “More than a century ago, in the pages of this magazine, Muir described the entire American continent as a wild garden “favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe.” But in truth, the North American continent has not been a wilderness for at least 15,000 years: Many of the landscapes that became national parks had been shaped by Native peoples for millennia.

This is yet another common strawman that critics of conservation regularly use—that humans have always lived and modified their surroundings, so nothing is “wild” or “wilderness.”  One gets the sense from Treuer and others that somehow Nature was a mess until Indians came along to “fix” the landscape.

Canning River in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge is primarily influenced by natural forces and can be considered a “wildlands.” Photo George Wuerthner 

The idea that humans wandered, exploited, and influenced North America for 15,000 years, neglects to put this into any kind of perspective. The human influence was not ubiquitous, nor did it overwhelm natural processes across the continent. There were places where human influence altered natural processes. But this is no different than today with far more people with high technological abilities living in North America. Would it be accurate to say that because the Los Angeles Basin is heavily impacted by houses, roads, factories, and other cultural influences that the Arctic Refuge in Alaska is not wild? There are varying degrees of human influence is not of the same magnitude across the continent. Isn’t now and wasn’t then.

No serious conservationists believe or ever suggested that “wilderness” was “untouched” by humans. The way that park advocates define wildness is “self-willed” landscapes. In other words where natural processes largely dominate. While it’s true that human influence is global–climate change not being the only example we could use–the fact remains that much of the planet is primarily dominated by natural processes, native wildlife and native plant communities.

Following this same theme, Treuer goes on with his strawman criticism. “Forests on the Eastern Seaboard looked plentiful to white settlers because American Indians had strategically burned them to increase the amount of forage for moose and deer and woodland caribou. Yosemite Valley’s sublime landscape was likewise tended by Native peoples; the acorns that fed the Miwok came from black oaks long cultivated by the tribe. The idea of a virgin American wilderness—an Eden untouched by humans and devoid of sin—is an illusion.”

This is another misleading idea promoted by Native American advocates. That because some small portion of the land was modified by native influences, that everything in Nature was under their “influence” and management.

Long before there was any colonization of North American by humans, lightning provided plenty of natural ignitions. Advocates of Indian burning make it sound like the natural world relied on humans to remain “healthy” or “productive.”

Seldom acknowledged is the impact of human ignitions was primarily local and did not influence entire ecosystems. For instance, research on Indian fire in the Northeast has concluded nearly all burning affected relatively small areas near villages, while the larger landscape remains largely under natural influences. [vi]


Treuer touches briefly on the creation of Glacier National Park and the relationship of the Blackfeet tribe to the area now within the park. In 1895 the tribe ceded a mountainous portion of their reservation to the federal government to allow for potential mineral development, not the establishment of a park. The anticipated gold rush did not materialize, and only years later was there serious discussion of designating these lands as a park.

The Blackfeet tribe sold to the federal government what is now the mountainous eastern part of Glacier National Park in 1895 to permit mineral development which failed to materialize. Only later, in 1910, did it become a national park unit. Photo George Wuerthner

Besides the fact that the lands were sold to the federal government, not “stolen” as often portrayed, once again it’s critical to understand the general attitude of the tribes at the time.

As a Blackfeet elder, Little Dog, who was in favor of selling the mountainous part of the reservation to the federal government stated:  “Those mountains will never disappear.” We will see them as long as we live. Our children will see them all their lives, and when we are all dead, they will still be there. This money will not last forever. I knew you would be afraid when I told you our price, so  I will rest a while and let you consider, as we do not intend to restrict or go back. You must not forget that we have wives and children: it is for them that we ask for this money, Those mountains will last forever, The money will not. “[vii]

One must recognize how the tribe viewed the area back in the 1890s when the lands were sold, not how they are valued today. A common thread in Treuer’s essay is to use today’s cultural and social values to judge the past. One cannot do this but must seek to understand how people viewed events at the time.

