Do You Know Where Your National Parks Came From?

Do you know how the US ended up with so many National Parks, or how we ended up with so much empty land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)?

Here’s a hint: those lands were never empty until the US government emptied them. In fact, the greatest national treasures of the United States do not belong to us at all: these are sacred places, sacred to those whose lands we have stolen. Now of course we cannot legally say they were ‘stolen’, but legality is such a frivolous thing, isn’t it? Because most indigenous people know that they do not possess the land; they know that the land possesses them.

Now, ask yourself honestly, where did Yellowstone come from? Where did Yosemite come from? Where did our National Forests come from? None of these are ours. I am forever ashamed that we took a sacred mountain and carved white faces onto it. That mountain is still sacred, but now it is scarred, marred by animus and hubris.

In fact BLM-land gives the lie to the European vision of property rights: no one ‘possesses’ these lands in the legal sense, so the government owns them, which means all US citizens jointly own them, because someone has to own the land if anyone is going to own land. Can you even conceive of it? Unowned land? In the United States? Unimaginable.

We ought all to be applauding the decision to allow native input on their own lands (by which I mean to express the converse relationship, of the land possessing them, a reverse-possessive genitive, if you like), in the so-called Bears’ Ears National Monument. I certainly applaud it, though I wonder why are they only allowed input? We ought to be giving these lands back, able only to hope that we will still be given access to them—access we certainly have not earned.

But more to the point, I wonder how many of us would know what the actual names of these places are. The names this expanse of land in Utah once knew, for the mountains and buttes, and for the different animal tribes, those names given to the area millennia ago by the first of our human tribe to arrive: none of us know them.

The Europeans, and the Africans brought across the Atlantic by the Europeans, have no place here: African- and European-Americans are united for the fact that we are equally outsiders, foreigners. It is for us to learn the names. It is for us to learn how to live as insiders. But instead our European ancestors launched a campaign of total oppression against those who would teach us, though all of our ancestors and we ourselves have often accepted fragments of their wisdom, whatever we could grasp through colonial-tinted lenses, even as we used to send their children off to boarding schools to break the native from them and turn them into Proper Europeans—a gory policy that makes every US citizen even more culpable for the genocide of those peoples native to the Americas. Those who survived the schools did not escape without significant trauma, the kind that is passed on generation to generation.

Shame rankles. I feel it weighing my limbs heavier with every day—don’t you?

We must learn the names. We must give back what was stolen. We must come to appreciate the land to which we have come. Otherwise we will all die, Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, the peoples of Asia and the Pacific, along with the trees and the squirrels and the lightning bugs, the bears and the lions, the prairies and the marshes and the evergreens, everything will die, even the names. Let us give up the entitlement felt by our forefathers. Let us abandon their arrogance. Let us learn the names and how to live at last. Let’s learn finally how to listen to those actual Americans who survive, those wiser than us whom Europeans did not manage to kill or to break.

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