November 8, 2020 – All public land was once tribal land. From the Seminole people of the Everglades to the Athabascans who gave Denali its name, Native Americans have a connection to every national park, wildlife refuge and wilderness across the country. American Indians and Alaska Natives are incredibly diverse, with over 570 federally recognized tribes and over 5 million members, each with their own cultures and traditions. And while their contributions are often viewed through a historical lens, these traditions and cultures are alive and thriving. Throughout Interior, historians and interpreters – including many with Native American heritage – continue to shine a light on these overlooked, and often dark, chapters of our history. Visiting public lands and hearing the stories of these proud and resilient people is a meaningful way to better understand and appreciate these nations, their history, perspectives, cultures and contributions.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Devils Tower is a striking geologic formation. A mighty volcanic throne rising above the Wyoming prairie cut with deep vertical cracks, visitors often say it resembles a gigantic tree stump. Tribes in the area developed their own origin stories for the monolith. The myths, legends and oral histories for Devils Tower are how the Northern Plains Tribes defined this natural wonder and passed down their traditions. Through oral tradition and storytelling, Native Americans have kept their history alive, taught culture and heritage to new generations, and underscored religious and moral beliefs.
The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota Nations all have many creation stories for this iconic monument, and The Crow story is one of the most often shared at the park. It tells of a group of Crows camped at “Bear’s House,” a place where many bears and one giant bear lived. Two girls were playing on nearby rocks, when the large bear started methodically creeping towards the girls thinking he found a tasty afternoon snack. By the time one of the girls looked up and saw the enormous bear, the only way to escape was climbing up the rocks they were playing on. Up they went, as fast as they could, but they couldn’t outpace the bear. The Great Spirit, seeing that the bear was about the catch the little girls, caused the rock to grow. The rock grew so high it dwarfed the trees and skyline and put the girls out of reach of the fearsome bear. As the giant bear tried to jump to the top of the tower, it missed and scratched the rock on his way down, resulting in the long, deep groves.
Visitors today can imagine that bear raging at the towering monolith as told in the creation story. They can also learn how the monument continues to be important to area tribes. Modern tribal connections are maintained at this site through personal and group ceremonies throughout the year. Sweat lodges, sun dances and other traditions are still practiced at the monument today. Prayer offerings – colorful cloth bundles that hold medicinal herbs – are placed near the Tower and can be seen along the park’s trails. As with many religious ceremonies, they are a private to the individual or group. Please do not touch, disturb or remove prayer cloths at the park.
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa
At Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, indigenous history is written on the land itself. Effigy means that these mounds are meant to look like something. In the Midwest, they are often in the shape of bears and birds, but there are also panthers, snakes and water spirits. The mounds were built by the Effigy Mound Culture from 650-1200 CE and just within the monument, there are over 200 mounds, 39 of which are bears. While the exact ceremonial purposes of the mounds are unknown about a quarter of them contain evidence of burials. From the ground, one sees rhythmic curving of the earth, large man-made hills, a memorizing blend of nature, art and architecture. From the sky, one can truly appreciate the shape of effigy mounts, like The Marching Bear group that shows a group of 10 bear-shaped mounds adjacent to one another, with a bird soaring below. Some of the Effigy Mound Culture’s earthen works are immense. Great Bear Mound is a 137 feet long and 70 feet wide. This place has been used and shaped by people since time immemorial and was known by many tribes as a neutral place to meet and pray. Today, there are 20 present-day tribes that currently access this land. They view Effigy Mounds National Monument as a sacred place.
Everglades National Park, Florida
One of the several tribes connected to the Everglades National Park region in Florida is the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Seminole is derived from “yat’siminoli” which means “free people” in the Seminole language. Their namesake pays homage to their history of resistance against both Spanish and American forces. The late 1700s and 1800s were marked by many conflicts and unofficial wars. Eventually, more than 3,000 Seminoles were forcibly removed their lands on their own prolonged Trail of Tears. However, a few hundred Seminoles hid in the Everglades and never signed a peace treaty. Today, their descendants remain in the region, part of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida and some unofficial Seminole tribes. Their existence in Florida was fought for, and the Seminole people survived. Today, there is a Miccosukee Indian Village adjacent to the Everglades National Park, and two close-by reservations.