The mountain country was scenic as Little Dog noted but had little value to the tribe in terms of their culture and practical value. The Blackfeet were a horse-loving plains people. The plains were good grazing land for both horses and cattle. The plains also had an abundance of wildlife. The mountains were less productive, were difficult to travel in on horseback, and had far less value to the tribe. The tribe received $1.5 million in 1890 dollars or an amount worth hundreds of million in today’s dollars. It was a significant amount of money to be shared among tribal members. The agreement was signed by 306 male tribal members of 381 living on the reservation.[viii] Glacier National Park was not established until 1910.

To put this payment into perspective, the United States bought the 365 million acres of Alaska from Russian in 1867 for  $7.2 million.

Clearcuts on the Blackfeet Reservation marks the border of Glacier National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

Some try to suggest the tribal members did not understand what they were doing by ceding a portion of the reservation.  This is disrespectful of their intelligence.  It is clear the tribe saw little value in the mountainous portion of their reservation and much to be gained by the sale of what was viewed as less valuable lands.


Here again, Treuer conflates the sordid history of American treatment of the tribes in general, implying it was done to establish national parks.

Hw implies that tribes were evicted to create parks which is incorrect. As with nearly all relationships between the US government and most tribes placement on a reservation was the solution proposed for a host of reasons including a misguided effort to “civilize” them, but also to make the land safe for natural resource exploitation by miners, ranchers, loggers, farmers, railroads, and so forth, but not for parks.

By 1868 nearly every western tribe was assigned a reservation, including all the tribes associated with the Yellowstone area. I need to deal in some depth with the Sheepeaters, a division of the larger Shoshone or Snake Indian tribe who spent the most time in and about what is now Yellowstone National Park.

Most tribes associated with Yellowstone merely passed through or camped briefly in Yellowstone. They lived in the lower valleys and plains where the climate was more amendable to human occupation.

However,  a minor band of the Shoshone tribe, known locally as the Sheepeaters because they concentrated on hunting bighorn sheep, spent a considerable amount of time in the mountains in and around Yellowstone.

The Sheepeaters, attracted by the lure of government subsidies, voluntarily joined their tribal members at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming in the years preceding or just after Yellowstone’s designation.  Some might argue the Sheepeaters, as with nearly all Indian groups, had no real choice but to move to the reservation. However, the idea that any tribes had to be “forcibly removed” from what is now Yellowstone National Park is misleading.

For one thing, after the park was established, there was only one full-time employee–the Park Superintendent. He had his hands full dealing with poachers, market hunters, and even abusive tourists. He didn’t have time or ability to “drive” the Indians from Yellowstone.

Furthermore, what is now Yellowstone NP was virtually unknown until the first expeditions were launched in the early 1870s. No tribes were “removed” from Yellowstone, and many tribes willingly went to reservations lured by promises of government handouts of food, clothing and so forth.

For instance, the Shoshone tribe that probably had the most immediate knowledge of the Yellowstone area tried to sign a treaty with the US Government in 1863. The Shoshone sent representatives to Fort Laramie to get a treaty with the US.  But due to a bureaucratic boundary regulation (they were living primarily west of the Continental Divide and only tribes east of the divide were invited to sign the Treaty negotiations), they were excluded. They were disappointed but continued to lobby for a treaty and were later were included in the 1868 treaties.


Next Treuer uses the old argument about Yellowstone that native people had lived there for thousands of years and claimed Yellowstone as their home.

Here Treuer demonstrates his ability with words, knowingly using specific words that he must know is not completely accurate but can be interpreted in different ways. For instance. he suggests that Native people “lived” in Yellowstone for thousands of years.  They did live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and sometimes traveled through what is now the park. But they did not “live” in Yellowstone in the sense of residing there year-round, any more then Nepalese people live on Mt. Everest. Would Treuer assert that because he camped in Yellowstone, he “lived” there?

Winter in Yellowstone is a brutal place to try to eke out a living. In the historic past, most wildlife and humans who hunted them migrated to lower terrain and did not remain in what is now the park year-round. Photo George Wuerthner 

Most of what is now Yellowstone NP is a high plateau over 8,000 feet in elevation that is inhospitable to human endeavors most of the year. Yes, tribal people camped in Yellowstone. They hunted there. Gathered obsidian, and even fought there on occasion, but they did not “live” there in the traditional sense of the word. In some years, I have spent as much as 2-3 months of the year camping, hiking, and otherwise exploring Yellowstone Park. Does that mean I “lived” in Yellowstone? Of course, not.


