GUEST POST BY PEGGY BERRYHILL, THERESA HARLAN, and PETER BYRNE.
The following responses to George Wuerthner’s October 12th piece “A Response to Treur’s Atlantic Magazine National Parks and Tribes,” and November 2nd’s “Indian Burning – The False Solution to Large Blazes” are guest posts from Peggy Berryhill, Theresa Harlan, and Peter Byrne. I am grateful for their time, energy, and eloquence in raising these issues. – Greta Anderson
Introducing Two Replies to Wuerthner
By Peggy Berryhill
When do you retire tropes? Apparently, when it comes to Native Americans, the answer from The Wildlife News is not yet. The late Oneida comedian Charlie Hill used to joke that White people think of us as frozen in time, “singing and dancing.” Are we to believe that The Wildlife News would accept an article about women who enjoy the outdoors described in the 1900’s as virgins or whores, the new old maids, masculinized or asexual? It doesn’t take any imagination to cite tropes about African Americans from the 1800s. So why is okay to print articles written by George Wuerthner that characterize Native Americans as living in the past? When Wuerthner writes about Indigenous peoples, there is no recognition of the Sovereign status of Tribes, Native Americans as informed voters, astronauts, scientists, attorneys and environmental activists changing extractive policies that benefit all citizens.
As a journalist, I’ve lived to witness Indians being included at the table in discussions on Indigenous science relating to fishing, agriculture, water use and distribution. We’re also seeing changes in the arena of economics, and the acceptance of Indigenous science relating to climate change. Were any of these promising developments referenced in Wuerthner’s article criticizing David Treuer? No.
Worldwide, Indigenous-led organizations, such as the Global Forest Coalition, are leading the way to combat climate change with traditional ecological knowledge and not the smoke and mirrors proposed by industrial corporations and the International Monetary Fund.
Reading Wuerther’s many mentions of Indigenous peoples in The Wildlife News is like stepping back in time, listening to the siren call of the 1900’s to keep Indians where they belong while the rest of the America’s open lands are meant to be safe for “Manifest Destiny”.
In the following rebuttals to Wuerthner’s article two important voices explain further why we must leave these tropes from the 18th and 19th century behind if we are to work together to battle climate change. Award winning Journalist Peter Byrne and Indigenous scholar Theresa Harlan call out and refute the dangerous tropes raised from the past by George Wuerthner in The Wildlife News.
Peggy Berryhill is a member of the Muscogee Nation, and with 50 years in the radio business is known as “The First Lady of Native Radio”. Berryhill began her career at KPFA in Berkeley and is the only Native person to work at National Public Radio. Berryhill has consulted with two Smithsonian Institution projects. She currently owns and operates radio and online station KGUA in Gualala, California.
An Indigenous Response to Wuerthner
By Theresa Harlan
Last September The Wildlife News published “Of Indigenous Peoples, Environmentalism, and Atonement”. Authors Molvar and Small began with “As America struggles with its history of systemic racism, the environmental movement faces questions of its own over the extent to which policies that were racist, genocidal or entailed ethnic cleansing played a role in early American conservation.” Refreshingly, the authors directed their focus on the future, a future for all people, by highlighting the need for Native and non-Natives to work together on environmental issues and the recognition of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) that established native ecosystems and biodiversity “. . . far more diverse and abundant than anything we have seen…”
Strangely and disappointing The Wildlife News’ October issue was a clear contradiction of Molvar’s and Small’s essay with the release of George Wuerthner’s “A Response to Treuer’s Atlantic Magazine National Parks and Tribes”. Wuerthner attempts to reveal what he calls the “fallacies” behind David Treuer’s The Atlantic story “Return the National Parks to the Tribes”.
Treuer’s essay begins with a reveal of the hidden truths behind the creation of national parks as stolen Indigenous lands, points us to consider the aged condition of national parks due to “overcrowding, habitat loss and a ‘science deficit’”. He concludes that it’s time for national parks, (i.e., Indigenous homelands) to be returned to federally recognized tribes.
