S2, E28: Inside the Movement to Return National Park Land

In this episode of Unpacked, we go inside the movement to return national park land to its original stewards: Native Americans.

National parks are viewed as America’s “best idea.” But in reality, Indigenous people had been caring for and watching over those lands long before settlers arrived on the scene. In this episode of Unpacked, we go inside the movement to return national park land to its original stewards: Native Americans.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week, we are exploring a different perspective on “America’s best idea:” our national parks.

Our guide this week is Mae Hamilton, AFAR’s associate editor. Mae heads up AFAR’s art and culture beat—she’s written some fantastic stories, including an essay about her complex love for Texas, where she grew up. She’s really good at finding the stories that try to show a fuller picture of the world. Stories just like the one you’re about to hear.

Aislyn: Welcome, Mae.

Mae Hamilton, associate editor: Thank you, Aislyn.

Aislyn: Today, we’re going to talk about your story, which I’m really excited for listeners to hear. But we were slacking about this beforehand, and I was asking you about what drew you to the story and what you wrote back was so beautiful and profound. It felt like we just needed to have you say it. So what did draw you to the story?

Mae: I grew up in a place where the narrative of the West is still very much alive: Texas. It’s a part of the way that people interpret not only the state’s identity, but themselves too. But in the big historic conflict between cowboys and Native Americans, I’ve always been more interested in what Native Americans had to say. And I love national parks.

In my opinion, they are one of the best things that the federal government has ever done. Some of the most sublime moments I’ve had in my life took place in national parks, from Big Bend to Acadia. And like many other people, I was very much in the mindset that these were untouched landscapes.

But as I learned more about American history from a Native perspective, it was hard to ignore how the legacy of our parks is still very painful for many Indigenous people. When I first learned about Secretary Haaland being elected and then electing Director Sams in turn, I felt like big changes could very much be on the horizon, and maybe those changes could last well into the future.

To me, that was a story certainly worth telling.

Aislyn: Yes. Yeah, I agree. And what do you hope that listeners might take away from this, in terms of their own relationships with national parks, or just learning more about this movement?

Mae: Well, I think a few things. Like I said, national parks are definitely my favorite thing about, like the government in general. And I think, and I think when I found out about this, I almost felt a little like. I don’t want to say, like, dirty, but I felt a little bit sad that, like, this thing that I thought was pure and—pure in a sense where it felt, like, purely for the people—like, I just realized that it didn’t exactly encompass the experience of all people.

I don’t want Americans as a whole to necessarily feel discouraged by that, but I think that’s, like, a conflict that we’re having in general with our country. Where we do have painful parts of, of our history, but we’re not sure how to integrate that knowledge into our everyday-to-day lives in a way that’s, that’s helpful for ourselves and, and like for the people that have been hurt.

Aislyn: That’s what I really love about your story is that it does feel like a story of integration or an attempt at integration. And you have this great interview with the current director of the national parks and he seems very much aligned with that too, right?

Mae: I agree. And, I don’t think this actually made it into the episode, but Director Sams is of mixed heritage as well. So he is, like, half white American, but also half Native. And he’s very much into bridging those two narratives in his life.

Aislyn: And what a position of power to be able to do that, and to be able to help with some of these movements, like the Land Back movement; it feels like there are some really positive progress. It’s also such a big topic. Was there anything else that you didn’t feel like you had room to add in this episode that you want to share?

Mae: In general, I think we should hear from more Native voices in the future. Like, not saying that we didn’t include that in our podcast, but I think people should really take the time to go out and seek those narratives. You know what I mean? Like, listen to that history and listen to that, that pain. Cause you know, it’s something that it’s not fed to us and in school and like popular modern culture; you have to go out and seek it. And I think once you understand that better, you’ll understand your country better.

Mae: Yellowstone. Yosemite. Acadia. Big Bend. Roughly 300 million people visit America’s national parks per year. They are arguably the country’s most beloved treasures. Historian Wallace Stegner called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic.” They have the power to instill wonder, inspire awe, and help people feel closer to the natural world.

Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III: You’re four years old and you’re standing at the precipice of the Grand Canyon. You can’t help but be awed by nature and how the canyon was created over thousands of years.

