The narrative about America’s national parks has been dominated by white voices. In this special section from our archive, guest edited by scholar and writer Carolyn Finney, seven writers and an artist explore the relationship between race and our national parks—and what could be gained by deepening the story behind the parks.
Austin Neill /Unsplash
by Carolyn Finney
On a recent visit to Washington DC I had the privilege of attending a meeting at the White House. As a group of ethnically and racially diverse individuals (The Next 100 Coalition), we represented a coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, and conservation organizations that had put together a set of “asks” for President Obama that addressed diversity and public land agencies. We came with an acute awareness of how the National Park Service—in terms of leadership, staff, and community engagement—does not reflect the diversity of our country.
We also had an awareness that most of us there that day—African American, Latino, Asian American, American Indian—have parents, grandparents, and ancestors who couldn’t have imagined being allowed to enter this space, let alone to make a case there for our communities, our histories, and our collective future as it relates to public lands.
In this, the centennial year of the National Park Service, I am interested in the legacy of the park service’s contradictions. In how the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed European immigrants to own land and build homes while, at the same time, Black people were being held as slaves and Native people were being pushed off the land. In how John Muir publicly spoke about preservation while Jim Crow segregation did not allow for African Americans to partake in sublime Nature. In how Gifford Pinchot was creating forestry as a profession and conservation as a way of life, but nonwhite people could not participate to the same degree as white Americans. These contradictions inform the work that many of us are doing today: to ensure that environmental engagement is possible for all people.
I once asked my father, who spent his adult life caring for twelve acres of land belonging to someone else, how he felt about national parks. Growing up poor and Black in the South, he didn’t have much opportunity to visit national parks when he was a child. What he told me surprised me. “When I was a young man, I saw park rangers in their uniforms and I thought that would be a good, government job. But I was told that they don’t hire Negroes.” After that, he never thought about the parks. And it seems they never thought about him, either.
In 2005, when I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, my parents came to visit me. Since they had never been, I took them to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. As we walked around the visitor center, we were inundated with the sights and sounds of the civil rights movement; there were black-and-white images of people protesting, life-size models of people marching, and even a replica of the jail cell that once held Dr. King. Suddenly, my father grabbed my arm—his face had blanched and I thought he was having a heart attack. A moment later he giggled as though he was embarrassed. I asked him if he was okay. He pointed at one of the photographs we had been looking at, an image of a “whites only” sign. He said, “I saw that sign and, for a moment, I thought we weren’t supposed to be here.” What connections between individuals and our public lands have been obscured damaged or erased? What connections between our past and present have been lost?
I’ve told this story many times to highlight the power that memory has to shape our present and inform our future possibilities. But the part of the story I usually don’t share is that my father kept talking about what a great time he had that day. He admitted that he didn’t think he was going to enjoy going to a national historic site. But he had become emotionally involved with the experience and those emotions gave him the opportunity to connect to the larger experience of being in that space. It didn’t matter that seeing those images of a difficult time in our history brought up some uncomfortable feelings. His life experience was made visible and, by association, my father became visible in the larger story of who we are in this country. That, also, is what our National Park Service can do.
An overarching theme for many of the contributors in this special section is the tension between dominant narratives about the environment and the invisible realities of brown and Black people. When Muir spoke with President Theodore Roosevelt on Overhanging Rock in Yosemite in 1903, concern for the removal of Native people from the land there was probably not paramount in their conversation. Nor the limited access to that land that Black people would have experienced. This doesn’t mean that what they were talking about wasn’t important, but it does raise questions about the usefulness and truthfulness of a one-size-fits-all narrative that does not consider, understand, or respect the diverse realities of nonwhite people.
In addition, the method by which that story is told can dull the edges of authentic self-expression while hiding another kind of truth. What does it mean to “write one’s history”? And is “writing” the best or only way to get at one’s truth? Who gets to decide what stories and ways of telling those stories counts? Truth-telling about who we are in relation to the land on which we stand is as much about how we tell those stories as it is about what we are trying to say in those stories. That our ways of knowing and being in the world are not limited to one group’s interpretation or understanding of the world. Whether through song, a painting, a dance, or the written word, our ability to engage in different ways strengthens our capacity to see beyond our own experience and opens us up to the possibility of creating a multidimensional story that reflects our complexity and diversity.
