Next time you visit a national park, take time to learn and honor its Indigenous history

Many modern tribes still have ancestral connections to these lands

Terry Secody. | Photo: Marisa Jarae

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, effectively creating the world’s first national park in what is now Wyoming. During a time when expansion and development reigned supreme, the protection of such a grand parcel of land was practically inconceivable. But it was tough to dismiss the joys and wonders of this pristine territory, especially when it was brought to life by the photographs and paintings of various explorers who advocated for the preservation of the land.

This crowning victory launched the forward-moving momentum for what would eventually become the National Park Service in 1916.

Terry Secody, a Navajo from the Bitterwater (Tódích'íi'nii) clan and born from the Towering House (Kinyaa’áanii) clan, hiking through a canyon in a national park.
Terry Secody. | Photo: Marisa Jarae

Years ticked by and the number of national parks increased. Four national parts were created  by 1900; by 1920, there were 16. Today, the National Park Service operates under the Department of the Interior with 59 named national parks.

A complicated history

On the surface, it is easy to view each national park as a glittering jewel of natural wonderment; a space of “protected” land that was saved from woes of development. Yet, there is a reality that frequently gets omitted from the conversation: Indigenous people lived on this land thousands of years before the National Park Service was ever a kernel of ideation. These beautiful tracts of land were their homes.

In a history packed full of broken promises and ignored claims, various American Indian tribes were removed from their homelands during the creation of almost every single national park in the country. For example, Yellowstone National Park sits near the convergence of the Great Plains, the Great Basin, and the Plateau, making it a prime location for hunting, fishing, and gathering. A total of 26 modern tribes have ancestral connections to the park, which is still considered sacred land—a fact that likely went unknown to many of last year’s 4.12 million visitors.

Cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park.
Mesa Verde National Park. | Photo: Joshua Smibert

As visitor numbers continue to increase in many of our national parks, how can we better acknowledge the Indigenous history of the land? How can we honor the Native American tribes who came long before us and frequently still use these lands for sacred ceremonies and celebrations?

Do your research

Cali Wolf is a Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. She grew up several states away from her reservation, and has spent the past few years reclaiming an identity that she had neglected and largely forgotten. By day, Wolf works as a board-certified emergency room nurse in a trauma center. By night, and during her spare time, she is the coordinating director and ambassador for Native Women’s Wilderness, a nonprofit dedicated to elevating the voices of Native American women and nonbinary relatives in the outdoors. According to Wolf, the first step in visiting any national park should involve research.

“Use Google, visit, or download the ‘Whose Land’ app,” Wolf suggests.

Cali Wolf, the coordinating director for Native Women’s Wilderness.
Cali Wolf. | Photo: Bailey Miclette

For many modern travelers, the Indigenous history in national parks is simply unknown. For example, Yosemite National Park houses a beautiful hotel once known as The Ahwahnee Hotel. The structure was named in homage to the Ahwahneechee tribe that once lived in the Ahwahnee Valley, now known as Yosemite Valley. When the park’s concessionaire lost its contract in 2016, the hotel was turned over to new ownership. The outgoing company held the trademark on the name “The Ahwahnee Hotel,” so the new company renamed the structure The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Indigenous history was scrubbed, preventing modern travelers from ever knowing it existed—unless they did prior research.

“We constantly face erasure, so acknowledgement goes a long way.”

Before visiting any park, first learn whose land you will be enjoying. Seek out the Indigenous history in the visitor center and ask questions to learn more. Visit when you have an understanding of the land and its roots.

“Share what you learn with someone else,” Wolf says. “We constantly face erasure, so acknowledgement goes a long way.”

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as The Ahwahnee Hotel. | Photo: Shutterstock

Acknowledge the sacredness

Terry Secody, a Navajo from the Bitterwater (Tódích’íi’nii) clan and born from the Towering House (Kinyaa’áanii) clan, lives in Tuba City, Arizona. He follows traditional ceremonial practices, in large part thanks to his grandfather who taught him everything he knew about the traditional way of living.

According to Secody, so much of our nation’s land is still sacred to Indigenous people, and it is critical to understand and acknowledge that before entering any park—or any land.

“Salt, trees, rocks, plants—it could all be sacred in some way,” Secody explains. “There is still sacred significance to many of these places.”

Terry Secody paddling on the Colorado River.
Terry Secody. | Photo: Marisa Jarae

For many Indigenous people, social media—and especially Instagram—is widely considered the downfall of these sacred areas. One of the more popular examples is the sacred Havasu Falls, an aqua-colored waterfall located near Supai Village in Havasu Canyon. The area is home to the Havasupai tribe and they administer the land which lies just outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. Thanks to flashy, colorful Instagram photos, the waterfall has blown up in popularity in recent years, causing the tribe to close the area to tour guides in 2019. You can still visit independently, just consider whose land you are visiting and the historical importance of the region.

“Indian tribes have these beautiful places, and outsiders come in and just take photos and leave without acknowledging any of the importance to those of us who have used these places as shrines for thousands of years,” Secody explains.

“Salt, trees, rocks, plants—it could all be sacred in some way. There is still sacred significance to many of these places.”

When visiting, tread lightly and leave everything as you found it. Remember that one or more Native American tribes may be using that very patch of earth for traditional ceremonies.

Hire a Native guide—and learn from them

Hiring a Native guide can be tougher than it appears, Secody says, because Indigenous people are still not widely employed by the National Park Service. In 2004, the Grand Canyon National Park hired its first licensed Navajo guide, Nikki Cooley. (Havasupai Shana Watahomigie was the first female Native guide on the river in 2001, but that was before licensure was required.)

Other parks and monuments, like Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, have a few Native guides—but there are typically not enough guides to educate and inform the large number of annual visitors about the Indigenous histories of the lands on which they stand. But still, it is worth the extra effort to find a Native guide.

Cali Wolf, a Sicangu Lakota, standing on a rooftop, wearing a shirt that reads, "We are more than a quantum."
Cali Wolf. | Photo: Cristobal Coléman

“Native people have been the caretakers of the land since time immemorial,” says Wolf. “We have extensive knowledge of the area and its ecosystems. Plus, it provides job opportunities to a qualified population that faces high unemployment rates.”

Wolf calls controlled burns—the act of using fires to modify the landscape and maintain wildlife habitats, resulting in the pristine wilderness landscapes of earlier eras—an example of invaluable Indigenous knowledge. Unfortunately, fire suppression became standard during colonization, resulting in more uncontrolled wildfires. Canada has recognized this problem and is currently working with First Nations to reinstate the controlled burns using Indigenous knowledge. According to Wolf, this is just one example of the type of information and land history that would come with an Indigenous guide.

“Native people have been the caretakers of the land since time immemorial. We have extensive knowledge of the area and its ecosystems.”

Yet, Secody points out that hiring a Native guide isn’t the only solution. “That works, but so often, the history is still swept under the table,” Secody says.

If you opt for a Native guide, he suggests digging a little deeper to make sure you actually learn about the Indigenous history and the area’s roots.

“I wouldn’t even necessarily say [you have to] hire anyone,” Secody clarifies. “Because people like me enjoy sharing our history and we don’t charge.”