Mae: That’s Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, the current director of the National Park System. He grew up visiting the national parks, and he loves them as much as anyone else. Sam is also Cayuse and Walla Walla and an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeast Oregon. But even as a kid, he knew something was wrong with the origin myths of our national parks.

Director Sams: Growing up and seeing the part that was missing out of that story was how they ended up taking land from people who were not only just occupying the land but actually had cultivated, owned, and oversaw the land for thousands of years.

Mae: Before they were displaced and even killed to make room for settlement, Indigenous people were careful stewards of the land. What is now known as the United States was never an untouched wilderness. Controlled burns were done to eliminate undergrowth and to open pasture land for animals like deer. Oak and chestnut orchards were sown and managed for acorns. Many tribes were nomadic and understood the environmental dangers of overhunting or overfishing in one particular area. Director Sams has a deep cultural belief that Native peoples should again be stewards of America’s landscapes.

Director Sams: So I understand, growing up on the Umatilla Indian reservation, we as a people were created from the flora and fauna. My skin comes from the hide of elk. My eyesight comes from the eagle. My hearing comes from the owls. My nervous system and my blood vessels all come from the plant people.

Mae: Director Sam says each of these gifts are what make up the Umatilla.

Director Sams: And in return, we are to be the protectors and preservers of both flora and fauna by stewarding those resources, not just for ourselves, but for the next seven generations to come.

Mae: And that stewardship is something that Director Sams—and many others—are fighting to bring back.

Director Sams: We wanna incorporate tribal expertise and Indigenous knowledge into federal land and resource management. As we manage these federal lands and waters, we wanna do so in a manner that seeks to protect treaty rights, religious practices, subsistence uses, and cultural interests of federally recognized tribes across the United States.

Mae: This concept is called co-management. Basically, tribes and the government would work together to manage national parks and make sure that tribes have access to the resources they need to adequately take care of the land. And it’s a key part of several changes that are happening at the federal level.

The push for change all began with the Land Back Movement. The sentiments that gave rise to the modern-day Land Back Movement started more than 500 years ago when Native peoples first came into contact with colonizers and conquistadors. But in 2018, Arnell Tailfeathers of the Kainai Tribe of the Blackfeet Confederacy of Canada coined the term “Land Back” on an Instagram post, and the phrase took off like a rocket. A couple of years later, in 2020, the Indigenous organization NDN Collective launched a Land Back manifesto that called for “Reclamation of Everything Stolen from the Original Peoples.” Their terms include things like agency over tribes’ self-governance, education, language, and perhaps most importantly: their right to land.

In 2021, President Biden appointed Deb Haaland, a registered member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, to be the Secretary of the Interior. She’s the first person of Native American descent to hold the position. Haaland has done a number of much needed things. She’s established a new unit of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which investigates the murders and disappearances of Native people. And she also started an initiative that’s researching documenting the abuse that occurred in residential schools.

In December 2021, she swore in Director Sams as the 19th director of the National Park Service. He’s also the first person of Native descent to hold his position. And then, in September 2022, Halland issued Joint Secretarial Order 3403.

It sounds totally dry and bureaucratic, I know. But it has the possibility to be a game-changer.

The order explains how the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture will strengthen tribal co-management efforts of federal lands and waters. That also includes national park land. All 85 million acres of it. And through that order, the National Park Service has committed to identifying and increasing co-stewardship through opportunities between the parks and Native communities.

Director Sams: Under 3403 we have and we are charged with the highest trust responsibility to protect tribal interest and further our nation and nation relationship with tribes so that they are able to bring their Indigenous knowledge to the table in helping manage these spaces, either through co-stewardship and, where there are legal opportunities to do so, through co-management.

Mae: The relationship between Native communities and the National Park System has always been tense. And while some in those Native communities are optimistic, they are also skeptical as to how much the new order can accomplish. To many tribes, the land that national parks are on are sacred and hold special meaning. There’s also often game or plants on these lands that tribes have used for thousands of years for ceremonial purposes or for medicine. Plants like pipsissewa, a flowering herb that grows around Mount Rainier.

Hanford McCloud: We use it for medicine for our liver and our kidneys. It’s like a drink.

