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Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures
Explore their Stories in the National Park System


The National Park Service: Preserving the Places and Stories of America's Diverse Cultural Heritage
By: Robert Sutton


Cliff Palace at the Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace at the Mesa Verde National Park
Courtesy of Andreas F. Borchert, Public Domain
"There is nothing so American as our national parks.... The fundamental idea behind the parks ...is that the country belongs to the people, [and parks make] for the enrichment of the lives of all of us."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made this statement in 1936, shortly after he issued an executive order transferring 19 battlefields from the War Department to the National Park Service, and placing an additional 30 mostly historical parks under the jurisdiction of the park system. Since then, the National Park Service has grown to almost 400 parks, of which nearly 70% tell stories of our amazing history, prehistory, and cultural diversity. From the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park and the ruins of Chaco Cultural National Historical Park that tell us much and pose many questions about ancient peoples, to the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail where African Americans struggled for civil rights, our parks weave a rich tapestry of our history and heritage.

But, National Park Service programs recognize, help protect, and interpret many more historic places all over the nation. The National Park Service expands and maintains the National Register of Historic Places, which lists well over a million and a half individual historic sites, buildings, and structures, many in historic districts, in almost every community--over 20,000 of which are in National Parks. The National Park Service joins with local, State, and private entities to promote the cultural, historical and natural assets of about 50 National Heritage Areas that provide economic stimuli to their regions and communities. In Louisiana, both the Cane River National Heritage Area and the Cane River National Historical Park within it celebrate and tell the story of the distinctive Creole architecture and multi-cultural legacy of Creole culture. The National Park Service also administers the National Trails System with its network of scenic, historic, and recreation trails. National historic trails, such as the Santa Fe Trail, commemorate historic (and prehistoric) routes of travel that are of national significance.
Damage resulting from the Port Chicago ammunition disaster of July 17,1944
Damage resulting from the Port Chicago ammunition disaster of July 17,1944
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Historical Center

Our parks represent us at our best, as at Independence Hall in Independence National Historical Park, where our forefathers voted to revolt against Great Britain and later crafted our government that has endured for over 200 years. Yet, we are not afraid to tell of our tragedies or the stories that do not put us in the best light. On the evening of July 17, 1944, the Port Chicago Naval Munitions base on San Francisco Bay was the site of the largest stateside military disaster of World War II, when a horrific explosion killed 320 men and injured another 390 men.

Of the 320 men who lost their lives, 202 were African Americans. After the tragedy, many of the survivors received orders to transfer to other facilities, including the over 300 mostly African American men ordered onto the loading pier of the Mare Island Naval facility, a few miles away. Most of the black sailors refused the order, citing their continued lack of training and that Mare Island had the same poor equipment as Port Chicago—thus the clear possibility of another explosion. Some 250 African American sailors who refused the transfer orders were arrested and charged with mutiny. About 200 reluctantly agreed to return to duty, but the 50 who still refused to load munitions were tried under courts martial proceedings.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial became the 392nd national park when President Barack Obama signed the legislation creating the park in December 2009. The park tells the story of the tragic explosion, the subsequent courts martial of African American sailors, and how this event became a catalyst for integrating the armed forces after the war.

Sign posted notifying people of Japanese descent to report for relocation
Sign posted notifying people of Japanese descent to report for relocation
Public Domain

Another tragedy of World War II was the relocation of Japanese Americans from their homes and business on the Pacific Coast, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Approximately 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were rounded up, sent to 10 major relocation centers, and held there for the duration of the war. The National Park Service interprets this story at Manzanar National Historic Site in California and is developing Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho and at Bainbridge Island, Washington. Another internment camp, Tule Lake Relocation Center in California, is included in the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

Port Chicago, Manzanar, Minidoka, and World War II Valor in the Pacific National Historical Park are just some of the parks that weave a tapestry of heroism, sacrifice, and tragedy from the World War II era in our history.

To better balance the interpretation of the events and stories of all Americans, several parks have shifted their focus to be more encompassing. In 1991, the National Park Service changed the name of Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and expanded the story it tells. Along with the name change, the interpretation shifted from a primary focus on Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry, 263 of which were killed, including Custer, to also discussing and commemorating the several thousand Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians who won an overwhelming victory in the battle on June 25, 1876.

What was a low point for most Americans—the overwhelming defeat of Custer, a hero of the American Civil War on the eve of the Centennial of the American Revolution—was a huge victory and cause for great celebration for other Americans, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne people. In addition to the markers, monuments, and gravestones that mark where Custer and his men fell, the park now has an Indian Memorial and several monuments to individual Indians who died or were heroes in the battle, such as the monument to Crazy Horse.