Again, using hyperbole, Treuer suggests the creation of Yellowstone in 1872 made “trespassers” of the Shoshone, Bannock, and other peoples who had called the parkland home for centuries.

They were already assigned to reservations and were expected to remain on the reservations. Of course, they did not always stay there. Hunting in the park by any visitor or traveler was originally permitted in the park, but protecting wildlife grew in greater importance as wildlife everywhere was under assault from miners, ranchers, railroad crews, and yes, from Indians as well.  By the 1880s and 1890s elk, bison, and other wildlife were nearly extirpated from much of the West, and wildlife protection became a new “mission” of the fledgling park.

By the late 1800s wildlife populations were decimated around the West. Hunting of elk and other wildlife was prohibited in Yellowstone to save the dwindling herds. Photo George Wuerthner

Hunting was prohibited to everyone, including Indians. If that had not occurred, it is doubtful we would have bison or maybe even elk left in the West. For decades, Yellowstone’s protected elk formed the basis for the restoration of elk herds around the West. What Treuer does not appreciate is that if hunting had not been outlawed in Yellowstone, no one, including Indians would have had anything left to hunt-that is how dire the situation was with regards to wildlife in the late 1800s. Indeed, one of the reasons the US Army was assigned to patrol Yellowstone in 1886 was to protect park wildlife from poachers and trappers. Seen in this light, it is understandable why Indians, as well as all other humans, were prohibited from killing park wildlife.

There is good evidence that with the arrival of the horse and firearms, Indians were culpable for the demise of the buffalo on the plains.



Further along in his essay, Treuer states: “all of them (national parks) were founded on land that was once ours, and many were created only after we were removed, forcibly, sometimes by an invading army and other times following a treaty we’d signed under duress. Just who is “ours” would be disputed since in most instances, tribal territories were in continuous flux as a result of warfare, shifting alliances, and even natural events like drought that could influence where and when any tribe could find sufficient resources to survive.

Treuer concludes his essay by arguing that national parks should be “returned” to the tribes.

Even if “returning” the parks to tribes was put into action, there is the problem that tribal people were mobile and aggressive in their occupation of land controlled by other tribes. The Blackfeet who reside near Glacier National Park, for instance, moved over centuries from Eastern Canada. When they moved into what is now Montana around the late 1700s, they displaced the Flathead and Kootenai tribes who were residing where the Blackfeet now claim as their territory.

Oil well on the Navajo Reservation on lands previously occupied by Pueblo people. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Navajo who now reside by Glen Canyon NRA and other national park units are recent immigrants from northern Canada who displaced and took over lands previously controlled by Pueblo Indians. The Comanche split off from the Shoshone and migrated to the southern plains, displacing the Apache, and other tribes. Trying to determine which tribe has the greatest “right” of ownership to these public lands would be a legal and ethical dilemma.

Among other problems from a purely conservation perspective is that distribution of these lands would result in a fragmented approach to management. Systematic management by a unified agency like the National Park Service would be lost with significant conservation harm.

Why focus on returning parks to tribes. New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, or Seattle is much more valuable real estate. Wouldn’t tribes be better off owning some waterfront property on Puget Sound, the Atlantic coast or along the East River? If we as a society decide it is worth transferring any lands to tribes, it should come by buying existing private land, not taking public lands from every citizen and the wildlife that depends on these critical park landscapes.


Yellowstone and other parks provide habitat for the wildlife and plants that existed in North America before the continent was colonized by humans. Photo George Wuerthner 

Further along, Treuer asserts: “Many parks neighbor Native communities. But while the parks may be near us, and of us, they are not ours.” This is a totally anthropocentric perspective. Parks are major conservation areas that support many native plants and wildlife. If these lands should be “returned” to anyone, it should be the native wildlife and plants that existed in North America before anyone “colonized” the continent, including tribal people.

National parks represent the best of American society and the goal of equal opportunity. While it’s true that many minorities have limited ability to access our national parks, and we should do more to increase the opportunities for all citizens to enjoy parklands, the fact that we need to work harder to equalize access does not invalidate the concept of national parks.

