Reliably Austin
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Scholar Says Giving National Parks To Native Tribes Would Be 'Noble' Way Of Reckoning With Injustice

Big Bend is one of Texas' prized national parks. An Atlantic writer says the parks should be returned to Native tribes so they can operate them.
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Big Bend is one of Texas' prized national parks. An Atlantic writer says the parks should be returned to Native tribes so they can operate them.

From Texas Standard:

America's national parks are often considered the country's “crown jewels” – places of beauty, recreation, conservation and preservation of precious wilderness.

But Atlantic magazine contributor David Treuer says that land wasn’t wild when it became parkland. It had been trodden on for millennia by Native Americans. He argues that land should be returned to Native American tribes so they can manage it for all Americans.

Treuer grew up on the Ojibwe Leech Lake reservation in Northern Minnesota, and is a professor at the University of Southern California. He says returning the land would be part of a reckoning with America’s troubled past of “defrauding” Native tribes out of their land. And that reckoning is happening at the same time the country reckons with its history of racism, oppression and white supremacy.

“Look at our country, look at what we’re going through. Look at what just happened in Chicago, look what happened in Atlanta, look what happened in Boulder. Look what’s happening, you know, in relation to Black men in this country. Look what’s happening to sort of all of us in relation to the vaccine, in relation to the pandemic – it is a moment of reckoning for all of us. And I think we need to reckon with the past,” Treuer told Texas Standard.

Yellowstone was America’s first national park, founded in 1872. Its creation, along with that other parks, was built upon a myth that the country was virgin territory when Europeans came here to colonize. If the land was considered “wilderness” they could justify “civilizing” it. The parks were preservation of that so-called wilderness.

“And so you need to think of it as an untouched wilderness in order for that story to be true and to feel like you had a right to do what you did. But it’s not true,” Treuer said.

The parks came about around the same time as Native American reservations – both “boxes” that are too small for animals or people, Treuer quotes Native American spiritual leader Black Elk as saying.

But Treuer says Americans now have an opportunity to right wrongs done to Native people by doing what is “noble.”

“For the past 40 years, you know, since [former President Ronald] Reagan, frankly, a lack of compassion has sort of become dominant in our politics and in our public,” he said. “And this country, if it’s going to survive, needs to remember and reassert its nobler ideals, one of which is justice.”

Treuer has faced some detractors since his Atlantic story was published, but says much of the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on and Thanks for donating today.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
Caroline Covington is Texas Standard's digital producer/reporter. She joined the team full time after finishing her master's in journalism at the UT J-School. She specializes in mental health reporting, and has a growing interest in data visualization. Before Texas Standard, Caroline was a freelancer for public radio, digital news outlets and podcasts, and produced a podcast pilot for Audible. Prior to journalism, she wrote and edited for marketing teams in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. She has a bachelor's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in French Studies from NYU.
Related Content