Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 2:

Native Americans throughout the United States have had a long and complex history of interacting with the National Park Service and with those, both in Washington, D.C. and in the various parklands, who have been entrusted to carry out the agency's policies. In this chapter, an attempt is made to briefly illustrate how NPS policy toward subsistence activities historically developed in non-Alaskan venues. To some extent, the agency's attitude toward subsistence activities has been one facet of how Native Americans and the NPS have related with each other over the years. Three recently-published studies—by Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek, by Mark David Spence, and by Philip Burnham—have ably addressed NPS-Native American relationships in areas outside of Alaska, and they have been repeatedly used as source materials. Those interested in this larger question, therefore, would be advised to consult these or other sources. It should be emphasized that both Natives and non-Natives have engaged in subsistence uses in the vicinity of NPS units. As noted at the conclusion of this chapter, these practices continue to the present day. Most of the chapter, however, pertains to actions and policies taken prior to the mid-1970s, when NPS planners began developing a subsistence policy that would be applied to Alaska park units.

A. Early Policies Toward Native Americans and Subsistence

As historian Roderick Nash and others have noted, one of the philosophical progenitors of the national park idea was a proposal by George Catlin, a Philadelphia-based artist and writer. Nine years earlier, Catlin had traveled up the Missouri River to Fort Pierre, in present-day South Dakota. He had been horrified by the fort's influence on the lives of Plains Indian people; conversely, however, he was impressed by the Indians' character and by the area's large animal populations. In an 1841 publication, Catlin asked his readers to imagine them

as they might in the future be seen ... preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!

Catlin envisioned that such a park would encompass the entire Great Plains, all from way from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Noble as Catlin's idea may have been, however, it ran diametrically opposite to U.S. government policy at the time. As ecologist Raymond Dasmann has poignantly noted, "[h]alf of Catlin's dream was realized. The animals were given the first national park. The Indians had a different appointment with destiny." [1]

When Congress created the first national park in 1872, to protect the geysers and other natural features in the Yellowstone country, the nation was less than a century old. Although a transcontinental railroad between the various midwestern and Pacific states was an accomplished reality, the vast country of the desert and intermountain west was still largely unsettled by non-Natives. As the U.S. Census Bureau indicated, there was an unbroken line in the western Great Plains beyond which the frontier was still alive and well—the frontier being defined as an area in which the density of population (both Native and non-Native) did not exceed two persons per square mile. Although many Native American groups, by 1872, were confined to reservations, many others were not: among those who had not yet been subjugated were various Sioux and Cheyenne tribes (the Battle of the Little Bighorn was four years in the future), along with a number of Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Apache, and other groups. Most of the NPS's "crown jewels"—Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain national parks—were inhabited by Indians, primarily if not exclusively, when Yellowstone National Park was established. [2]

Because the National Park Service would not come into existence for more than four decades after Yellowstone became a reality, the policies of the early national parks—as they pertained to American Indians as well as a host of other subjects—can best be discerned from language contained in the various enabling acts and from contemporary accounts that detail the nature of early park management.

Yellowstone, like virtually all of the early national parks, had a long history of Native use prior to the 1870s. Bands of Plains Shoshones were perhaps the main residents, but the nearby Crow and Blackfeet Indians commonly traveled through the area on hunting, trading, or war-making trips. The famous Washburn exploring party of 1870, which was one of several early non-Native groups to explore the area within the present-day park, encountered various abandoned Indian camps and relied on a number of well-used Indian trails. Paradoxically, however, members of the Washburn expedition later claimed that the proposed park was a primeval wilderness that was "never trodden by human footsteps." [3] The park's enabling act, perhaps operating from that spurious assumption, ominously noted that the Interior Secretary "shall provide against wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park [and] shall also cause all persons trespassing upon the same after the passage of this act to be removed therefrom...." [4] The park act, however, did not generally ban hunting and fishing, and despite the ban on "wanton destruction," depredations continued by non-Native hide-hunters, poachers and others for a decade or more. [5] During the next few years, many Shoshones began to retreat from contact; the Treaty of Fort Bridger, signed in 1868, was one reason for their gradual relocation from the Yellowstone country, although a growth in the number of non-Native visitors may have also spurred their disappearance. By the late 1870s, many Shoshones had been relocated to Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation; and the Nez Perce, who passed through the park in 1877, were later captured by U.S. troops and similarly transferred to a reservation. By 1880, Superintendent Philetus Norris was demanding that all Indians leave Yellowstone. He gave three reasons for his action. First, Norris stated that "Yellowstone is not Indian country and no natives lived in the park." Second, "Indian fear of geysers kept them out of the park" (he quoted a Shoshone who had told him that the geysers were "heap, heap bad"), and finally, Norris claimed that "Yellowstone is for the use and enjoyment of all Americans." Thus, it appears that a combination of faulty anthropology, a skewed (and incorrect) notion of Natives' belief systems, and a narrowly-defined concept of "Americans" justified the Natives' expulsion. [6] Then, in 1894, Congress passed a new law stating that "all hunting ... at any time of any bird or wild animal ... is prohibited within the limits of said park; nor shall any fish be taken out of the waters of the park by means of seines, nets, traps ... or in any other way than by hook and line...." The law's primary intention was to solidify the park's stature as a game reserve, but it also underlined Congress's interest in keeping Indians, as well as other nearby residents, out of the park. Given those attitudes, which were not unusual among policymakers at that time, Natives were excluded from the park and its resources for decades afterward. As late as 1935, the U.S. government denied a petition from nearby Crow Indians to regain access. [7]

