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National Parks Should Be Controlled By Indigenous Tribes, One Writer Argues

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The National Parks System has often been called America's best idea, but that idea came at a cost - the cost of 85 million acres that once belonged to Native Americans. David Treuer argues that the federal government should give those acres back. His article in The Atlantic is titled "Return The National Parks To The Tribes." Treuer is himself a Leech Lake Ojibwe, and he joins us now. Welcome.

DAVID TREUER: Hi. How are you doing?

CHANG: Good. So the way I understand it, the foundation of your argument is that in case after case, the national parks are established on land that was basically taken away from Native Americans by force, by broken treaties or by simply deceit. Can you describe some examples of this?

TREUER: Definitely. So our most famous and our first national park, Yellowstone, was enabled with legislation. And as a part of that process, you know, the Shoshone-Bannock and other tribes in the area were assured and guaranteed that they would be able to use the lands in the park, they would be able to hunt and travel through. And after the park was established, all of those promises were broken, and native people were actually excluded from the park. And that has happened, you know, over and over again since, you know, the first park started in 1874.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the mechanics of how the country would return national parks to Native American tribes. Like, what would that move actually look like? There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. How would you decide who gets control over which parks, and how might control be handed over?

TREUER: Well, the great thing about my job is I'm not a government official.

CHANG: (Laughter) I had a feeling you would say that.

TREUER: But as I imagine it, some tribes still live in their traditional homelands, like my tribe, the Ojibwe. We still live where our people have more or less always lived. But that's not true for all tribes. So it could be really complicated if we imagine this as, well, the Ho-Chunk run this park in Wisconsin, and the Dene run this park in New Mexico. That would be very messy and very complicated and very piecemeal. So what I imagined was all of the parks - and I would even go so far as to say even national monuments like the National Mall in Washington, D.C. - revert to tribal control, which is a consortium of all of the tribes - not a particular tribe, but all of us - to make decisions about all of the things that go into running parks now.

CHANG: But how would agreeing to give back lands to Native American tribes protect against potential extraction on those lands? Like, you profile a tribe, the MHA Nation. They had limited economic options, so their tribal chair promoted sovereignty by the barrel, facilitating oil extraction on their land. How would you prevent a scenario like that?

TREUER: Well, as I imagine it, this is not a process where parks in their entirety would be given to a consortium of tribes to do with whatever they wish. The point of my idea is to give it over to tribes to protect. So if I were in power and I could wave my pen and make this so, there would be very strong language in that process, in that agreement around the issue of conservation.

CHANG: Why even stop with national parks and the grounds which national monuments are on? This entire country was land that once belonged to Native Americans.

TREUER: Well, I mean, I can't speak for anybody other than myself, of course. I'm not an elected official, either American or (laughter) tribal. No one's seriously just suggesting, like, why don't we just grant the entire country back? But what I am saying is that this kind of reparation is a chance for the country to put into practice its best ideals, its noblest impulses. America needs to be reminded of its capacity for justice, fairness and compassion. And so, you know, for that reason and even, you know, that reason alone, I think this is an idea worth considering.

CHANG: David Treuer is a Leech Lake Ojibwe and the author of "The Heartbeat Of Wounded Knee." Thank you very much for joining us today.

TREUER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "DEFINITIVE BREAKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.