Last year on National Public Radio, Michel Martin did a show entitled “What Makes Us Uncomfortable May Be Just What We Need.” She talked about how we have a tendency to elevate comfort as opposed to truth, or what’s best. In the following passages you will meet writers, artists, activists, teachers, parents, and community leaders who share a bit of their truth and vision so you can think about, see, and experience the national parks through their eyes. I submit that some of what they share might make you uncomfortable. What I ask is that you lean in. Let the words, pictures, and stories connect with your own. Explore, discover, and challenge not just what you are reading or seeing, but your own thoughts and feelings.
In this centennial year we have the opportunity to celebrate the beauty, the “wildness,” and the stories that define our national parks. We have a chance to embrace the dreams, spirits, memories, histories, and lived realities of people past and present that tell us who we are. This is truly a moment for thinking differently about how we engage in these spaces. This is a moment to experience the emergence of something new. Our national parks, as part of this moment, remind us who we are and who we might become.
Carolyn Finney is a professor in geography at the University of Kentucky. She is deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience. Along with her public speaking, writing, and consulting work, she serves on the US National Park System Advisory Board, which is working to assist the National Park Service in engaging in relations of reciprocity with diverse communities. Her first book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, was released in 2014.
Kaylynn Sullivan Twotrees for Orion
You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
by Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees
You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover is a one-of-a-kind artist book by Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees. Made especially for this issue of Orion, it offers a visual narrative—to reflect the sometimes forgotten tradition of oral storytelling—and explores the sometimes obfuscated history between Native Americans and America’s national parks.
The beauty of the national parks cannot be denied, and neither can the history of Native peoples who stewarded those lands before the history of settlers began.
When the narrative of the parks is opened up, then the histories, names, and languages of the Native peoples who occupied that land are visible, but in such fine print that they are almost impossible to read. Their histories, names, and languages become simply artifacts for the telling of the story of the national parks.
The narrative of Native peoples is obscured by the new story created out of broken treaties, government-sanctioned removal of tribes, and the sale of Indian land.
A new, romanticized version of Native peoples and their histories replaces their own stories and creates a role for them as artifacts of the past rather than inhabitants of the present.
The story of the national parks ignores the ways that those lands were not “wilderness” to be conserved, but rather landscapes that had both meaning and use for the Native peoples who lived in them and in relationship with them.
Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees has spent a life at the crossroads where species, cultures, beliefs, and the unknown collide and find both dissonance and resonance. She is a past recipient of the Lila Wallace International Artist Award and her work has been exhibited and is in collections in the US, Europe, and New Zealand. She is currently Artist in Residence at the Leadership in Sustainability Masters Program at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
by José González
To find our park is to find ourselves
“What do you think of when you think of parks?”
1. Beautiful majestic landscapes where I can connect to nature and find myself.
2. White-supremacist spaces.
Uncomfortably, yet tellingly, I was holding both thoughts in my head after asking this question to peers and friends and getting starkly contrasting responses. What does this say about the field of conservation, and about the outdoors, both of which I have chosen to stake my identity and passion?
On one side, I have friends and colleagues who look at response number one and wonder at how comfortable we can be with ignoring the hurt, trauma, and displacement many communities experienced and experience as a consequence of the creation of our public lands. On the other side, I have friends and colleagues who look at response number two and don’t want to deal with that thought, or who proclaim that such statements are divisive and push people away from feeling more included in the conversation about how we can make our public lands more equitable. For me, the two answers actually provide a clear example of the challenges and opportunities of trying to connect my identity, and the identities of mi gente, mi raza, with the narrative of our public lands.
As we celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial this year, we have been urged by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation to “find your park.” And what does it mean, exactly, to find your park?