All Native Americans are now US Citizens, and they, like all Americans, are part-owners of these public lands. Public lands belong to everyone or no one. They are as democratic an institution as anything we have, and that is one of their greatest values.

Treuer, as a US Citizen, has as much right as I do to make his voice heard on how these lands should be managed, but should not be allotted any greater influence.

The American experience for all its failures has produced many good things, and national parks are one of the best contributions the country has made to the global collection of ideas and practices. Numerous studies from around the world has shown that strictly protected conservation areas (which includes parks) suffer the least losses in biodiversity. Indeed, Yellowstone still retains all the species that originally were found residing there upon its creation.


American national parks are part of a global system of protected landscapes that recognizes that we share the planet with other creatures. For many, Parks are the only viable refuge from human intrusions and displacement. Rather than denigrate parks, we should celebrate the fact that humans have evolved to the point where we recognize that all living creatures should and do have a right to existence, and parks are one of the best ways to ensure that they have an opportunity to flourish on a planet dominated by humans.

Bio: George Wuerthner has studied Native American history and culture since he was a child. He has also visited more than 200 national park units, formerly worked as a ranger in the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, and has published a number of books on national parks. He is an ecologist and conservation advocate. He is also the Board Chair of the New National Parks Campaign of RESTORE the North Woods.


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Savage

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Savage

[iii] Alfred Runte Yosemite the Embattled Wilderness.

[iv] The Rachel Plummer Narrative

[v] Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln

edited by Douglas Lawson Wilson, Rodney O. Davis, Terry Wilson, William Henry Herndon, Jesse William Weik

[vi] Wuerthner 2020. https://www.thewildlifenews.com/2020/11/23/indigenous-burning-myths-and-realities/

[vii] Grinnell America’s Environmental Pioneer and his Restless Drive to Save the West.

[viii] Christopher S. Ashby 1985 Blackfeet Agreement of 1895 and Glacier National Park| A case

History. U of Montana Master’s Thesis.

iv Wuerthner 2021 What Role Did Native Americans and Horse Play in the decline of the bison.  https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/06/09/what-role-did-native-americans-and-horses-play-in-the-decline-of-bison/



  1. David Beebe Avatar
    David Beebe

    Hi George,
    Just wanted to make sure you meant to say this:

    “There were many injustices perpetrated upon the first human colonists of North America, but the creation of national parks is not one of them.”

    Seems like it might be a typo to me.

  2. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    GW still selling conservation as though it preservation.

    Same old, same old expecting different results.

  3. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    « Yosemite was not established as a national park until 1890, long after every Indian in California, including the Miwok, had been placed on reservations.« 
    That’s not exactly true. There were still some off reservations, I.e. Ishi and his family, found by surveyors in 1908, and Ishi (Yahi) came out of ‘wilderness’ in 1911.
    I do agree that returning national parks to native Americans is NOT a viable solution.

  4. James H Avatar
    James H

    The author claims to have studied indigenous people since he was kid, but missed the boat on this one. The article lacks objectivity to say the least. Reach out to the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, for instance, they will tell you a much different story about their own history with Yellowstone National Park’s creation. This is ivory tower journalism if I’ve ever seen it. Tribes have already established their professional and technical management capacity to co-manage ESA species, as well as, large landscapes. That does not ultimately translate to “giving tribes back the parks”. There is a middle ground, and collaboration can be established. It’s this zero sum mentality that drives wedges between sovereign entities and fails our public trust wildlife and lands. After reading the author’s last few articles regarding tribes, there is definitely an adversarial tone. I wonder why that is…

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      Humans are humans regardless of race, all engaged in a zero sum game for flora and fauna.

      What GW gets right is the idea that indigenous peoples are any different.

      What I add and he never does is their conservation is still just that, seldom preservation of any of the natural world, just like their colonial counterparts. The world is ours to use, the question of “wise.”

      It’s time we have some natural world preservation ethic from all humans.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “Parks are major conservation areas that support many native plants and wildlife. If these lands should be “returned” to anyone, it should be the native wildlife and plants that existed in North America before anyone “colonized” the continent, including tribal people.”