Mae: That’s Hanford McCloud, a member of the Nisqually Tribal Council, whose ancestral lands stretch from Olympia, Washington, to Mount Rainier. Since the 1980s, the Nisqually Tribe has butted heads with park rangers about collecting pipsissewa—even one of his aunties ran into trouble in the past.

Hanford: And when she would go up, she would just pull off the side of the road and just start gathering stuff. And, the rangers came in. They would tell her, “Ma’am, you can’t gather.” And she’d be like, “I’ve been coming here as a little girl, and you can’t.” And, and then she would argue with them. Argue with them. Literally have to stand there in a road and argue with this park ranger who was ready to arrest her.

Mae: McCloud is cautiously optimistic about the new proposals. He sees these agencies as being possibly more sincere than ever before. Director Sams agrees.

Director Sams: There is a deep hunger within the National Park Service that I’ve seen that I was really surprised about. We have over 424 national parks, monuments, and memorials across the United States, encompassing 85 million acres of land. Right now, nearly over 20 percent of them are engaged in some way with tribes and conversations about Indigenous ways of knowing and how we can bring those practices and understanding of, uh, tribal science together with modern science, if you will, and merge those so that we can protect these places, especially as we face climate change.

Mae: The hope is that with Secretarial Order 3403, that even more parks will work in unison with tribes to manage parks. Indigenous knowledge will be used to help care for the land while allowing Native communities access to resources and the land itself.

In Acadia National Park, the parks system is working on a multi-year project with the Wabanaki Nations of Maine. They’re once again gathering sweetgrass, a cool season grass that’s traditionally used for smudging and basket weaving, after a nearly hundred-year ban. Gathering rights for tribes weren’t really formalized until 2016.

In New York, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island have cooperative agreements in place with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohicans, the Delaware Tribe of Indians, and the Delaware Nation. Together, they will create displays that will help visitors better understand these parks from an Indigenous perspective. Tribal consultation has also been used to beautify Liberty Island with native plants.

And Mount Rainier National Park is currently working with the Nisqually Tribe. For the past five years, Nisqually Tribe members have been researching three species of plants that the tribe has long harvested. Their findings will be jointly presented by the park and the tribe. The report will offer recommendations on how to gather herbs in a way that minimizes its impact on the plants themselves.

But for many tribes, the goal is not exactly to co-manage the land. It’s to co-steward it. At least, that’s the case for Tracie Revis, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Yuchi people.

Tracie Revis: They’re two different things. Co-management means that you are truly equal-to-equal when you create a management agreement for any of these federal lands whether it’s BLM, whether it’s Forestry, Fish and Wildlife, National Park. Stewardship refers a lot to, we know that there are people who take care of that land. That doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s gonna be the same people who get to come in and make the decisions for the land.

Mae: Revis says that co-management is more about policy. And policy can change every time a new president is elected. Co-stewardship, however, asks for an agreement that puts tribes on equal footing with the parks—in other words, they would share authority over how they would manage the land. That could mean things like requiring that parks hire tribe members to be park rangers or making tribal ecological knowledge an integral part of running a park. But still, Revis is happy with the changes Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has made.

Tracie: We’ve gotta do more with telling the tribal stories, managing the land, and tribal ecological knowledge. The people who were always on that land, who knew about that land, name the land, know the stories of that land, why are we not talking to them? So that is what she’s bringing in and saying, “Look, why are we ignoring Indian Country?” This co-stewardship agreement, which is incredible, is directing other agencies to say, “Go back and talk to the tribes. Make sure that there’s a cooperative agreement with the tribes. Quit battling the tribes. Bring them into the conversation.”

Mae: Revis was born in Oklahoma. But that’s not where her tribe is from. The Muscogee Creek Tribe’s ancestral homelands encompass southern Tennessee, much of Alabama, western Georgia, and parts of northern Florida. In 1821, the tribe was forced to leave their homes on a Trail of Tears. They were made to live in what was then known as “Indian Territory”—aka Oklahoma.

But their ancestral lands have been making headlines lately because Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park could soon become Georgia’s very first national park. The 2,000-acre park was once a large city within the Muscogee Creek Nation. There are seven mounds there, which were used as funerary sites and for other ceremonial purposes.