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington
Billy Frank Jr. was a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe and an environmental justice leader and treaty rights activist. He was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for his commitment to protecting the Nisqually people’s traditional way of life. Frank was arrested more than 50 times in the 1960s and 70s during the “Fish War,” asserting not only the Nisquallys’ treaty rights but all local tribes. Frank led Native American groups near Puget Sound in “fish-ins,” modeled after the peaceful protests of the civil rights movement. Frank’s activism lead to the 1974 “Boldt Decision,” a Supreme Court case that reaffirmed tribal co-management and conservation of salmon resources in Washington state. This sprked the creation of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, of which Frank was chairman for 30 years. Frank used his platform to advocate for conservation and environmental preservation for half a century. In December, 2015, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington was renamed in his honor. Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is an estuary habitat – a blend of saltwater and freshwater marshland critical for the preservation of species diversity and bird migration. With over 4 miles of boardwalks, visitors can take a walk through the wildlife refuge, crossing tidal flats that dot the landscape with swatches of green, blue, and brown. On your visit, you can watch the tide come in, eagles swoop to get a snack, heron feed on the plentiful salmon and take a moment to contemplate the legacy of Billy Frank Jr. His uplifting spirit and tireless fight for Native American rights, environmental justice and wildlife conservation will always be a part of this wonderful refuge.
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, Montana & North Dakota
Between 1828 and 1867, Fort Union was the most important fur trading post on the Upper Missouri River. Here, nine Northern Plains Indian Tribes – Assiniboine, Arikara, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Cree, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan and Lakota/Dakota Sioux – exchanged buffalo robes and smaller furs for goods from around the world, including cloth, guns, blankets and beads. On the border of what is today North Dakota and Montana, Fort Union was a mainstay of peaceful coexistence. Although called a fort, the community was neither a government nor a military installation, but a privately owned commercial establishment founded to support business and foster cultural exchange. Several Native American languages were spoken here, as was English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and even Russian. Yet, somehow all of these people were able to communicate.
To honor this fascination blend of history, rangers at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site give visitors a glimpse of what life was like here. Focusing on tribal stories is a specialty of park ranger and historian Loren Yellow Bird, Sr. Yellow Bird is of Arikara and Hidatsa ancestry and personal stories make lasting impression. They also inform people on the challenges faced by Native Americans in the past and the present: “We are the most underrepresented, misunderstood and forgotten minority group in America. We struggle like anyone, go through our ups and downs. Our culture offers this country a big part of its history. Many times, what non-native people learned is some form of history that ends up being a small beep on their radar, something that gives only a small part of what they come to learn or understand.” Under the big sky, the bigger picture is revealed.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is a surreal landscape of sandy rock spires called hoodoos. Defying gravity these eroded layers of rock create mesmerizing undulating lines, making onlookers for hundreds of years wonder about their creation. Bryce Canyon has long been an important place for many Native American tribes like the Hopi and the Southern Paiutes. Creation stories for these striking geologic features are still passed on. In 1936 Indian Dick, a Paiute elder who lived on the Kaibab Reservation explained the legend of Bryce Canyon to a park naturalist:
“Before there were humans, the Legend People, To-when-an-ung-wa, lived in that place. There were many of them. They were of many kinds – birds, animals, lizards and such things, but they looked like people. They were not people. They had power to make themselves look that way. For some reason the Legend People…they did something that was not good… maybe not respecting the land… the tale is not clear at this point. Because they were bad, Coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces, with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks. The name of that place is Angka-ku-wass-a-wits (red painted faces). This is the story the people tell.” Look again at Bryce Canyon and you’ll see the red-painted faces, people frozen in time, some seem to be talking to each other or a loner standing apart, all part of a dramatic scene that until now you never knew was taking place.
Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National Park is not just beautiful, it’s life giving. Kobuk Valley is 9 million acres of sprawling valleys full of caribou, salmon and sand dunes. Yet, it is one of the least visited National Parks. Kobuk is only accessible by plane or boat in the summer and snowmobile in the winter, so it is easy to imagine this place as empty – but for hundreds the land is their grocery store, their playground, and a tie to their lineage. There is evidence of 12,500 years of human occupation in the park. Alaska contains 20 distinct Nations of Alaska Natives within its borders. About 20% of the Alaska population identify as Alaska Natives in 2010. Many federal parks in Alaska have subsistence programs where Alaska Native groups continue noncommercial, customary and tradition use of land; including hunting, fishing and gathering. This is especially important not only for the continuation of cultural practices, but also for parts of rural Alaska where there is food scarcity. Subsistence programs are a way to keep people and history alive, and in Kobuk Valley, Inupiat blend new and traditional knowledge every day. During salmon and caribou season many Inupiat families leave their homes and live in subsistence camps in the park in order to gather, fish, hunt and store food for winter months when total daylight can be just a few hours. Subsistence programs continue a direct dialogue between Alaska Natives and the land around them in a way that both respects and utilizes nature.
