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Loving Public Land While Acknowledging Its Dark Past

The Real History of Conservation and Environmentalism in America

Here in the United States, we love thinking in binaries. Some linguists argue it is the nature of the how English is structured, that our relatively young language struggles to find words that exist beyond or within binary systems which leads to the “this or that” structuring of our worldview. We see this everywhere in our culture: Black or White, Republican or Democrat, Man or Woman, Religious or Athiest, Pro Life or Pro Choice, Hero or Villain, Good or Evil. Whatever the topic may be, we seem to struggle as a people to have things occupy more than one space simultaneously, and the history of the conservation and environmental movements are no exception.


While American minds like Emerson and Thoreau were outspoken against slavery, both left something to be desired when it came to discussing the treatment of Indigenous people. Even Whitman, America’s first great poet and undeniably a progressive in writing about sexuality and gender, left quite a bit to be desired regarding both aforementioned groups.

All three writers often talked about wilderness and wildness, concepts that are uniquely American, rooted in Puritan ideologies of the wilderness being separate from, rather than a part of, the self -quite the opposite of what you will observe in many Indigenous worldviews. This can be found in the Biblical concept of Dominion, that man has “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth," or seeing the natural world as something to take control of rather than a framework to live within.

To the Puritans, being a part of nature was seen as a sign of evil or savageness, and understandably so – their inexperience with the harsh New England landscape was quite literally killing them. The people of the Wampanoag Nation they encountered were seen as part of this evil and savageness, and was often used as a justification for their removal, a worldview that can be seen in everything from William Bradford’s diaries in 1621 to the Westerns of today.

This was later coupled with Enlightenment thought. The work of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant in particular, grapple with the ethics of colonization as it continued to spread throughout the Americas. Both thinkers arrive at similar ideologies regarding land use and usage: that Indigenous people were not actually “using” the land properly, and therefore it is not only colonists’ right to take land as needed, but it is their duty as a human being to do so since they will put it to much better use –a worldview that became hegemonic throughout the period that I still see trumpeted in comments section of social media posts today. It is easy to see how these worldviews would lead to Manifest Destiny, that it is the white man’s destiny to spread the United States from coast to coast, and some scholars say throughout the world afterwards, a concept most of us were taught about lightheartedly as early as elementary school.

Erasure and the Birth of Public Lands

Many within the conservation movement praise Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot as heroes of conservation while ignoring that the movement was built on erasure, genocide, and displacement.

Even John Muir, praised by Emerson as his long sought poet of the wilderness, and founder of what would become the environmental movement, was adamantly opposed to African Americans using public lands, which continued in many National Parks until after the Civil Rights Movement. He also believed the Ahwahneechee and other Indigenous people of Yosemite Valley needed to be removed before creating what would become Yosemite National Park, a reckoning that even the Sierra Club is just only discussing now.

Teddy Roosevelt, another hero of the conservation movement, openly hated Indigenous people and had plenty to say about them on the campaign trail. Once in office, Roosevelt began sequestering so many millions of acres of public land via executive order and the creation of the Antiquities Act that Congress feared he had gone insane and passed a bill to prevent him from making any more public land. He continued protecting public land until the moment it hit his desk to be signed. Roosevelt set a precedent that just about every President has followed since: creating more public lands, monuments, and parks. Roosevelt worked closely with Gifford Pinchet, who helped found what is now the National Forest Service, which is currently in charge of nearly 200 million acres of public land, who fervently aided in the removal of Indigenous people to reservations in order to do so.

Simultaneously, Roosevelt touted the “kill the Indian, save the man” ideology which was used to force Native American children into brutal residential schools with the intent of forced assimilation. Children were made to be “white” by disallowing them to practice their cultural beliefs, including religious ceremonies and speaking in their own language. They were often beaten, maimed, and sometimes killed. In Canada, deaths were so prevalent that the federal government officially stopped recording deaths around 1920. Officially, many children are still missing, believed to have been killed and buried in unmarked graves. It remained illegal for Native Americans to openly practice their own religions until the American Indian religious Freedom Act of 1978. It was only a few months ago at the Museum of Natural History in New York which was founded by Roosevelt, that a statue of him riding a horse beside an African and Native American man, was moved at the request of his descendants.

What Next?

Returning to my first thought, why can't all these things occupy the same head space? Why does it have to be this or that, hero or villain? I know some will say this is merely applying a modern worldview to people of the past. This is something I am aware of and cautious about doing, but I doubt you will find this opinion being touted within the communities of the oppressed.

And the idea that being critical of the treatment of Indigenous people is something “new” or “p.c.” or “modern,” is just a plain old falsehood. There was push back as early as 1515, mounted by priest Bartolome de las Casas, who accompanied Columbus on one of his journeys and spent the remaining 50 years of his life speaking out against the treatment of Indigenous people in America and later of the African slave trade, and there has been many to do the same since.

I love our public land system. I think it may be one of the best things about America today, but I think it’s time we stop denying the real history behind it. When asked where to go to from here, the truth is, I don’t really know. I am not pretending to have all the answers to some of the very difficult questions we need to ask next. All I am saying is that these people can simultaneously be the grandfathers of conservation and environmentalism and can also be complicit in the erasure and destruction of many human beings. This is not a rewriting of history; it is a correction of it, one that we all need to acknowledge every time we step foot on or talk about our public lands.

Additional Reading:

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz-An Indigenous People’s History of the United States

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz-All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans

Jack D. Forbes-Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism

Leslie Marmon Silko-Ceremony

Robin Wall Kimmerer-Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Terese Marie Mailhot-Heart Berries

Eddie Chuculate-Cheyenne Madonna

Reel Injun: Native American Portrayal in Hollywood (film)

Louise Edrich-Tracks

N. Scott Momaday-House Made of Dawn

Thomas King-The Truth About Stories

Mark David Spence-Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks

Roderick Frazier Nash-Wilderness and the American Mind

Dee Brown-Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Carolyn Finney-Black Faces, White Spaces: Re-imagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors

Isaac Kantor-”Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks”

Theodore Catton-American Indians and National Forests

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