Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I felt separated from federal public lands, like national parks or national forests. At the time, I did not even grasp that I lived near the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As I got older and decided to go to graduate school, I began to understand the meaning of federal lands, especially in relation to Indigenous peoples. My first foray into the blatant removal of Native peoples through the creation of national parks was reading Dispossessing the Wilderness Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (1999) by Mark Spence. Spence detailed the policies of removal that led to the creation of America’s national parks. The root of these policies is very troubling, and Spence’s work displays the unequal relations between the federal government and Native American nations. Spence’s book completely changed my perspective on traveling and visiting these places—national parks and other federal land agencies—that have often been considered a “great” American idea. This idea stemmed from the notion of preservation based upon the dispossession of Native American people and erasing their culture and values directly tied to these landscapes. Many people consider the protection of these places to be vital. They are not wrong. However, it is important for us to note the troubled history of these landscapes.
In August of 2017, I started my first year as a Ph.D. student at CU Boulder. I was fortunate to join an existing project that sought to explore how Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) might begin to change the interpretive materials used by park staff to acknowledge and detail Indigenous historical presence in the Park. The project partners are the Center of the American West (CAW), the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies (CNAIS), RMNP, and tribal nations with historic and contemporary ties to the lands now in the park. As someone new to the project in 2017, I was interested to see how the multitude of agencies and institutions were working with tribes and the National Park Service. In particular, I was interested to see how these stakeholders would handle addressing and incorporating tribal history from multiple tribes in an open and honest manner with park visitors.
My first meeting between the stakeholders was in late September 2017 in Estes Park. There were so many elk around where we were staying. Anytime we went outside, we were greeted with their loud bugling, as it was elk rutting season. At the gathering, I met so many great people from the park service, tribal partners, and university that I knew this project would be successful, in part due to the emphasis on building positive and on-going relationships with tribes.
Fast-forward a year and two additional tribal meetings later, I am fortunate to continue to work on the project as the Research Assistant for the Center for the American West. In this position, I am helping to create new interpretative materials for the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute peoples that detail their tribal history and current connections not only with the park but with Colorado.
Author photo of Ute Mountain Tribal Park.
This semester, I was able to visit the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes. Both are part of the project in southwest Colorado. It was a great trip filled with packed days of meetings, visiting the Southern Ute Cultural Center, and visiting the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. I learned more about Ute history, culture, and each Ute tribe than I had learned before. Being able to visit the tribal partners at their offices is an important part of our project. I enjoyed spending time in the Southern Ute Cultural Center and at Ute Mountain Tribal park because it shows how tribes are representing themselves through a museum and a tribal national park. Particularly Ute Mountain tribal park was an amazing experience for me because I had never been to a tribally owned and operated national park before. We were fortunate to have the Ute Mountain THPO office give us a tour to show us various sites that included ancestral Puebloan and Ute rock art and surface dwellings in the park.
Author photo of Southern Ute Cultural Center.
During a recent phone conversation with one of our tribal partners, a tribal historic preservation officer expressed that RMNP doing this work helps to teach visitors who perhaps do not know about historic and contemporary Indigenous land rights and connections to the land. Educating visitors on the true history of national parks is crucial for understanding that these spaces were created upon dispossession. Moreover, a greater understanding of the relationship between national parks and tribes encourages visitors to think about whose land they are traveling, recreating, and living on. The millions of people who visit national parks all over the U.S. often have no opportunity to learn about Indigenous peoples’ historic and contemporary relationship with the land. Changing the interpretative materials at RMNP to reflect tribal living histories will educate/inform visitors on whose land they are on and the accurate founding of the park. Our effort, started at RMNP, will hopefully act as a positive model for other parks within the whole national park system as well as provide a model of collaboration for other federal agencies collaborations with tribes.
Overall, this project is continuing to teach me about the crucial relationship between tribes and federal agencies. This model is predicated on a co-collaborative relationship and works best when all stakeholders engage in honest communication. Moving forward, I hope that other national parks will strive for the model that has been developed with RMNP, CAW and CNAIS, and their tribal partners.