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National Parks “Tell Our Story”–What Does That Say About “Us”?

December 16, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on National Parks “Tell Our Story”–What Does That Say About “Us”?

I may get in some trouble for this post–comments are always welcome–but I have a bone to pick with National Geographic and, indirectly, with national parks.  Yes, I know, the “yellow box” is a highly respected “brand” and national parks are “America’s best idea.”  I generally agree with both of those sentiments, but…

A recent visual blog describes national parks as “How National Parks Tell our Story–And Show Who We Are.”  The subtitle is promising:  “They’re more than scenic places.  They’re a nation’s common ground.”

So here’s what we are told directly:

  • national parks began to be established in the late 19th century; the National Park Service was created in 1916;
  • the current director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, sees the agency’s role as telling America’s broader story, not just protecting parcels of land.  His example is the civil rights story embodied in the Selma to Montgomery Trail site;
  • “They (national parks) help us imagine what the American landscape and its resident creatures looked like before railroads…” emphasis added.

This last part is egregiously wrongheaded.  As Mark David Spence (Dispossessing the Wilderness:  Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks) and other historians point out clearly, the human populations indigenous to North America were deliberately and forcibly removed in order that tracts of land could be made into playgrounds and wonderlands for citizens of the United States.  Some of the pictures reinforce this absence: people (including a “cowboy”) standing at overlooks gazing out at the spectacular, and “empty” landscape.

The images reinforce other indirect messages about who “we” are, namely that we are by and large separate from Nature that we connect with by going and looking at it.  Almost all of the photos show crowds of people on walkways, behind fences, and reading from markers.  Only the urban scene around one of the basins in Washington DC shows people on the grass and engaged in activities other than a variation of “standing and looking.”

As the National Park Service enters its second century, we have to do better than this.  Be honest about removal of indigenous people and the connection of that genocide to park establishment.  Treat nature as something other than a glorious object to be held apart from us and worshipped. Only then will we be able to live up to the promise of the parks: becoming the nation’s common ground.


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