Ironically, Wuerthner’s piece is littered with inaccuracies and weakened by his presumptive authority as a “student of Native American history since a child”. Wuerthner’s response reads “protectionist” against returning park lands to its original peoples. This protectionism must be the driver to lead him to write an extremely long argument to diminish the knowledge of Indigenous peoples as scientific and to portray them as equally exploitative as the white settlers. His position reads straight out of the 19th century letters of American politicians and conservationists—save “untouched” lands and and run out the Indians.
Wuerthner’s superficial treatment of history is irritating, however not as irritating as his assertion that “tribal” people are defeated. The United States (i.e., military and government agencies and private citizens) did attempt to defeat Native peoples with an immense effort —genocide, disease transmission, rape, imprisonment, eradication of food sources, introduction of alcohol and ultimately ripping children from their families to be imprisoned and murdered in compulsory boarding schools. Our ancestors fought and held on through resiliency and strategy so that generations later, Native peoples could continue to know themselves as Indigenous peoples, fight to protect ancestral homelands (e.g., Standing Rock, Stop Line 3, Keystone XL, Bears Ears, Mount Taylor) and even become the Secretary of the Interior and possibly the next director of the National Park Service.
Wuerthner argues that there is no correlation between the creation of national parks and Native land dispossession. This is simply false. Anyone who invests the time to read Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks by Mark David Spence will learn of the interdependency of Indigenous land dispossession and the creation of Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite National Parks. Unlike Wuerthner, Spence did the work of a historian—research and documentation—to tell the story of the creation of these national parks, the full ugly truth.
There are so many more false assertions in Wuerthner’s article that it could be an assignment for a lower division Native American Studies class to fact check it. For instance, he incorrectly names the Chumash people as the original people of San Francisco when it is the Ramaytush Ohlone. Anyone can find the Indigenous people of US cities and towns by visiting https://native-land.ca/. In Wuerthner’s Yosemite discussion he falsely asserts “. . .Yosemite was not established as a national park until 1890, long after every Indian in California, including the Miwok, had been placed on reservations.”
I take issue with “every Indian in California”. California Indigenous leaders negotiated 18 treaties with the United States in 1851-52. California’s senators didn’t want the treaties and shelved them. They are the infamous 18 unratified treaties. By the time the Yosemite Park Act was signed by President Lincoln in 1864 many California Native peoples were experiencing disease, starvation, and indentured servitude (read slavery) with temporary reserves and farms established and closed with changing superintendents and even the abolishment of the California Superintendency of Indian Affairs in 1860 due to corruption and then reinstated in 1864. In 1869 only three three reservations remained; Tule River, Round Valley and Hoopa Valley. More of California’s genocidal history against California Indigenous peoples is making its way to national readership with the New York Times’ article on the massacre at Round Valley Reservation in 1860. Perhaps Wuerthner is betting that The Wildlife News readership doesn’t include Indigenous people or those who read history or the NYT.
As Wuerthner scoffs at Indigenous TEK, calling it an “illusion”, there is a growing global movement of Indigenous communities working to affirm TEK and to stop the degradation of land and water and demanding climate justice. Indigenous Environmental Network, NDN Collective, Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network, Pueblo Action Alliance, and Movement Rights are just a few of the national Indigenous movement organizations making change and building global alliances, including participating in COP26. Indigenous peoples fight to protect their homelands because the land, water and the people are the same, meaning the earth is our mother, provider of life.
As a descendant of a Coast Miwok family, whose ancestral home is still standing at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS), I have first hand experience of National Park Service aggrandizement of Euro-American ranching history while burying my mother’s ancestral Coast Miwok history on the land now called PRNS. I know what it feels like to be separated from my grandmother’s home and to share it as “public land”. No matter how many times I drive the 36 miles and walk the one mile road down to my family’s house to pray, when I leave I wonder if our home will be subjected to more vandalism.
I appreciate the support of Indigenous leaders and environmental advocates, including Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Resource Renewal and the consortium of Restore Point Reyes National Seashore. We, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, must work together to address colonial settler attitudes that linger to keep us divided. This burden must be shared and not assigned to the Native person in the room.
What message does The Wildlife News want to send their readership with Wuerthner’s October response to The Atlantic and subsequent posts by him? “Don’t worry, we still stand strong for white conservationists?” For Indigenous people, like myself, the message reads “We really didn’t mean what we said in the September issue, there’s no room for you.” Where is The Wildlife News editorial oversight? Wuerthner is a known conservation advocate. He is not a historian. Why does The Wildlife News choose to publish Wuerthner’s white privileged opinion pieces week after week?