Congress established Yosemite as a national park in 1890; 36 years earlier, however, Abraham Lincoln had reserved Yosemite Valley and assigned it to the State of California. Here, the Natives' lot was dramatically different than at Yellowstone. Initial contacts were unfortunate; in 1852, area gold miners killed several of the area's Miwok inhabitants and drove away the remainder. Not long afterward, however, the Miwoks returned on either a seasonal or year-round basis. For the next several decades, the State of California nominally administered the area, though they had little interest in active management. During this period, tourists considered the Miwoks "one of the many attractive features of Yosemite;" but Helen Hunt Jackson, the well-known Indian sympathizer, ironically called them "filthy" and "uncouth." John Muir, who played a major role in establishing the national park, similarly found them "mostly ugly, and some of them altogether hideous," and he felt that they had "no right place in the landscape." In 1890, Yosemite's boundaries dramatically enlarged when the area became the country's second national park. Fifty-two Indians, in response, petitioned Congress for compensation for "the overbearing tyranny and oppression of the white gold hunters" who had destroyed their previous way of life. Their petition was ignored, however, and the U.S. Army, which began administering the area surrounding Yosemite Valley, exerted an increasing amount of pressure to limit Native hunting activities. The administrators of Yosemite Valley, however, were far more tolerant toward the area's Natives than their Yellowstone counterparts, and for several decades into the twentieth century, Yosemite Valley boasted an "Indian village," where several Native American park employees resided along with their families. [8]

Mount Rainier National Park, established in 1899, gave new evidence of how Native Americans and their culture were treated within parks. Here, as at the other early parks, Indian place names were common, and the concessioner employed Indians to provide a sense of atmosphere and to sell curios to tourists. But tourists to Mount Rainier learned little about the area's Native American history, about the local groups or about prominent Native American individuals. Local Yakimas, [9] prior to the park's establishment, had hunted at a site southwest of the mountain that is still known as Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, and just east of the mountain a Yakima band had often hunted at Yakima Park (now known as the Sunrise area). After NPS officials began administering the park they found evidence, in 1915, of ongoing hunting activity in Yakima Park. An Interior Department Solicitor's opinion that year upheld the Natives' right to continue their traditional activity so long as it did not impinge upon the park's stated purposes. The Department, however, made no move to establish regulations that would have implemented that opinion. Then, less than a year later, Congress stepped in. On June 30, 1916, it passed an act which accepted the State of Washington's cession of exclusive jurisdiction over lands within the park. That act, among its other provisions, gave the NPS the right of exclusive jurisdiction over the park, and NPS officials on the local level, as a result, moved to ban subsistence hunting in the park. To test that right, a Yakima hunting party re-entered the park in October 1916. The park supervisor, in response, sought counsel from an NPS official in Washington. He urged that the Yakimas be arrested. By the time local rangers could act, however, the hunters had left the park with their game. The following October, Native hunters entered the park again. Alerted of their presence, the park supervisor and two other officials drove to Yakima Park and arrested six Indians who were in possession of freshly skinned deer hides. All pleaded guilty and were given small fines. The case made it clear that the new agency lacked a definite policy regarding subsistence hunting by Natives, and it set a precedent that would be used at other parks for years afterward. As an ironic coda, it should be noted that while the NPS was zealous in its enforcement of laws prohibiting hunting at Mount Rainier National Park, it had no problem with Native Americans' use of the park for berry picking or spear fishing. Officials sensed, correctly or not, that both activities were carried on only occasionally (and thus had few long-term impacts on park resources). Spear fishing, moreover, was tolerated and even encouraged because of its inclusion in Yakima interpretive demonstrations. [10]

Many motives have been ascribed for the rise of the national park movement, but as the examples of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other early parks made clear, they did not include a role for Indians. This state of affairs was due, in part, to the fact that most of the early parks were located in the raw, unsettled west; and although the western frontier was becoming a popular subject for dime novels and wild west shows, it was still too recent and too dangerous for most policymakers and potential park visitors. As noted in Chapter 1, large numbers of white Americans, beginning in the 1880s, sympathized with the Natives' plight and recognized that they had often been treated unjustly. But their attitudes, which were heavily influenced by ideas dating back to the Enlightenment, demanded that Native Americans be "civilized" rather than respected for their lifeways and belief systems. And a byproduct of those attitudes, at the various national parks, was that there was little direct interaction between Native Americans and non-Native tourists. Most park visitors, rightly or wrongly, either ignored Native Americans or perceived them as a vague, sullen, largely invisible threat. [11] Indeed, some white Americans (and particularly those who lived in the western states and territories) openly discriminated against Native Americans. Attitudes such as these remained for years afterward and had a strong impact on early NPS policies toward Native Americans.

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003