Pursuing this question leads me, personally, down a path of exploration and potential discovery while opening up a broader look at what our public lands are, how they came to be, and what they mean for an increasingly diverse American public—for the next hundred years and beyond. But to engage in that pursuit we must be ready to accept whatever might be revealed—not just the celebration of the majesty and beauty of scenic landscapes, but also the uncomfortable truths and the missing stories of all the communities that have histories on these lands.
The Latinx identity provides a fascinating platform for this pursuit, since our identity is deeply connected to the American story. We are frequently thought of as a monolithic block of recent arrivals. In fact, however, as early as 1776, while the American Revolution was underway, a group of mestizo and Afro-Latino economic migrants—Black and brown families—migrated from northern Mexico to what would become California in search of better economic opportunities (the route they took is now part of the National Trail System). So, even while the migration from east to west was unfolding in the way we are commonly taught in American history books (the thirteen colonies, Manifest Destiny, etc.), there was also at the same time a migration from south to north—a migration whose value and roots are often understated or misunderstood. And that migration has a mestizaje identity that is different from the dominant Anglo identity of the east to west migration. Latinxs are thus both colonizers and colonized. We have indigenous roots and practices, but we also benefited from the exclusion and colonization of Native-American communities in the American West.
When we talk about our public lands, we talk mainly about how they should be enjoyed and protected at this moment of history—with a presumption of accepting them as they are now presented to us. But what is now a national forest was once a Mexican or Hispano merced, a land grant, and before that it was communal territory to a diverse population of American Indians. This can be lost, pushed out, or ignored in favor of a mainstream narrative telling us that these are our lands to enjoy without having to reflect on how they came to us. Opening up to those histories and narratives provides more connection points to the increasingly diverse American public.
We cannot accept the expectation to approach discussion of our public lands in exactly the same way that the American mainstream has in the past, with the same enshrined values that helped set up the National Park System. This does not mean that those values do not have an important role in the stewardship of these places. It is just that if we are true to the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must accept how the lived experiences of other communities alter the way those communities look at public lands—and how the expectations and culture of the outdoors also can affect communities working to connect to our open spaces. It is all connected.
When we think of issues and questions of social justice, civil rights, and inequities, we may often limit them to urban settings and to our “disadvantaged” communities. But questions of social justice are not just found in the courts and the criminal justice system, or in obvious examples of privilege and institutionalized discrimination. These questions are also present in the wild and open spaces we value as the outdoors, and the human systems that manage them.
That is why I mention mi raza, mi gente, mi cultura, and what that means in the context of a conservation cultura—and of the pride of stating estamos aquí, that we are here in many different ways even if we have not always been included. That although some outdoor recreational experiences may be new, our heritage and our connections with the land have roots and complexity beyond just being “new visitors” or “disadvantaged” communities.
To find our park is to find ourselves, where we are now and where we come from. It is to both celebrate and atone for the past. It is to connect our urban identities to our wilderness spaces and vice versa. It is to connect with our history and to discover what stories we are leaving out. It is to add to the experience and narrative of the parks, to value and appreciate difference, and to know that difference makes us stronger and will help us have a stronger public-lands system in the next hundred years.
José González is the founder of Latino Outdoors, a national nonprofit organization working to connect Latino communities in the US with a variety of outdoor experiences. His commentary has been featured by High Country News, Outside, Earth Island Journal, and Latino USA, and he collaborated with the US Department of the Interior, and the National Park Service. He received the 2015 National Conservation Education Award from the National Wildlife Federation and the 2016 Murie Spirit of Conservation Award from the Murie Center. He was named by Grist as one of The 50 People You’ll Be Talking About in 2016.
A Greater Whole
by Larry Yang
A summer in the high desert reveals connections that shape a life
I was born into a Chinese family living in America during the cultural xenophobia of the McCarthy era. I was also a minority within a minority: a boy who was attracted to other boys, growing up within the confines of a very traditional Asian family. In that environment, it was nearly impossible to find the permission or opportunity to be vulnerable and to learn how to be myself.