All this does is deepen the divide and place a burden on Indigenous people and create a set back for white environmental advocates who want to work with Natives and people of color. For some Native people, they will not bother to direct their time or attention to refuting Wuerthner or others like him. I decided to let silence not be a confirmation of “tribal” defeat. I see this rebuttal as part of my work to protect my family’s home at a national park and to support the idea of giving national parks back to Indigenous peoples.
This brings me back to Molvar’s and Small’s essay “We’d like to be on our best behavior, to not only atone for the racism that came before, but to find cohesive and correlative remedies, a horizon of equity.” The question I have for The Wildlife News editorial staff is “Which side of the horizon are you on—setting or rising?”
Theresa Harlan is Kewa Pueblo/Jemez Pueblo and adopted daughter of Elizabeth Campigli Harlan (Coast Miwok) and John Harlan. She is advocating for the restoration of her grandmother’s Coast Miwok home at Point Reyes National Seashore. She has a long history working in the Native American community as an art writer/curator and consultant.
Response to George Wuerthner’s Critique of David Treuer
By Peter Byrne
The cover story in the May 2021 issue of The Atlantic was headlined, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes – The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples.” The beautifully told story summed up a reasonable plan to initiate the healing of our ecologically ailing, automobile-polluted, tourist-centric national park system.
Sadly, the National Park Service is easily cast as a politicized bureaucracy largely run in the interests of vendor and hotelier-capitalists, and, in California and Ohio, cattle ranchers, all of whom view our 85 million acre national park system as a profit center for businesses.
The Atlantic argues that due to decades of federal mismanagement, it makes ecological sense to transfer leadership of the national parks to a consortium of tribal organizations composed of peoples of Indigenous heritage to be operated according to millennially-vetted Earth-preserving principles that are antithetical to the capitalist-colonial politics running the agency.
The Atlantic piece was written by David Treuer, who is a doctor of anthropology, a professor of English at University of Southern California, a bestselling novelist, and a scholar of Indigenous history. Mr. Treuer was raised as an Ojibwe Indian at the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He knows his roots. His solution-based article was not only timely, it has invigorated activists and the public with hope. If we can use the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples to creatively restore and manage our national parks, we may be able to apply these eons-tested methods to reducing, perhaps reversing, the species-exterminating impacts of global heating. Indigenous knowledge is science.
In her magisterial work, Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson remarks, “The foundation of native people’s management of plants and animals was a collective storehouse of knowledge about the natural world, acquired over hundreds of years through direct experience and contact with the environment. The rich knowledge of how nature works and how to judiciously harvest and steward its plants and animals without destroying them was hard-earned; it was the product of keen observation, patience, experimentation, and long-term relationships with plants and animals. …. The traditional ecological knowledge of California Indians and the techniques they used to manage nature are still retrievable. …. There are compelling reasons to protect, restore, and manage some ‘wild’ lands by following a model other than hands-off wilderness approach.”
Indigenous cultures, worldwide, are taking the lead in acting upon scientific solutions to our social and climate emergencies. And they are being heard!
In September, Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar and Marsha Small of the Tsistsistah people published a powerful article in The Wildlife News, “Of Indigenous Peoples, Environmentalism, and Atonement.” The essay examines a culture of white supremacy pervading sectors of the American conservationist movement, historically and into the present day. The authors anatomize the persistence of such white privilege in the context of Manifest Destiny and the genocide of First Peoples by generations of Euro-American settlers who participated or looked away.
The essayists do not call for conservationists to bond with nor defer to Indigenous leadership and traditional ecological knowledge; rather, they suggest a conditional alliance: “It makes sense for us to reach out to potential allies among Indigenous communities, to advance our common interests when our goals align with each other.” I will leave the reader to unpack the meaning of that potentially divisive statement. But it turns out that The Wildlife News has an endemic, cultural problem of the very sort identified by Molvar and Small.
The online pages of The Wildlife News are dominated by its most prolific writer, George Wuerthner, an ecologist who is a “hands-off wilderness” advocate. Wuerthner is a public figure and an influential force in the conservation movement, nationwide. He has published 38 books and scores of articles on ecology and public land management. He served, until recently, on the board of directors of Western Watersheds Project.
