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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Dickerman

The Indigenous History of National Parks

Many outdoor people associate National Parks with sprawling vistas of untouched lands; glimpses of the Earth before humans took their toll; a feeling of stepping into a new world where they are one of the only people to have been there. Many of these impressions, though they appear benign, are rooted in a dark violent history. The parks were not “discovered” by prominent figures like John Muir, nor were they created in a peaceful manner.


When Yellowstone was created in 1872, very few white settlers had been anywhere near the land, making it the only national park to be created before settlers made bids for the land. However, there have been Indigenous people on the land for the past 10,000 years. 26 tribes have ancestral connections to the sacred land that the park was built upon. Upon creation of the park, there were massacres of hundreds of Native people in order to clear out “savages” from the park. Not only this, but mountains are named after white surveyors responsible for the murder, such as Mount Doane.


The history of Yosemite rarely goes deeper than glamorized stories of how John Muir walked from San Francisco to Yosemite and spent months writing about its natural beauty, leading it to becoming an official national park in 1890. However, often excluded from the textbooks is the fact that for the Native people living there, the Ahwahneechees, the creation of the park came hand in hand with murder and destruction. Villages were burned to the ground and many Ahwahneechees were killed and displaced to make room for the Western ideal of uninhabited wilderness.

Great Smoky Mountains

During the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, the US government under Andrew Jackson forcibly removed 100,000 Native people from their homes in the Great Smoky Mountain region and relocated them to land west of the Mississippi River. During this horrific event, approximately 15,000 were displaced. One of the tribes affected, the Cherokees, attempted legal negotiation to stay on their land. However, this didn’t stop the government from showing up at their doors, holding them at gunpoint, and forcing them to leave. 4,000 of the 15,000 Cherokee people died on the trail.

Grand Canyon

Similar to most national parks, the Grand Canyon was home to Indigenous people well before the arrival of white settlers to the region. The two tribes who called the Grand Canyon home, the Havasupai and Hualapai, mastered complex irrigation systems and migration patterns to successfully inhibit both the canyon itself and the plateau region. However, in 1866, the Hualapai chief Wauba Yoman was murdered and the tribe lost a three-year war against the U.S., which resulted in relocation off the land. In 1880, the Havasupai lost their land and were forced to move to a tiny reservation much too small to support the tribe.

Grand Teton National Park

The Grand Teton National Park was created upon the homeland of the Shoshone. The mountains themselves held spiritual meaning for the Indigenous people. Many tribes besides the Shoshone came to the region for part of the year in the summer months because they followed game. The park itself was officially created in 1950, and the Shoshone people today primarily live on reservations in Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada.

Zion National Park

From the Ancestral Puebloans in 7,000 B.C.E. to the Fremont people in 300 B.C.E to the Southern Paiute people in 1250 C.E, the land where Zion National Park is located has held great significance to the cultures of Indigenous people. The original name for the region was the Mukuntuweap National Monument, but it was changed to the name Zion, the Mormon name for it, in belief that the original name would “scare” away visitors to the region.

Rocky Mountain National Park

The Rocky Mountains have a rich Indigenous history, dating back to 30,000 years ago when people used the area as a route of migration across the Continental Divide. The two largest groups associated with the region are the Ute and Arapaho Tribes. However, despite living on the land for hundreds of years, the discovery of gold in the mid 1800s brought thousands of miners to the region, and as a result the Arapaho and Ute were stripped of their claims to the land and were relocated out of Colorado entirely by the end of the century.

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