As an adolescent, I longed for space and solitude from what I considered to be a broken and unkind world. I read a spiritual treatise in the form of an environmental memoir: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. From Abbey I learned about the grandness and the power of the natural world. I wondered if it could hold the despair and confusion that I was experiencing. I wanted to encounter the brilliance that he described: the stark, bare canyons that allowed glimmers of life to be sustained in rainbow wisps of lichen; the convoluted, stunted growths of manzanita clinging to the cracks, eroding a sheer cliff.
Life in the high desert was precious. Intuitively, I was hoping that I too could find an inherent value in the life that I was living.
It took me years to find the right circumstances, but through the Student Conservation Association, I got placed to work in Arches National Park—the exact park that Abbey described in his book. I entered into a summer of pilgrimage. I remember scaling a red-rock fin that was so intimidating to climb and yet so glorious to stand upon. The experience of being in relationship with the land, being challenged by the land, and being supported by the land still reverberates in my consciousness.
I began to see a larger picture of my life. I began to feel connected to a greater whole that was not defined by the wider culture or even my family and friends. It was the beginning of a spiritual exploration that still supports my work and life today, almost forty years later.
In my practice as a Buddhist meditation teacher, I tell my students to invite wholeness and integrity into their lives—to be open to life, however we choose to define it and in whatever way it shows up. Ajahn Buddhadasa, a master of Buddhist meditation in the last century from Thailand, was asked once how Westerners afflicted with deep injury, self-judgment, and self-hatred could cope with those challenges. “They should be taken out into nature, into beautiful forests or mountains,” he said. “They must stay there long enough to realize that they too are a part of nature. They must rest there until they too can feel harmony with all life and their proper place in the midst of all things.”
Whether by serendipity or by spirit, I found that harmony in the wilderness and protected lands of the National Park system. That inner harmony was instrumental to my ability to take the broken threads of my childhood and weave them together into an adult life that is deeply meaningful and content. For that, I am forever grateful to the healing power of the land, and to an organization that states as its mission to “preserve] unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park Service for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Larry Yang is trained as a psychotherapist and teaches workshops in mindfulness and diversity issues nationwide. He is a coeditor of Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities, and his book Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Community is scheduled for release in 2017. Before being a full-time teacher of Buddhism, Larry was a national-park ranger at Arches and Lassen national parks. He was honored to be the Community Grand Marshal of the 2016 LGBTQ Pride Parade in San Francisco.
James A. Molnar/Unsplash
Unofficial Paths: Memories of Poston
by Noriko Ishiyama and Jun Kamata
Where American-Indian history intersects with the incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II
A three-hour drive northwest from Phoenix through dun-colored desert brings you to Poston Elementary School, Unit 1. The school, an unprepossessing complex of flat-roofed, single-story buildings of adobe block, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012. Two years later, in its capacity as “America’s storyteller,” the National Park Service included the site in a $2.9 million grant project. In contrast to the desert landscape through which one drives to get here, the school is flanked by green fields of alfalfa irrigated with water from the Colorado River. Although it is located inside the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) Reservation, the school itself was built not by tribal members but by imprisoned Japanese-American laborers during WWII, when the school grounds and the surrounding area were the Poston War Internment Center, a Japanese-American internment camp.
We visited the CRIT reservation for the first time in 2002, as part of Jun’s PhD dissertation project, focused on the CRIT and other local tribes’ struggle against a proposed state facility to store low-level radioactive waste. During this trip we got to know and admire the landscape and the people who lived in it. One day during this initial visit, a tribal employee whom we had befriended told us that he wanted to take us to “an interesting place.” He drove us to Poston, where, for the first time, we saw the remnants of the old school buildings and the American-Indian graffiti artwork on the rundown walls.
The tribal employee told us a little of the place’s history. And of the seventeen thousand Japanese Americans, all told, who had been interned there. Stunned to encounter such a unique cultural landscape, we asked him how CRIT tribal members had reacted to the imprisonment of a racially profiled group—suspected enemies of the state—on their reservation. He told us that the tribal government had not, under the war regime, had any choice over what happened on their own land, and, moreover, that he saw Indians and the internees as having been “in the same boat”—both socially marginalized, oppressed groups.