Chief Black Kettle
Chief Black Kettle
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado paint quite different pictures. In 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington led approximately 700 United States volunteer soldiers to a village of about 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado. Although the Cheyenne and Arapaho, under Chiefs Black Kettle and Left Hand, believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army, Chivington's troops attacked and killed about 150 people, mainly women, children, and the elderly. Ultimately, two federal investigations condemned the massacre.

Then, in 1868, Lieutenant Colonel Custer led an attack on the Southern Cheyenne Indians, killing Black Kettle, Indian warriors, and a number of women and children at a site now called Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma. At the time, many viewed the attack as a victory for reducing raids on white settlements, but over time, it was regarded as a massacre. Black Kettle had been attempting to negotiate peace for his people. Washita and Sand Creek put the United States government and military in a very poor light, but both are important parts of our history teaching Americans lessons about events in the past, which hopefully will not be repeated in the future.

Of course, not all national parks tell negative stories. Booker T. Washington National Monument in Virginia highlights the story of an African American man born into slavery on this plantation, who then returned to the same site over 50 years later as a leading American educator and orator. Booker T. Washington was the founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site also commemorates Washington’s work and the work of the professor he recruited to teach agriculture, George Washington Carver. Carver understood the problems with raising cotton in the South—soil depletion and boll weevil infestations—and advocated crop rotation, by encouraging planting peanuts, sweet potatoes and other legumes. He also developed new uses for these crops, making them more profitable. Like Booker T. Washington, Carver came from humble beginnings, a small farm in Missouri, which now celebrates his life at George Washington Carver National Monument.

Washing airplane. From "Pilot Training School, Tuskegee Institute," date May 1944
Washing airplane. From "Pilot Training School, Tuskegee Institute," date May 1944
Courtesy of the National Park Service and
the Air Force Historical Research Agency

Tuskegee Institute also became the training facility during World War II of the now famous African American Tuskegee Airmen. African American men from around the country joined the Army Air Force and came to Tuskegee for training. In all, nearly 1,000 pilots went through Tuskegee and other training facilities during the war. They flew mostly single-engine fighter planes, attacking enemy positions in North Africa and Europe, and gained enduring fame as bomber escorts throughout Europe. Many were honored for their exploits, and very few of their escort missions resulted in the loss of any bombers; in 2007, 350 airmen or their widows received Congressional Gold Medals. The 1995 film, The Tuskegee Airmen, starring Laurence Fishburne, told the story of the airmen, including the racism they faced. The film portrayed the Tuskegee Airmen as warriors who fought two wars—one against the Nazis and one against racism. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site commemorates their stories.

As the Era of Reconstruction was drawing to a close, the 15th child of 17—Mary McLeod Bethune—was born to former slave parents in the South Carolina. Educated by missionaries in the rural South, Ms. Bethune recognized the value of education for the struggle toward civil rights. In 1904, she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, which later merged with the Cookman Institute to become Bethune-Cookman College. Later, she moved to Washington, DC and founded the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of national African American women’s organizations and community-based programs in 1935. She was an advisor to 4 presidents, and was a recognized national leader for the cause of human rights. Ms Bethune’s life and work is celebrated in the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, which was her home in Washington, DC as well as the headquarters for the National Council.

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
Public Domain

The Tuskegee Airmen sought refuge from the racial prejudice many experienced by volunteering as pilots during World War II. Many miles away, and many years earlier, Hawaiian warriors sought a different type of refuge. A pu’uhonua was literally a refuge where vanquished warriors from the losing side of a battle could find safety. It also was a sanctuary for natives who violated laws that were punishable by death—such as entering space reserved for the royal family or eating forbidden foods. If the vanquished warriors or anyone who violated a taboo could reach a pu’uhonua, they would be safe. Pu’uhonua o Hanaunau National Historical Park commemorates this important part of native Hawaiian culture on the original site of one of these sanctuaries.

Religion was central to native Hawaiian culture. So, when Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha the Great, was consolidating his power over the islands in the late 1700s, he directed, together with chiefs, commoners, men, women and children, the construction of a temple, called a heiau, on the island of Hawaii between 1790-91. This temple was constructed to incur the favor of the war god Kuka'ilimoku. John Young, a British sailor left behind in Hawaii by an American ship in 1789, observed the construction and dedication of the temple. He reported that during the dedication, the sacrifice of a chief rival of Kamehameha I pleased the war god Ku. Young became an advisor to Kamehameha I as he waged battles using Western military strategy and weapons to extend his control over all Hawaiian Islands. The monarchy he established lasted 83 years, from 1810-1893. Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site preserves the temple and the remaining structures of the homestead granted to John Young by Kamehameha I.

