Deep reservations about America's early promises


United States Indian country isn't always God's country. Reservations aren't exactly national parks either, although oftentimes adjacent to each other. Where the two places exist in spirit and geography, and where they historically converge in both mind and on maps, is the subject of Philip Burnham's book.

It's a story told by means of research that traces the tandem evolution of federal Indian policy and the National Park Service, established in 1916. His scholarship is augmented by accounts of travels through five of the American West's national parks and interviews with key personalities representative of the Park Service and sundry Indian nations.

The Indian peoples (and national parks) considered are the Timbisha (Death Valley), the Havasupai (Grand Canyon), the Ute (Mesa Verde), the Sioux (the Badlands), and the Blackfeet (Glacier).

Given the emotional and economic knots associated with the country's abiding "Indian problem," and the ethnic politics of the American West, Burnham soon makes it clear that there is no such thing as "the" American Indian or "the" American West. Even so, the problems faced by each of the Indian nations and individuals in California, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, and the Dakota Badlands, are variations on the larger issues of Indian identity, tribal sovereignty, and hunting rights played out against the assumptions of Manifest Destiny, settlement, tourism, ecology, and land use.

As with most issues of Indian policy and land ethics, the absorption of Indian land by non-Indians - whether settlers, developers, entrepreneurs, or the government - has all the ambivalence afforded by definitions associated with conquest, progress, and cultural appropriation.

In the author's words, "The story of national parks and Indians is, depending on perspective, a costly triumph of the public interest, or a bitter betrayal of America's native people."

A self-identified "outsider," neither Indian nor government apologist, the author tries to maintain a stance of objectivity. By book's end, however, and certainly in the second part of the rather awkwardly divided volume, most readers will side with the Indians. Through the various and often nefarious policies of forced removal in the 1830s, the Dawes Allotment Act (1887), the New Deal Indian Reorganization Act (1934), the termination policies of the 1950s, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), and the Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), Native Americans have little to celebrate in the national parks unless it's the advantage of Indian gaming allowed on reservations.

One wishes throughout for a more explicit advocacy of Indian perspectives along with a more seamless stitching of personal anecdote and travelogue with the encompassing historical perspective of Anglo-American values that set in motion the ideas of resource conservation, nature, and tourism that informed the values of the National Park Service.

Ultimately, the author does side with Indian perspectives and stresses his own assent and understanding that the Shoshone are more than justified in not having any word for "thank you."

His heart is with what is more and more being called the New Western history, a revisionist look at America that poses a greater ethnic and racial thickness to the accounts of Indian/white contact and conflict. Burnham is, however, caught on the sharpening horns of current identity politics and inside/outside arguments of validation and truth.

No lesser environmental and Indian-friendly voices than John Muir and Helen Hunt Jackson are reported here, alas, as having a deep-seated aversion to "unclean" Indian ways, failing to see fully the truly defiling and defacing results of racism. Indian voices and points of view are heard loudest through the interviews and in the accounts of the more dramatic destinies of Wounded Knee (1890) and its reprise 80 years later.

Ownership in these events is nine-tenths power, not possession, and in this era of increased regulation of and access to "our" national parks, it's not just Indians who need to heed the lessons of this book and the ultimate illusion of ownership.

*R.F. Gish is the author of "Beyond Bounds: Cross Cultural Essays on Anglo, American Indian, and Chicano Literature" (University of New Mexico Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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