Almost a decade passed before we returned to the reservation. A former-internee scholar from California kindly introduced us to the then CRIT Tribal Museum Director, the late Dr. Michael Tsosie. As a Mohave anthropologist raised on the reservation and trained at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, he was the knowledge keeper of a vast store of CRIT history.
Michael encouraged us to research the role John Collier, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs, played in setting up and managing the Poston War Internment Center and other camps like it on Native lands. With Michael’s help and through our archival work in California and Washington DC, we learned about how and to what purpose Collier—a self-proclaimed advocate for Indians—worked to establish internment camps on America’s impoverished Indian reservations.
Poston became the site of Collier’s dream project because of its geography—an isolated location near the rich water resources of the Colorado River. He utilized the wartime military budget and the forced labor of the internees to build a wide range of infrastructure, including highways, paved roads, sewage-treatment facilities, electric and water networks, and irrigation canals. He believed that Japanese farmers were so skilled and diligent that they would be able to cultivate the Wild West into the fertile agricultural lands of the American Dream.
Driving us around the emerald green farmlands of the reservation, Michael shared many stories with us. He told us about the tribal members’ experiences renting horses to the internees and selling them chickens and eggs. When we asked Michael how it had been possible for these different people—the internees and the tribal members—to communicate with each other under wartime surveillance, he gave us a smile and said, “We’re good at finding unofficial paths.”
Michael’s stories matched up with our findings at the UC Berkeley Bancroft collection. There we encountered first-generation-Japanese internees’ essays and senryu (a short form of poetry similar to haiku), written in their native language. One internee even described his negotiation with the local Indians to obtain chicken for a party! In one essay, an internee described a Mohave man riding his horse across the river. The writer of the essay felt close to the Mohave man, he wrote, because of their common experience of being discriminated against and persecuted by the United States. Some internees wrote short poems describing Mohave women farming the land, while others wrote about Indian children playing in the river. Others still praised the “new home,” while reporting proudly that they could produce many kinds of vegetables on the newly irrigated farmland.
Those texts spoke to our hearts, not only because we shared the same language as the internees, but also because we had by then visited the reservation many times and studied its history—and because we had made dear friends there. Through our research we learned the historical context behind the incredible hospitality, welcome, and kindness that we—two scholars from Japan—had received from the tribal members.
The Poston World War II Internment Camp’s landscape, which at the outset had represented for us deep sorrow, the exploitation of labor, the trampling of basic human rights, and state-sanctioned racist ideology, came over time for us to symbolize also something else—something more hopeful. It came to symbolize new communities forming: the way people have of coming together, through unofficial pathways and in defiance of the state, to survive hardship, and to create, even if only ephemerally, a better world.
Noriko Ishiyama is a professor at Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan. She received her PhD in geography from Rutgers University. She has been working on a project concerned with national parks in relation to tribal history, in addition to her work on nuclear development in the context of settler colonialism and environmental justice.
Jun Kamata is an associate professor at Asia University, Tokyo, Japan. He received his PhD in urban planning from UCLA. He has a BA in Native-American studies from UC Berkeley and an MA in American-Indian studies from UCLA. He has published six books on Native-American and Indigenous studies and a photo book on Native Americans that introduces Japanese readers to contemporary Native-American life.
Ghost Dancers and Shadow Keepers
by Margot Higgins
In trying to acknowledge its early human inhabitants, a national park in Alaska gets it partly right
Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve may seem to epitomize nature in its most raw and uninhabited state, with its gritty, silty air; ice that grinds rocks; and massive icebergs that roll down enormous, undammed, glacially fed rivers. Some consider this park to be a moving picture of the Pleistocene in the present. Our biggest wilderness protected area is a place where humans and nonhumans coevolved amid the ebb and flow of melting glaciers and continue to do so.