But before it came under the protection of the national government, Ocmulgee Mounds was the site of all sorts of land abuse.

Tracie: There’s a story of what happens to the land: The railroad comes and desecrates a burial mound in the 1840s. It becomes a cotton farm. It becomes a slave plantation. They clear-cut it, it became [a] motorcycle track. But when they cut through the mounds for the train, which is still there today, there are bones flying everywhere. You know that there’s something here. You went directly through a burial site.

Mae: It wasn’t until the ’30s, when FDR visited the area, that Ocmulgee Mounds became a national historic park and national monument.

Tracie: He used the Antiquities Act, uh, to create the national monument. And when he did that, that is also what triggered the largest archeological dig in the country, which is at Ocmulgee: 2.5 million artifacts were recovered.

Mae: Despite the decades that they’ve been away, the Muscogee Creek Nation’s ties to this land are still strong as ever, for several reasons.

Tracie: Number one, our ancestors are buried here. We’ve gotta make sure that they are protected and where they remain is sacred. And then make it a way for the future of the nation for those who have yet to come.

We care about that one because our artifacts and our people are here, but also because our fires came from here. What makes us who we are in our ceremonies that we still have today? Our fires at the heart of every one of our towns and of these mound sites, of these villages.

We had a fireplace, those tribal towns and those dowas had fires. Those fires went with us to Oklahoma.

Mae: Revis says that, as the nation kept getting moved from place to place, they would take those burning coals. They still burn today in Oklahoma.

Tracie: We have 16 fires that still remain today, and those fires came directly from these lands, and so we are directly connected to what’s happening here.

Mae: And Revis says the final reason the Muscogee Creek Nation has strong ties to this land is because they own it. Over the years, they’ve bought back land along the Ocmulgee corridor.

Tracie: No one gave us this land. We actually had to come in and buy it ourselves. So we own land in this corridor where we continue to be a part of this community.

Mae: There’s a possibility that a future co-management agreement with the park system could strengthen their relationship with Ocmulgee mounds.

Tracie: We’ve been gone from the South for about 200 years now, and people down here don’t really know who we are. They know there were Indians and a lot of people have no idea that our words are etched all over the entire landscape of the Southeast. Because this was our land. We named it, we named the waters, we named the area. And so you’ll see our words all over the entire Southeast.

Mae: In addition to returning land back to its original owners, there’s also hope that Joint Secretarial Order 3403 can help mitigate one of the biggest existential threats of our lifetime: climate change.

Director Sams: Tribes have been here, uh, for at least 20 to 30,000 years. In that time period, they’ve seen two major changes. In ice flows, as the ice goes, as it came in and receded back on this landscape. So they’ve lived through climate change, so understanding what that may have looked like from their perspective, through their oral tradition and stories, to be able to bring that knowledge forward so that we can figure out what adaptation and resiliency would look like.

Mae: Hanford McCloud of the Nisqually Tribal Council agrees.

Hanford: There’s always this harmony of Mother Earth and this language, this internal language we no longer listen for—or I should say, hear for. We listen, but we don’t hear it. And when you listen, you will hear your ancestors talk to you about, not about how it was but it’s about how it needs to be.

Mae: So at the end of the day, secretarial order 3403 is meant to help right some of American history’s biggest wrongs and in the end—maybe it’ll be better for all of us.

Director Sams: The leadership of Secretary Haaland and Agricultural Secretary Vilsack in signing 3403 set a new course and a new way of how we are going to help further that trust responsibility we have with the American people, but also with tribes in the preservation of these places that we love.

Aislyn: And that is it for this week. If you’d like to learn more about Secretarial Order 3403 and the ways in which it will benefit the places we love, visit nps.gov. We’ll link to some of the news coverage in our show notes.

And you can follow Mae Hamilton on social media @bymaehem. And be sure to follow her byline on afar.com. To learn more about the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, the project that Tracy Reavis is working on, visit ocmulgeepark.org. And finally to learn about the Nisqually Tribal Council, visit nisqually-nsn.gov. We’ll see you next week.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. We also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.