On October 12, The Wildlife News posted an article by Mr. Wuerthner titled, “A Response To Treuer’s Atlantic Magazine National Parks and Tribes.” In this and several other articles in The Wildlife News, Wuerthner has staked out a stance that is crudely dismissive of both Indigenous science and the herstory of Indigenous people.
And that is why the three of us—Theresa Harlin, Native advocate for re-matriating ancestral lands held as public lands,Peggy Berryhill, radio personality and member of the Muscogee Nation, and Peter Byrne, a science journalist of Irish heritage—joined forces to critique Wuerthner’s stance, which in our opinion is dangerously ill-informed, remarkably ahistorical, and, sadly, burdened by the sociological and cultural baggage which Molvar and Small called out as unacceptable. We opine that Wuerthner is not competent to judge Treuer’s thesis on a factual, historical or cultural basis. Our three essays are not intended to inform Mr. Wuerthner, nor to change his point of view—although either outcome would be salutary, indeed. Rather, we are targeting those of his readers who may have fallen prey to what we assess as the non-factual assertions and Indian-baiting tropes that pervade his writing.
Wuerthner begins his critique of The Atlantic feature story with a bold untruth: “Rather than celebrate parks as one of the best ideas in America, Treuer denigrates them.” The refutation of that claim is up front in Treuer’s article: “The national parks are the closest thing America has to sacred lands, and like the frontier of old, they can help forge our democracy anew. More than just America’s ‘best idea,’ the parks are the best of America, the jewels of its landscape. It’s time they were returned to America’s original peoples.”
Wuerthner then observes, “Many in the WOKE social justice movement advocate the transfer of national parks to tribal entities.” As proof, he links to a Mother Jones article that notes (ominously to Wuerthner, one presumes), “Native peoples around the world are already beginning to see the fruits of some of their efforts to reclaim their ancestral lands. Earlier this month, Australia returned nearly 400,00 acres including the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, to Indigenous peoples.” By the way, Merriam Webster defines “woke” as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Wuerthner may not consider himself woke enough to care about racial and social injustice, so it is not surprising that he pushes back against the historical fact that white society set out to exterminate the Indigenous peoples of North America.
He writes, “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 Indians 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. … There is no connection between the removal of Indians to reservations and the creation of national parks.”
Aside from the fact that, despite the best efforts of colonialism, Indigenous people were not “defeated” and their ten million descendants make up three percent of the population of the United States, it is illuminating to learn that Wuerthner considers himself to be a student of Native American history and culture. As we shall see, he habitually declines to reference historical or scientific sources to credibly back up many of the supposedly factual and descriptive statements he makes, including his labeling of Native Americans as the original “colonists of North America.”
Yes, he said that.
Here is a commonly accepted definition of colonist: “A colonist is a member of a government-backed group that settles in a new country or region … despite the presence of native people.”
Do Indians really fit the definition of colonialists, George? Of course not, so why did you say that about the First Peoples to live on this continent?
Wuerthner goes on to vaguely claim that Treuer’s historical account of genocide is “mainly relying on other earlier inaccurate accounts” and “misinformation,” but Wuerthner does not bother to identify those sources. Treuer’s magazine article links to various historical and scientific studies, and the facts he presents are easy verifiable from a scholarly tradition that includes hundreds of solidly sourced books. Here is a list of a representative few of the most recent volumes—required reading for any self-proclaimed scholar of Native American history and culture, George.
If Mr. Wuerthner was an expert in the history of western expansion and the creation of national parks and reservations, he could not have written with a straight face, “Indian removal to reservations had no more to do with the creation of national parks than the establishment of San Francisco, Chicago or Denver.”
It was the creation of the smokey, crowded cities that inspired the urban rich to agitate for the creation of national parks with recreational “wilderness.” Volumes of historical research reveal the national parks were created by governmental policies designed to remove the Indigenous inhabitants through legalized mass murder, forced evictions, systematic starvation, dishonored treaties, barbed wire cattle enclosures, deliberate extirpation of the native food supply, and legislative denial of legal and civil rights to Indigenous individuals.
But, no, for Mr. Wuerthner, “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.”
