Native Americans Challenge Park Agency for Land Rights

For thousands of years Timbisha Shoshones' roamed the sands of the Mojave and had no ties to the Miccosukees in the Florida Everglades. Likewise, the Hualapai in Arizona were strangers to the Pai 'Ohana in Hawaii.

But today, an unusual circle of native American tribes has found a common enemy: the US National Park Service.

Despite praise for its environmental stewardship and partnerships in some parks, native Americans are quietly banding together to challenge the Park Service for unrestricted access to lands they have inhabited for much of the past millennia. The pending showdown could set important legal precedents and sully the agency's benevolent image. It also poses a tough political test for the Clinton administration.

Yesterday, when the National Congress of American Indians convened its annual convention in Phoenix, the Timbishas and an angry alliance of Indian tribes delivered a poignant declaration to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and other Clinton administration officials.

"We want the world to hear the real story of how the National Park Service views Indians," says Richard Boland of the Timbishas. "When most people think of the Park Service they think of the happy, smiling ranger wearing a Smokey the Bear hat in Yellowstone and Yosemite. We have a different tale to tell."

The US government, they claim, is perpetuating a de facto policy of "cultural genocide" by forbidding aboriginal peoples from living in national parks and preventing them from pursuing the kind of traditional activities considered essential to their cultural survival.

"The National Park Service has no understanding of its obligations to Indian people," claims Billy Cypress, tribal chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe that is in the midst of a protracted dispute with the government over where to locate tribal housing. "They [the Park Service] give the plants and animals more respect than the native people who lived and cared for these lands long before the parks even existed."

The Alliance to Protect Native Rights in National Parks, formed this summer, includes six tribes: the Timbishas, the Miccosukees, the Pai 'Ohana in Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, the Hualapai on the edge of Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajos near Canyon de Chelly, and five Sandoval Indian Pueblos in New Mexico. But the number of tribes in the alliance is expected to double by the end of the year.

Already, members of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe have filed a lawsuit against the government pressing for unrestricted use of Glacier National Park and the Shoshones in Idaho have raised the possibility of trying to secure limited hunting privileges in Yellowstone. The uprising - and a potential flood of lawsuits - has captured the Clinton administration's attention. The last thing the president wants, aides say, is to be accused of ignoring the pleas of America's dispossessed.

Two years ago, in 1994, President. Clinton issued an executive order instructing all federal agencies, in their negotiations, to respect the status of Indian tribes as distinct sovereign nations. Another provision of the decree, calls for Congress to hold oversight hearings specifically on the role of Indians in the national parks.

The alliance is hopeful that such hearings will be given bipartisan priority in the 105th Congress particularly from Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona who is sympathetic to the Timbishas and the Hualapai and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii who has responded to the Pai 'Ohana.

Dating back well before the king of Hawaii relinquished his throne in the 19th century, this clan of native Hawaiians had occupied a portion of the big island and remained on the land even when it was acquired by a plantation owner.

When the owner sold his interest to the National Park Service with the intent that it would be made into a national park to celebrate Hawaii's history, the Pai 'Ohana family was forced to leave because federal Park Service policy does not allow permanent human occupation.

"It's as if a family of aboriginal people were living in the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and they were thrown out because they didn't have a paper title to the pueblos," says Arnold Lum, an attorney for the tribe.

Tensions are similarly high among the Timbisha in Death Valley. Part of the Timbisha's proposal asks that 750,000 acres be circumscribed as a reservation within the borders of Death Valley National Park.

But one administration official, who asked not to be identified, says: "We have no intentions to create new Indian reservations in the middle of our national parks. It would be inconsistent with the very objectives of the National Park Service."

But that attitude, the alliance claims, is precisely the problem. While the Park Service has developed an international reputation for preserving the artifacts of ancient cultures at places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, critics claim it has demonstrated an ambivalence in recognizing the importance of tribal homelands.

Renee Stone, the agency's chief of staff in Washington, says there is no policy for tribes that want to live in national parks. "It's a very challenging legal issue," she says.

Stone says the agency is hardly callous to the sensitive needs of native people. At Badlands National Park in South Dakota, the Park Service shares co-management responsibilities with the Lakota Sioux. There, the tribes collects gate receipts, staffs the park's South Unit (which lies in the middle of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation) with people from the community and tailors its own cultural exhibits. The agency also has fiercely defended the First Amendment rights of native peoples to worship at Devil's Tower National Monument over objections from rock climbers. "It comes down to a matter of trying to meet tribal expectations and accommodating our mandate of preservation," she says.

The Park Service says it already made a special concession to the Timbishas when decades ago it allowed tribal members to occupy 40 acres of land in Death Valley's Furnace Creek area. But Boland says the site was not one selected voluntarily by the tribe.

The Timbisha's attorney, Frederick Marr, says it is outrageous that tribal members whose ancestors inhabited Death Valley for thousands of years have been relegated to the status of common tourists who must buy tickets to get in.

Marr says the government worries that if it accedes to the Timbisha, potentially dozens of other tribes across America will use it as a precedent and to assert their access rights to parks as well.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Native Americans Challenge Park Agency for Land Rights
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today