In one of the greatest bargains in history, William Seward, the American Secretary of State, negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. Before the Russians settled in Alaska, and well before the United States purchased the territory, Alaska had a rich native culture. Some 13,000 years ago—possibly even earlier—Native peoples from Asia migrated across the land bridge that connected with North America during the last glacial epoch. The National Park Service protects the land bridge and over 2,600,000 acres of natural beauty in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

The Russian Bishop's House is one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America
The Russian Bishop's House is one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America
Courtesy of Roger Wollstadt, Flickr's Creative Commons

Established in 1910, Sitka National Historical Park, the oldest national park in Alaska, interprets the Russian settlement in Alaska, in the Russian Bishop’s House built in 1842, and the site of the last battle between the Tlingit Indians and the Russians in 1802. Native totems, both new and old, stand in the park, and the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in the park visitor center provides the opportunity for visitors to watch modern Native artists at work.

The purpose of Russians’ presence in Alaska was primarily to exploit fur-bearing animals along the coast. Secondarily, missionaries from the Russian Orthodox Church built nearly 90 churches throughout Alaska, with the purpose of converting the native Alaskans to Christianity. By the early 1800s, they had converted nearly 20,000 natives to the Christian faith. The Russian approach to religion was to allow the natives to maintain their native cultures, while at the same time helping them to develop alphabets for written literature, including an Aleut dictionary for hundreds of languages and dialects, based on the Russian alphabet.

Unlike the Russians, who recruited volunteer missionaries from the Russian Orthodox Church to go the Alaska, the Spanish settled what would later become the American Southwest by sending soldiers, settlers, and Catholic priests into new areas together. Such was the case with the settlement of San Antonio. In 1718, Martin de Alarcon arrived on the banks of the San Antonio River with 72 soldiers and settlers. Father Antonio de San Buenaventura de Olivares, a Franciscan missionary, accompanied Alarcon, and immediately started the construction of a mission, called San Antonio de Valero. Within two years, this mission became overcrowded, and a new mission, San José, was built five miles south on the San Antonio River. Eleven years later, Missions Espada, Conception, and San Juan were also built near the San Antonio River.

Mission San Jose is part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Mission San Jose is part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Public Domain

As San Antonio grew from a small settlement to the capital of the combined states of Coahuila and Texas, and after Mexico gained its independence, these missions continued as places of worship. Mission San Antonio de Valero, later known by its more famous name—the Alamo—was eventually abandoned as a church. Today, Missions San Juan, Espada, Conception, and San Jose are part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The park is unusual in that the National Park Service interprets the missions for park visitors, but all four continue as active parishes and hold regular church services.

The English, compared to the Spanish, were relative latecomers to the Americas. After the ill-fated colony on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina—the colonists disappeared in 1587—Jamestown became the first permanent settlement in Virginia in 1607. The English method of settlement was mostly through private investors in the joint stock company known as the London Company. A joint stock company, in this case the London Company, received a royal charter, which allowed it to sell shares to investors with the hope of profiting from the investment.

The English selected Jamestown Island mostly because it offered a favorable strategic defensive position against other European forces, which might approach by water. In addition, no local American Indians inhabited the site. The colonists soon discovered that mosquitoes plagued the isolated site, the tidal river water was unsuitable for drinking, and the location offered limited opportunities for hunting and little space for farming.

Pocahontas Statue at Jamestown, part of the Colonial National Historical Park
Pocahontas Statue at Jamestown, part of the Colonial National Historical Park
Courtesy of Flickr's Creative Commons

The colony struggled in its early years from starvation, hostile relations with the natives, and lack of profitable exports. Colonist John Rolfe, however, introduced a strain of tobacco, which the colony successfully exported in 1612, greatly improving the financial outlook for the colony. Rolfe married the young Indian woman, Pocahontas, daughter of Wahunsenacawh, Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, which ushered in a period of relative peace with the Indians.

By 1619, the prospects for profit attracted additional investments to the Virginia Company. That same year, another, more ominous event took place. A British pirate ship, under a Dutch flag—the White Lion—landed near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in need of repairs and supplies. On board were 20 African slaves, which the Virginia settlers purchased, thus beginning the institution of slavery in the future United States.

Jamestown is now a unit of the National Park Service, part of Colonial National Historical Park. The National Park Service manages the site in a partnership with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which has conducted archeology on the site for the past century. From the site, the archeology, and the interpretation, visitors can gain an understanding and appreciation of this first permanent colony in the United States.

Settled by so many culturally diverse people who are part of our history, the United States borrows much of our culture, ideas, games, place names, political models, and cuisines from other places, but one idea is uniquely our own: the concept of “national parks.” Over 100 years ago, we decided that the most beautiful scenery, the highest mountains, the tallest trees, the most important prehistoric and historic sites, the most significant battlefields, the most significant ecosystems--in short, the best and most important of what we have and who we are, should be set aside as national parks forever. We have set the model. Other countries, all over the world, have copied us.

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