In 1911, the Kennicott Mining Company built a railway to take some of the richest copper ore in the world from the Wrangell Mountains in eastern Alaska to the coast in Cordova. Backed by investors in New York, the company hired thousands of workers to lay 196 miles of tracks around glaciers, across canyons and rivers, and through deep snow and avalanche areas. The railroad carried two hundred million tons of copper ore from 1911 to 1938, when the Kennicott mines closed.
In 2011, a weekend-long centennial celebration of the railroad took place in Kennicott, a former company town located in the middle of the park. The festivities included a reenactment of the railroad opening, a slide show, a period-dress party, and tea and cake on the lush lawn of an upscale local lodge. The agenda also included a dance by local Ahtna children, most of whom were living in low-income residential communities outside of park boundaries.
On my way to the performance, I encountered a packed van of Ahtna children and their elders on an unmarked, dusty spur road several miles from Kennecott. The group had been traveling for over five hours to reach a place few of them had previously set foot in. They were road weary, lost, hungry, and anxious—in the middle of what was their tribal territory for thousands of years. I gave them directions to the town’s community recreation center, which had originally been built by the mining company.
Later, when they took the stage, the children’s youthful energy returned. They danced ardently to drums, clapped, sang, and spoke their traditional language. They wore costumes representing ravens, eagles, and bears. Between each act, each shared his or her motivation for participating in the ceremony. Some performed to demonstrate their reverence for the animals; others were there as a tribute to their elders. The audience sat motionless, held in place, in this shared space. At the invitation of the group, several members of the audience, including myself, joined the dancers on stage.
At the conclusion of the performance, the interpretive supervisor for Wrangell-St. Elias gave the Ahtna dance troop a copper railroad spike as a thank-you. The National Park Service (NPS) employee may have had the best intentions, though I could not help but think that instead of recognizing an active, always transforming history of the region, he had pinned the Ahtnas to a Western narrative—on Western terms.
Ahtnas speak of traditional dance as a way of heightening consciousness to allow a connection between human and nonhuman spirits. Children undergo years of training, thereby reinforcing a connection to their ancestors, helping to preserve Ahtna culture, and also embracing a difficult yet powerful past. Through their practice of traditional dance, history is rewritten as it lives on.
Despite growing efforts by the park’s cultural-resource manager to give a voice to Alaska Natives in park-management decisions, and the establishment of an Ahtna Heritage Center at park headquarters in Kennicott, NPS historical accounts focus almost exclusively on the mining era. It’s a typical frontier narrative, one that ignores the unique and important role copper played in Ahtna people’s history and culture, as well as the role the Ahtna played in the development of the mines. In NPS accounts of the story, copper was spotted on a mountain slope by an Alaska prospector. The Ahtna, however, claim that the richest copper vein in the world was stolen from their chief.
In spite of that theft, many Native Alaskans provided food to the miners and shared survival techniques for the region’s harsh, windy environment, in which temperatures range from the eighties in the summer to negative forty in the winter. In actuality, Native Alaskans were instrumental in the construction of the railroad.
Before the miners arrived, the Ahtna owned the land communally. Boundaries of control were not based on written documents or maps, but on oral histories and day-to-day practice. This type of ownership, which the NPS describes as “traditional use and occupancy,” proved no match for the encroaching corporate, state, and federal interests that arrived in the twentieth century.
I spoke to an Ahtna man who criticized park managers for taking “a one-dimensional snapshot of a four-dimensional” reality: “The one-dimensional snapshot only justifies the stance of those in power.” He also contended that the NPS and certain park residents have a tendency to acknowledge a fraction of the history of the Ahtna’s experience. “If the history doesn’t fit their mission they disregard it.”
Copper spikes never supported an industrial railway, but iron spikes did, and today’s popular stories often don’t support a heavy history of human displacement. Some say, and I agree, that the NPS is taking positive steps to repair this complicated history—especially in Alaska where park establishment promised the continuation of local livelihoods for Alaska Natives and non-Native Alaskans. The centennial celebration, however, got things only partially right.
