[Marxism] Blog Post: Whither the National Parks?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 4 13:49:44 MDT 2009

> Full at http://blog.cheapmotelsandahotplate.org

This is in line with Michael's analysis:


I want to conclude this article with an examination of an obscure moment 
in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist 
movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of 
eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits 
like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah, or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts 
on this appear in Mark David Spence's "Crown of the Continent, Backbone 
of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from 
Glacier National Park," an article in the July, 1996 edition of 
"Environmental History."

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot 
reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them 
certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to 
the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals and religious 
sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal 
government considered the land to be one of its "crown jewels" and 
thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. 
This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian 
wisdom. The park founders idea of "wilderness" owed more to European 
romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The 
indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers and grasslands lived in 
coexistence and codetermined each other's existence thousands of years 
before Columbus--the first invader--arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits 
such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder and Snow Shrinker. One of the 
most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or 
Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. 
The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the "most 
venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe." "Chief 
Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national 
park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature 
within the Blackfeet universe."

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison-hunting, 
the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park 
were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for 
roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the 
spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, 
which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would 
retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and 
mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and 
gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were 
as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, 
the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred 
as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a 
special poignancy and sadness was that its architect was none other than 
George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was not only a park administrator, but a 
friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot story-tellers and 
this allowed him to put into print the "Blackfoot Lodge Tales." Although 
Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that "the most shameful 
chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of 
our dealings with the Indians," this did not prevent him from declaring 
Glacier National Park off-limits to a people he supposedly admired. Of 
course, without any self-consciousness he also states in this preface 
that "the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, 
except that he is undeveloped." Also, "the Indian has the mind and 
feelings of a child with the stature of a man." When you stop and 
consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian 
rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that 
must have existed during the late 1800s, when he was collecting his 
tales from the Blackfoot while banning them from the park.

Spence has an astute interpretation of Grinnell's contradictory 
attitudes. He says that for Grinnell the parks represented a living 
resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to 
come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the 
Blackfoot, they were an important part of America's past. They would 
live on through the "Blackfoot Lodge Tales" and dioramas at places like 
the Museum of Natural History.

Spence concludes his article with a description of how the clash between 
park administrators never really went away:

"By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service 
had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, 
the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into 
the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about 
nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this 
idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe's resistance to Glacier's 
eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between 
Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the 
issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

"By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer 
still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and 
medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World 
never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the 
Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical 
sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area 
always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal 
sovereignty. In conjunction with the 'Red Power' movement of the 1970s, 
these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition 
of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from 
both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet 
'threat' as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil 
in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations 
between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; 
the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. 
Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and 
Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier 
forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had been 
buried in the 1930s."

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States 
has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the 
canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, 
then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous 
job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population 
against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining 
that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace 
activists must understand that preservation of the "wilderness" makes no 
sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic and 
spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the pre-capitalist past 
can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the 
Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the 
whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to 
be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. 
They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do 
the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy 
Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author 
of "Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America's Great 
Plains." (Island Press, 1998) I will conclude with his suggestion for a 
new relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and animals 
that were once theirs:

"The basic Indian goal is the reestablishment on the reservations of the 
natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and 
animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a 
restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put 
back together again on a sustainable basis. As Fred DuBray puts it, 'We 
recognize that the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity and that 
as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back 
to health.' In Mark Heckert's view, this could be called sustainable 
agriculture 'because you can get what you need to survive without 
inordinately disrupting the system,' and the result would be 
self-governing tribes in which the bison are thriving again, the 
ceremonies have been revived, and the bond between Indian people and the 
bison has been reestablished. At Pine Ridge there is an ongoing program 
of teaching stewardship: grandparents go into the schools and explain to 
the children that all the parts of the natural order are necessary and 
interrelated; they pass on the store of traditional knowledge that has 
been kept in the memories of the elders of the community The comeback of 
the sacred bison--and, more specifically, the appearance of a 
one-in-a-million white bison--would 'mean a spiritual recharge for our 
people,' as Alex White Plume puts it. 'There's talk locally that the 
time is approaching, so people are beginning to get ready, learning the 
old songs and revitalizing the ritual that they need to go through. It 
might be within the next ten years. I hope it's during my time.'"

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