Must we point out that the last sentence of that paragraph contradicts the first sentence? Do not pass Go, George. Clairvoyant Wuerthner claims to have access to the “minds” of those creating the parks. Unfortunately for him, these “minds” left plenty of documents behind recording their intentions, as Treuer points out.
In 1886, the sainted national park-promoting “conservationist” and white supremacist and soon to be president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, cackled, “The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian. I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Wuerthner, the self-proclaimed Indian scholar, incorrectly writes that the “Chumash Indians who lived in San Francisco …”. If George had bothered to look at Wikipedia, which is the main source for supposedly factual statements he occasionally bothers to reference, he would have learned that the Chumash people were located hundreds of miles south of the Bay Area in Santa Barbara. Oops. Go to Jail, George.
Wuerthner does not appear to have read, much less studied Benjamin Madly’s scholarly An American Genocide, which documents that in the early 1850s California paid salaries to members of vigilante groups policing potential parklands. Led by professional Indian killer James Savage, the 560-man Mariposa Battalion slaughtered dozens of Miwok families in the Yosemite Valley. In a series of sneak attacks, Savage’s forces killed men, woman and children and burned their houses and barns on the Land where their ancestors had resided since time immemorial.
Relying upon a Wikipedia post, Wuerthner chooses to laud Savage’s Mariposa Battalion as “a militia consisting of miners … regular frontiersman. … the miners felt threatened due to Indian depredations and attacks … 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.”
Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas fought back bravely and at terrible odds against the centuries long invasion of tens of millions of disease-bearing white settlers with their guns and ammunition, toxifying gold mining, exploitative trading posts, and violently racist mentalities. Backed by the US Army, settlers in California poisoned the water and clear cut the forests and carelessly slaughtered game in excess of nutritive needs. The few whites that fell to the violence of Indian self-defense and retribution are a trickle in the ocean of Indigenous blood unleashed by the settler vanguards of capitalist-colonialism.
Wuerthner’s reference for his Savage hagiography is a sparsely sourced pro-white settler propaganda Wikipedia entry on James Savage, whom the white supremacist Ronald Reagan immortalized as the heroic Blond King in an episode of Death Valley Days. General Electric Corporation sponsored that television show, which launched Reagan’s political career and resulted in his much criminally indicted presidential administration planning and funding the genocide of Indigenous populations in Central America. Following Reagan’s pernicious lead, Wuerthner paints the Blond King as a peaceable man, driven to justified violence by warlike Indians.
Wuerthner writes, “To avoid bloodshed, the Battalion commander, James Savage, told the Miwok chief Tenya … that his tribe had to sign a treaty, or his people would face harsh consequences. Savage was not inherently anti-Indian, [he] even married native women from local tribes. … Upon entering the [Yosemite] valley …. 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 … In the West, and among the Indians themselves, the Old Testament an eye for an eye was the common response to any insult, theft, or killing. … [These Yosemite Valley Indians] were taken to a reservation near Fresno.”
According to Wuerthner, Indigenous peoples, like their tormentors, were followers of the revenge- and incest-obsessed Judeo-Christian Old Testament patriarchs—but nothing could be further from the anthropologically validated truth. No, apparently eager to whitewash the history of colonialist genocide, Wuerthner claims, without any credible historical support, “Intertribal warfare across the West was likely responsible for far more Indian deaths than anything the US Army or even the vigilante groups could effect. … 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.”
Mr. Wuerthner does not explain what those “American values” were, but he has an opinion regarding Indigenous 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 as with derision … The savage is naturally vain, cruel and arrogant. He boasts of his murders and robberies, and the torture of his victims very much in the same manner that he recounts his deeds of valor in battle.’”
Wuerthner comments, “The quote accurately described Indian attitudes towards war and their enemies is …. In many tribes, your status was based on the ability to collect scalps … Tribes regularly mutilated and tortured their enemies whether other tribes or white people. … most tribes had no sense of shame or morality about what we would today consider barbarous behavior … it is easy to understand how white settlers could conclude that Indians were barbaric and cruel given a different set of cultural values.”
Easy to understand, George? So you say.