Margot Higgins is a visiting professor in the Environmental Studies Department at Macalester College, where she teaches a course entitled Americans and the Global Parks and Wilderness, as well as courses in environmental history. Her research examines the history and politics of wilderness management in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
My Life, Before and After National Parks
by Audrey Peterman
Awareness of national parks is low among people of color—but one couple is helping to change that
Emulating the concept of the universal markers of time—BC and AD—I measure my life in terms of BP and AP: Before Parks and After Parks. That’s how important national parks are to me.
Before Parks, I was a happy, contented wife and mother to a large, blended family, an immigrant from Jamaica with only a passing interest in politics and the world outside of the US and Jamaica. After Parks I am consumed with a mission: to bring these astonishing places of immeasurable beauty, timeless history, and the evidence of our nation’s evolution to those who remain clueless about their existence, just as I was. After Parks I use every tool I have to publicize the national parks, expand the constituency that loves and supports them, and raise awareness of their value as a hedge against climate change. After Parks I will not be satisfied until the cashier at my local supermarket knows what I’m talking about when I mention national parks, and until Black children in urban schools raise their hands as their white counterparts do when I ask who’s been to one.
I lived in the US for seventeen years before I knew there were national parks, and I found out about them by accident. On the last evening of a trip to Belize, my husband Frank and a local man got to talking over a couple of beers about the cowboy movies they grew up watching.
“What do the Badlands look like?” the Belizean asked, referencing the western landscapes in which many of those movies were shot.
“I don’t know,” said Frank. “I’ve never been there. . . .”
After he had to give the same answer about the Grand Canyon, we realized we knew so little about our own country. Thus began a driving trip from the shores of the Atlantic in South Florida north to Acadia in Maine, northwest to Niagara Falls, west through the Badlands, north to Mount Rushmore, west into Yellowstone National Park, and from there on to Olympic National Park in the Pacific Northwest.
Returning home with stars in our eyes, we began publishing a monthly newsletter, Pickup & GO!, sharing images and stories of our experiences. We’d seen few Americans of African-American or Latin-American descent in the parks from coast to coast, and we wanted to inform them about what they were missing—the grandeur and beauty and history of the parks—and to encourage them to explore the parks on vacation.
The perfect opportunity to expand our message presented itself at a meeting of our local Audubon chapter. A visiting speaker talked about the urgency of restoring the Everglades, and that the success of the restoration rested on the involvement of South Florida’s diverse population. We immediately focused our consulting company on filling the need we saw—helping agencies and conservationists connect with the local Black community.
Shockingly, some of our well-meaning white colleagues told us sympathetically, “People of color have so many survival issues—the rent, light bills—they don’t have time to be interested in the environment.” We rejected that misperception and crafted the Everglades-restoration message to emphasize how it would affect urban communities. It worked so well that African Americans were soon the largest part of many of the audiences we spoke to.
In twenty years we’ve visited 179 units of the park system. I use every platform I have to bring out the lessons we’ve gleaned from these visits as guidance for the present. From Independence Hall in Philadelphia I return with our country’s commitment to the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” and our founding fathers’ message “that all men are created equal.” From Valley Forge National Historical Park I return with the knowledge that black, Hispanic, and Native American men were part of George Washington’s Continental Army that suffered the privations of the most horrible winter of 1777. At the Giant Grove in Sequoia National Park I learn about the Buffalo Soldiers who protected those two-thousand-year-old trees at the turn of the twentieth century, preserving the sequoias that to this day inspire millions of people from throughout the world—I share this legacy with as many people as I can.
The message of how important national parks are in preserving our country’s history and natural beauty, and in teaching us how to tell the story of ourselves, has not reached key segments of America, including the growing demographic groups that will have tremendous influence over the future of the parks as voters. This urgently needs to be rectified. As we’ve found, there’s no difficulty engaging the public when you have the right message and a sincere interest. In this centennial year of the National Park Service, I’m trusting that “national parks” will finally become a household word.
Audrey Peterman and her husband Frank have been traveling the national parks since 1995. She is a leader in the movement to make America’s national parks and public lands relevant to every demographic group and to show the parks as the glue that holds our country together. Her books include Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care.