Crow Canyon Petroglyphs, New Mexico
Figures delicately carved into sandstone, brightly painted hands that seem to reach out to the viewer, chiseled grooves of lines and faces – petroglyphs come in every shape and size, seamlessly bridging the present and the past. Crow Canyon Petroglyphs, New Mexico is located in Dinétah, which translates “among the people.” Diné means “the people” while tah means “among or through,” demonstrating the relationship between the people and and land as being coexistence. Crow Canyon is a beautiful example of both Ancestral Puebloan and Navajo (Diné) petroglyphs, right in the heart of the traditional homeland of the Navajo (Diné) people. Navajo (Diné) occupied this region from the 1500s to the 1700s, but this rugged landscape was depopulated by 1770. The area has multiple archeological sites and ruins from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, including the nearby Defensive Sites of Dinétah, where the remains of over 200 “pueblitos” once used for defense and ceremonial purposes can be visited. Placed on National Register of Historic Places in 1974, Crow Canyon Petroglyphs represent animals, humans and supernatural beings like Navajo (Diné) deities. The petroglyphs are mostly clustered in groups on lower cliff faces and may have been associated with ceremonies. When visiting be sure to respect these sacred symbols and not touch, petroglyphs are often fragile and can be destroyed by human contact.
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail travels through Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee and marks the paths of the forced removal of all five southern tribes. The Cherokees, the Choctaws, the Creeks, the Chickasaws, and the Seminoles were forced to territories west of the Mississippi following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although the Indian Removal Act of 1830 passed by only 5 votes, approximately 100,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands over a span of 20 years.
Fighting back, nations like the Cherokee – or Ani’-Yun’ wiya – won a case in the Supreme Court that ruled in favor of the tribes’ previous treaty. The Cherokee had also shown the federal government that the vast majority of their people did not agree to leave, but it was not enough. In response to the case President Jackson reportedly said, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can.” In 1838, 6,000 state and federal militia troops forcibly removed 16,000 Cherokees first into large prison camps, then 1,000 marched over 800 miles to Oklahoma. It is conservatively estimated that over 4,000 Cherokee people died – 20 percent of the Cherokee population. One survivor recalled how his father got sick and died, then his mother, then, one by one, his five brothers and sisters, “One each day. Then all are gone.” The Trail of Tears was made into a National Historic Trail in 1987, a testament to devastating oppression, injustice, and cruelty endured by Native American people.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, North Dakota
Along the winding Upper Missouri River Valley, homes dotted the landscape like man-made hills and villages grew to cities that still dimple the landscape today with circular remnants of earth lodges. When the Lewis and Clark expedition entered the Knife River region in 1804, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people had already been there for over 500 years. There were two Mandan villages and three Hidatsa villages, known together as the Five Villages. Hidatsas lived in earth lodges on the banks of the Knife River, each housing a clan of 20-40 individuals. The Three Affiliate Tribes were matrilineal and agrarian people, and women would sing to the plants to help them grow and flourish.
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people let the Lewis and Clark expedition spend the 1805 winter in a fort the expedition named Mandan Fort “in honor of our Neighbors.” It was during their time at the fort that Lewis and Clark met and employed Sakakawea (Sacagewea) as a translator for the rest of the trip, and where she gave birth to her first son. The peaceful interactions between the tribes of the Five Villages and the expedition gave Lewis and Clark hope for future contacts with tribes as they continued their journey. The Native American experiences with the Lewis and Clark expedition were as varied and diverse as the tribes themselves. Some fostered understanding, others were violent. Important stories can be discovered along Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail as it crosses 16 states. These places help us remember an impactful chapter of American history where new relationships were forged.
At almost any public land there are archaeological remains of towns and trading routes, often there are location specific stories passed down by native groups, sometimes reservations are still within parks and wildlife refuges. From planted fruit trees to fire dependent ecosystems, deliberate actions of individuals and communities over time to cultivate, irrigate, and flourish shaped these ancestral lands. Today, there is only one reconstructed example earth lodge, but visitors can read the history of America through the land and imagine the bustling city from the numerous groves left by their homes.
Public lands have often been described as natural wonders, outdoor classrooms, wildlife habitat and recreation areas. But a thread running through the entire tapestry of our national parks, wildlife refuges, historic sites and wilderness areas is a purpose to connect visitors to an idea greater than themselves. Recognizing Native American history and honoring the resilience and traditions of these proud people can form a powerful and meaningful connection.