It is 2021 and the conservationist Wuerthner sides with the white settlers against the barbaric, shameless, immoral Indigenous communities obstructing mining, commerce and agriculture. He conveniently omits that it was the white settler-vigilantes who took Indian scalps by the thousands for state-supported bounties. Does Wuerthner believe that any form of violent Indigenous resistance to state-sanctioned genocide required that resisters deserved to be killed for not marching into the concentration camps peaceably?
By way of sourcing his claims that Indians were barbaric and animalistic, Wuerthner references a perennially best selling book published in 1838 and in the 1920s and revived in 2016 as the virulently racist Trump era dawned. 21 Months a Captive: Rachel Plummer and the Fort Parker Massacre is cast as fragments of the memoir of a 17 year old girl who was purportedly captured and tortured and sexually brutalized by Comanches after her family had enclosed their tribal lands in Texas. There is no reason to regard the Plummer book as factually true; it was largely written by her entrepreneurial father James Parker after Rachel died at age 20.
The Plummer book is but one of many torture-porn cultural artifacts, including so-called Cowboys & Indians movies, that have projected a monstruous image of Indigenous people into the collective unconscious of white America for generations.
Wuerthner seems happy to source many of his Indian-baiting statements to a range of Indian-hating popular books, but he seems to be untutored in scholarly studies that would give the lie to images of the barbarous, priapic, warlike Indian attacking Bible-worshipping settlers who were just trying to make their livings. The Klu Klux Klan and its newest incarnation as the Republican Party have long promoted similar views of Black and Indian people to justify the lynchings of thousands during the 19th and 20th centuries. While these racist memes remain standard fare in online white supremacist circles, like White Rabbit, it is shocking to find such echoes in The Wildlife News.
Here and in other essays in The Wildlife News, Wuerthner flails against the well-proven fact that Indigenous burning and scientifically constructed horticultural practices shaped much of the ecology of North America symbiotically for plants, animals and humans and for thousands of years prior to the colonial invasions.
Mr. Wuerthner claims that meadow and forest understory burning is worthless because it does not stop modern wildfire conflagrations. And that may be true to some degree under modern drought conditions, but Wuerthner misses or chooses to ignore the well-substantiated fact that Indigenous burning was not intended to stop the type of catastrophic wildfire we experience today. Rather, Indigenous people tended selected portions of the land with the controlled burning of nutritious grasses and plants and trees that thereby reseeded, and provided space and food for human and wildlife, lichens, trees and bushes to thrive. Indeed, a recent investigation by an international consortium of scientists provides convincing evidence that Indigenous people consciously shaped the ecology of the planet for at least 12,000 years.
But Wuerthner is having none of that. He claims that Indians only tended small portions of the land and “human influence was not ubiquitous, not did it overwhelm natural processes across the continent. … 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. …. Advocates of Indian burning make it sound like the natural world relied on humans to remain ‘healthy’ or ‘productive.’”
In fact, millions of acres in North America were tended for thousands of years by burning combined with pruning and agroecological practices because Indigenous people knew that what they gave to the Land, the Land would restore to them. Antithetically, modern settler colonialism continues to rely upon a purely extractive mindset. And it is the ruination of the land by industrial and agricultural capitalism that is driving many tribes around the globe to fight back nonviolently as they are still forced off the Land at gunpoint, as at Standing Rock and in Amazonia and Canada and so many other water protection sites.
Bouncing off Reagan’s infamous “lazy welfare queens” trope, Mr. Wuerthner asserts, “The [tribal] lands were sold to the federal government, not ‘stolen’ as often portrayed. … 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.”
We are not making this shit up. Many of Wuerthner’s statements are provably false and the reader is recommended to the bibliography we posted above for a genuine history of how the national park system was built upon Indigenous removal into concentration camps.
Wuerthner writes, “Next Treuer uses the old argument about Yellowstone that native people had lived there for thousands of years and claimed Yellowstone as their home …. 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.”
Except, well, you did live there, George, duh.
It is well known, as Wuerthner himself observed in his 1992 book Yellowstone, A Visitor’s Companion that Indigenous peoples thrived in the Yellowstone region for more than ten thousand years before they were driven out by US soldiers. For one of many historical accounts that put the test of truth to Wuerthner’s claims, the reader can access Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks.