    You’re right, IMO, that the this gets dangerously lost in the arguments. But it we can work together, as trite as that sounds, and today, we can hopefully fulfill our common goals.

  6. David Johns Avatar
    David Johns

    At times Wuerthner seems to minimize the mistreatment of Indians by Europeans–I would more than be a bit nervous and inclined to respond if a bunch of goldminers started invading where I lived. But what he gets right is this: the Earth belongs to all its plants and animals, not just people. It’s not up this or that group of people to turn it into a commodity. Humans make their homes by stealing other species’ and it’s time for that to stop. The Atlantic should be embarrassed by Treuer’s history, but the Atlantic also fails abysmally to understand the value of non-human life. Humans have no right to colonize and exploit other species. We are native to southern and eastern Africa and have been causing extinctions ever since we left.

  7. Beeline Avatar

    Fact check: The Chumash people did not live in San Francisco. This tribe inhabited the area from San Luis Obispo on the north to Malibu canyon on the south in coastal California.

    I have never thought that this business of all peoples everywhere are alike had much truth to it. Large oppressive nations like this kind of propaganda to ease their conscience. They like to say stuff like such an such a tribe had slaves or killed some settlers etc.. So I guess that makes the gross and bloody mistreatment of the other smaller nations OK.

    If anyone wants to get closer to the facts–find a copy of Who’s the Savage by David Wrone and Russel Nelson. The book is out of print so you will probably have to find it in a library. This book is not only about what happened to Native Americans but shows what happened to the buffalo and passenger pigeons as well.

  8. PaulOjanen Avatar

    In response to some of the comments. First, there’s the question of legality. If there is a treaty – not was, but is- it’s still a legally binding document. If the land ceded ended up as a national park, then it still holds. The land was ceded. Some treaties were ignored or broken, for example the Treaty of Fort Laramie. But let’s take the 1854 Treaty of Lapointe ceded territory which contains numerous federal sites. The treaty still holds and usufructory rights for natives, now legally represented by tribal bands, have been upheld. If one knows the geography, the reservations on that treaty are located at preferred historical settlements and food sources, usually fish and wild rice. Having heard actual oral histories in Ojibwe, Truer can’t claim the Ojibwe were there “forever”, though he might try with the shell and food that laid on the water myth B.S. The Iroquois drove everyone west in the Beaver Wars and were essentially an empire of the Northeastern U.S. for several decades after. The Ojibwe drove the Dakota out and quite viciously, especially since they had firearms and the Dakota didn’t. The Ojibwe name for them was “Ginebig” which means snake. The Snake river and Kanabec county are named thus because they were the boundary the Ojibwe set as their country. Treuer of course ignores this actual history…it’s the actual miniscule part of he and his brother’s claim for native heritage…because that actual history is more complex and not as glamorous and contains actual legal documents transferring title.

  9. Paul T Ojanen Avatar
    Paul T Ojanen

    Treuer doesn’t understand his own history, much less anyone else’s. He’s typical of the romanticized idea of natives living in harmony, when in fact we find Cahokia, the Beaver Wars, the Tlaxcalans taking revenge on the Aztecs and allying themselves with Cortez. None of this is to excuse European and colonial actions towards natives, but the concept of innocent, passive actor prior to, during and after colonization washes Natives of their humanity. Cahokia’s history is one example. As one of the larger city’s in the world it had significant impacts on local resources and enormous defensive stockades. And it was, most likely, a theocratic hierarchy. The beaver wars are another example. The Iroquois exterminated four tribes, forcibly adooted the survivors and drove all other tribes out of the northeast all the way to Indiana. The Natives supplied the fur trade willingly; metal kettles are simply handier than heavy clay pots. The Yamasee war was complex, with multiple tribes trying to control the deerhide trade and selling captives as slaves. And as already observed, what makes great national parks doesn’t make great living spaces. Alluvial plains adjacent to rivers provided rich soils, water and more game than rocky peaks. And then there’s treaties, still legally binding documents we must honor.

  10. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Why pick on the National Parks? When the SJW’s give back the island of Manhattan, and cede the Black Hills, then maybe they will be on to something.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Wonderful. Even with some setbacks, it is carrying on. Yay for Kenya – hopefully I’ll be able to visit one day.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner