In 1 March 1872, the US president, Ulysses S Grant, enacted a federal protection for the Yellowstone landscape, creating America’s first national park and one of the first in the world. The decision affected thousands of people from at least 27 distinct Native American tribes. More than 10,000 years of history were erased from the narrative at the stroke of a pen.
Yet Yellowstone inspired a global national parks movement. Early parks were established to preserve “wilderness”, mostly by colonists grabbing land. The removal (or worse) of local people was not always an objective, but was too often a result. Despite many successes, protected area designations worldwide have notched up a catalogue of legacy issues.
In response, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed the green list of protected and conserved areas, offering certification for just and effective nature conservation. The first green list national park, awarded in 2014, was Arakwal in Australia, managed by Indigenous Australians. The first certified green list site in the Peruvian Amazon was the indigenous Amarakaeri communal reserve. And in the US, California’s entire network of marine protected areas has adopted the standard and is a candidate for green list status. The green list proves what we already know – that indigenous nature conservation is highly effective.
A focus on legacy is fundamental, but author and historian David Treuer reminds us that Native Americans never left the landscape and they never lost their heritage. He proposes that America’s national parks could be returned to Native stewardship.
Native Americans are champions of ecological connectivity, essential for protected areas in an uncertain future under the biodiversity and climate crises. The late Don Shoulderblade, a Cheyenne spiritual leader, helped galvanise action by hundreds of Native American leaders and their allies through the Grizzly Treaty to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife. “The grizzly is sacred, an ancient spirit, a great healer and teacher. The grizzly is integral to our traditional spiritual lifeway,” he said. Their cause is to prevent the delisting of the grizzly bear under the US Endangered Species Act.
This is an excerpt from an article by James Hardcastle, originally published by The Guardian.