With the Crow, Blackfeet, Bannock, and Shoshone peoples expelled from their ancient hunting grounds, the first national park was created at Yellowstone with racially segregated facilities, a disgusting practice followed by the National Park Service into the 1960s, which was not excusable then or now, even though Wuerthner advises that we must not “use today’s cultural and social values to judge the past.”
Like slavery, George? Easy to understand, is it?
Of course, institutional racism is alive and well at the National Park Service. As a case in point, here is an account of how the NPS treats 100 centuries of Coast Miwok archeology and dwellings at Point Reyes National Seashore—as so much garbage.
Let’s conclude with perhaps the most egregious of Wuerthner’s many misstatements about Indigenous people: “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.”
Apparently, George only consults Wikipedia when it’s anonymous editors agree with his premises. But if he had, he would have learned, “The [Bison] species’ dramatic decline was the result of habitat loss due to the expansion of ranching and farming in western North America, industrial-scale hunting practiced by non-indigenous hunters, increased indigenous hunting pressure due to non-indigenous demand for bison hides and meat, and cases of deliberate policy by settler governments to destroy the food source of the native Indian peoples during times of conflict. The US Army sanctioned and actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of bison herds. The federal government promoted bison hunting … primarily to pressure [Indians] onto Indian reservations the during times of conflict by removing their main food source. Without the bison, native people of the plains were often forced to leave the land or starve to death.”
One could go on with more examples, but it is time for The Wildlife News readership to reject such ahistorical disdain for the ancestors of Indigenous peoples and their descendants. It is the persistence of inherently racialized attitudes fomenting inside portions of the conservationist movement that makes it imperative to wholeheartedly adopt Treuer’s proposal that, “All 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States. … The total acreage would not quite make up for the General Allotment Act, which robbed us of 90 million acres, but it would ensure that we have unfettered access to our tribal homelands. And it would restore dignity that was rightfully ours. To be entrusted with the stewardship of America’s most precious landscapes would be a deeply meaningful form of restitution. Alongside the feelings of awe that Americans experience while contemplating the god-rock of Yosemite and other places like it, we could take inspiration in having done right by one another.”
Humans have always shaped nature, even as our environments have shaped whom we are. It is past time for us all to make that relationship a conscious act and to take on the responsibility of creating a future for all of us in a world where many humans are searching to regain the tremendous body of traditional ecological knowledge lost to capitalist consumerism.
In fact, as Theresa and Peggy point out in their companion essays, scores of tribes and Indigenous organizations have been working together to heal the Earth for many years. Indigenous peoples are leading the way in confronting the climate emergency and envisioning a livable future. What will you do, dear reader?
 Anderson, Kat, Tending the Wild, University of California Press, 2005. Pps.4-8.
 Madley, B., An American Genocide The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, Yale University Press, 2016. Pps. 188-193.
 One can doubt that the multiple women Savage “married” viewed the situation so primly.
Peter Byrne is an investigative reporter and science writer in Northern California. Touch base with him at www.peterbyrne.info
Greta Anderson is a plant nerd, a desert rat, and a fan of wildness. She is the Deputy Director of Western Watersheds Project and lives on the land of the Tohono O'Odham and Yaqui people in what is now called Arizona. Greta's opinions and world views are not necessarily reflected in the posts of other authors on this blog.
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- Bi State Sage Grouse Reinstated As Proposed Threatened By Court May 19, 2022
- BLM Fails To Protect Public Patrimony Through Renewal of Grazing Privileges Without Environmental Review May 17, 2022
- Conservation Groups Threaten To Sue On East Paradise Grazing Decision May 12, 2022
- Gratitude for National Parks May 11, 2022
- Jimmy Carter Supports Protection of Izembek NWR Wilderness May 10, 2022
- BLM Fails To Protect Public Patrimony Through Renewal of Grazing Privileges Without Environmental Review on
- Gratitude for National Parks on
- Bi State Sage Grouse Reinstated As Proposed Threatened By Court on
- Bi State Sage Grouse Reinstated As Proposed Threatened By Court on
- BLM Fails To Protect Public Patrimony Through Renewal of Grazing Privileges Without Environmental Review on
- Bi State Sage Grouse Reinstated As Proposed Threatened By Court on
- BLM Fails To Protect Public Patrimony Through Renewal of Grazing Privileges Without Environmental Review on
- Gratitude for National Parks on