There are more than 600 tribes native to the area we call the United States of America. Most of these tribes have had their sacred places taken away and turned into national parks. Whether by sneaky treaty or bloody war, their ancestral land was stolen and turned into a tourist destination. So cool your Jet Ski for a minute and look into this deep, murky water with me.
“Early park officials quickly realized that Indians could prevent tourists from experiencing all the benefits and enjoyments that Yellowstone had to offer the American people.” (1)
The Blackfeet were banned from hunting and gathering food in Glacier National Park, like they had sustainably done for thousands of years, to preserve game for tourist hunters.
Heck, even Yosemite National Park is named after a tribe removed from the valley.
This sort of history goes so deep it’ll put your brain’s butt to sleep, so let’s just look at Mount Rushmore. It’s the most awesome example of turning a sacried, natural place into a tourist trap. The Black Hills in South Dakota were promised to the Lakota Sioux in an 1868 federal treaty (2), but the government kinda forgot to keep the promise when gold was discovered. Then, in 1927, some men showed up with drills and dynamite to carve big white faces into the Black Hills—big white faces of federal government employees. What a burn! They may as well have nailed up a sign that said, “Your place is mine.”
But don’t think for one second this kind of bullshit goes on without protest from tribal members. One of my favorite videos is a black-and-white 1970 CBS news broadcast reporting, “Another dawn rises above Mount Rushmore and a small band of American Indians who cling not only to the craggy edges of the mountain, but to the hope that someday this land will be theirs again.” (3) Professor and activist Lehman Brightman lays it out hard to the reporter: “We’re sick and tired of sitting back and turning the other cheek, then bending over to get those other two kicked.”
Members from different tribes sat together on top of Mount Rushmore shouting, playing loud drums, and photo-bombing tourist’s snapshots by hanging a huge flag that said, “SIOUX INDIAN POWER.” Tribal protesters occupied the top of Mount Rushmore for three months until severe winter weather forced them down.
Mount Rushmore is a national memorial overseen by the National Park Service. It’s pretty cool. You should check it out, but if you’re in the area, swing by another part of the Black Hills, Crazy Horse Mountain. The name honors a chief who kicked the shit out of General Custer when he tried to take the Black Hills before the gold rush. Chief Henry Standing Bear took to the idea of carving big faces into rocks, and hired one of the Rushmore carvers to do a depiction of Crazy Horse that’s even bigger than the dead presidents. It’s so freaking huge it’s still being carved, and its purpose is to honor the “culture, traditions, and living heritage of the North American Indians.” (4) I love it, but I wish they’d carve Crazy Horse flipping Rushmore off.
Here’s the punchline, though: Nothing is forever. We can fight each other over property rights and even carve our faces into mountains to claim ownership, but nobody owns this planet. Long after we’ve killed the air, the water, and our beautiful cultures, nature will keep dancing to its own song. It’s a slow song. Listen up, and you might be able to hear it if you turn off your fucking Jet Ski.
1. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks by Mark David Spence, pg. 56
3. “United Native Americans Reclaim Mount Rushmore,” posted by Quanah Brightman