Gerard Baker, who served in the highest position for any Native American in National Park Service history, recommends 15 sites for visitors to learn about the extensive connections tribes have with the lands that make up today’s national parks.
Long before Yellowstone National Park was established as the country’s first national park in 1872, Native American people hunted, fished and gathered plants there. They also mined obsidian and used the region’s famous thermal waters for medicinal and religious purposes.
Most if not all of the lands in today’s national parks were once home to Indigenous people. In many cases, thousands of years’ worth of Native American history has been documented at national park sites. That long history came to an abrupt end when tribes were forcibly removed from their homelands to make way for the settling of the country by white pioneers. Some of the lands taken over by the federal government later became national parks, and the National Park Service continues to struggle with that dark legacy. In particular, tensions over access to sacred sites within national parks often continued for decades after the parks’ creation and in some cases remain ongoing.
Gerard Baker knows more than a thing or two about the long and complicated history between Native Americans and national parks. A member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, he held a number of positions during his decades-long National Park Service career, including stints as superintendent of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and Mount Rushmore National Monument. He served as the Park Service’s assistant director of American Indian relations up until his retirement in 2010.
While visitors can learn about Native American history and culture at many national park sites, here are 15 that Baker — with input from his daughter Christy, who has also worked as a cultural anthropologist for the Park Service — recommends for people interested in learning about the deep ties between Native Americans and national parks.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park is known for its fragile ecosystems, from mangroves to freshwater prairies, and for its unique wildlife such as crocodiles and Florida panthers, but the park’s lands and waters have long been home to people, too. The Calusa, for example, established a complex society in the western part of the Everglades and built shell mounds that are still visible today. The Everglades is also where the Seminoles found refuge as they resisted forced removal by the U.S. military in the 19th century. The Miccosukee also moved to the Everglades in the 1800s to avoid being forcefully relocated to the West, and today, visitors can learn about Miccosukee culture at Miccosukee Indian Village near the park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center, though most of the village remains closed now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Many national parks have intricate ties to Native American culture, but Mesa Verde National Park was the first national park created specifically to protect cultural heritage. By the beginning of the 20th century, increasing concerns over looting of archaeological sites in the Southwest including Mesa Verde prompted Congress to act. The Antiquities Act, which gave Theodore Roosevelt and subsequent presidents the authority to establish national monuments and help protect invaluable cultural resources, was signed on June 8, 1906, and Mesa Verde National Park was established three weeks later. Today, Mesa Verde protects some 600 Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and thousands of other archaeological sites, including petroglyphs, and 26 tribes have ties to the park.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, North Dakota
Like other tribes of the northern Plains, the Hidatsa who settled along the Missouri River hunted bison. They also built elaborate earth lodges and grew corn in the Upper Missouri Valley’s fertile soil, and their villages served as major trading centers for other tribes and then for European fur traders. It was at one of these villages that in 1804 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met Sacagawea, a young Lemhi Shoshone woman who would serve as an interpreter for the explorers and facilitate contacts with tribes along the way. Ultimately, commerce proved fatal to the Hidatsa villages as a steamboat bringing supplies to the area in June of 1837 also carried passengers infected with smallpox. A month later, the first villager died of the disease, which spread to other villages as trade continued, and hundreds of people died as a result. In 1845, the last residents left the Knife River villages to move 40 miles upstream. Visitors can learn about the villages’ long history and tragic end at the park’s museum, reconstructed earth lodge and village sites.
Glacier National Park, Montana
To the Blackfeet, the mountains of Glacier National Park are the backbone of the world. Yet the Blackfeet and other tribes in the region lost much of their access to these mountains after a controversial land transaction and the park’s creation. In 1895, the U.S. government pressured the Blackfeet into selling the land that makes up today’s Glacier National Park. Not all Blackfeet agreed with the sale, and those who did agreed on the explicit condition that they retain hunting and gathering rights over that territory. Many Blackfeet also understood the transaction to be a lease rather than a sale. A mere 15 years later, Glacier National Park was established, and the Blackfeet’s hunting and gathering rights were nullified. Tensions continued for decades over these rights, but relations between park officials and tribes have improved. Each summer, visitors to Glacier can learn about Native Americans’ longstanding connections to the land within park boundaries through an extensive series of presentations and performances by members of the Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai and Kalispel tribes.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana
Less than three years after the victory of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho over the troops of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in June of 1876, the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was preserved to protect the graves of the U.S. soldiers who died there, and the site was named National Cemetery of Custer’s Battlefield Reservation. Until 1991, Little Bighorn National Monument was still known as Custer Battlefield National Monument, and the name change is part of a larger shift in the interpretation of the site. In 2003, the Indian Memorial was dedicated to the Native American warriors who perished in the battle, and with that dedication, the park moved further away from simply being a tribute to Custer and his troops to a more balanced portrayal of the battle, which was the Plains tribes’ last armed attempt at preserving their way of life.
Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri
Gateway Arch National Park — originally established as Jefferson National Expansion Memorial — was created as a tribute to the opening of the West to white pioneers by President Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark expedition. But westward expansion also paved the way for epidemics, forced removal, armed conflict, near-extinction of bison and forced assimilation of Native Americans, among other hardships. Visitors to the St. Louis-based park can ascend to the top of the 630-foot-high Gateway Arch and contemplate the complicated legacy of Manifest Destiny and the settling of the American West.
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, North Dakota
Fort Union was not a military outpost but the most important fur trading center on the Upper Missouri River during the mid-1800s. Members of seven tribes traded beaver pelts, bison hides and other furs for clothing, guns, cookware and other manufactured items. On average, 25,000 bison robes were traded at the fort each year. Trading of goods was not the only exchange that took place there, though. Artists and scientists such as George Catlin and John James Audubon also visited the fort to learn about the region’s people and wildlife. The current fort is a reconstruction of the post as it appeared in 1851, and every summer, the fort hosts an Indian Arts Showcase that features Upper Missouri tribes’ culture, history and crafts.
Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada
The name “Death Valley” was coined by Gold Rush prospectors after several of them died there in the mid-1800s, but the valley has been hospitable to Native American people for about 10,000 years. Petroglyphs and pictographs (paintings) can be found in various parts of the park, and the Timbisha people take their name from the red ochre paint made from clay that naturally occurs in the valley. The Timbisha Shoshone have lived in the area for more than 1,000 years, and while they were initially relegated to modest housing when Death Valley National Monument was established in the 1930s, they have since secured several hard-won victories, such as federal recognition of the tribe in the early 1980s and a transfer of federal land (including more than 300 acres at Furnace Creek) to the tribe in 2000. As a recognition of the tribe’s connection to the arid land, visitors today pass entrance signs to Death Valley National Park that designate the park as “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone.”
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
This national park in northern Minnesota may have been named after the French-speaking fur traders who passed through the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, but Native American people had been living on that land for 10,000 years. That long record in the park has been documented in more than 200 archaeological sites dating from the period before Europeans arrived there. The park is also home to Ojibwe sites where archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the extensive trade between the Ojibwe and the voyageurs. Discoveries continue, so visitors coming across artifacts should leave them in place and alert park rangers.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
White brothers Tom and Jesse Bingham are credited with the first documented discovery of Wind Cave in 1881, but the cave had long been part of the oral traditions of several tribes in the area. Wind Cave holds special significance for the Lakota, who believe that their people, who were living underground, emerged into the world above the surface through Wind Cave’s opening. The cave and the park’s land remain very important to Native Americans today, and park managers consult with 20 tribal governments on major park projects.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Human presence in the Grand Canyon dates back more than 12,000 years, and that long history is documented through artifacts, such as 2,000-year-old twig figurines and archaeological sites that include Ancestral Puebloan dwellings. Eleven tribes are connected with the lands and resources of Grand Canyon National Park, and while relations have been tense for much of the park’s history, things are moving in the right direction, as evidenced in the collaboration between park managers and tribal members over the renovation of Desert View Watchtower. Visitors can learn about Native Americans’ extensive connections to the Grand Canyon at the Tusayan Museum (although the museum is temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic).
Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota
For centuries, Native Americans have come to this spot in southwestern Minnesota to mine pipestone, a red claystone, and carve it into ceremonial pipes. This sacred site became a tourist attraction, though, after painter George Catlin visited the quarries in 1836. Homesteaders also flocked to the area, and Native Americans, increasingly moved to reservations and limited in their ability to travel, found it more and more difficult to access the quarries. The Ihanktonwan Oyate secured “free and unrestricted access” by signing a treaty in 1858, yet settlers stole the pipestone and built over the quarries. The Ihanktonwan took their case all the way to the Supreme Court and won compensation for their loss, but the quarries fell under the control of the U.S. government. These days, enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe may apply for permits to extract the pipestone with simple tools and hard labor, but the waiting list is so long that applicants may have to wait as long as 10 years to mine the quarry.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The word “badlands” reportedly originates from “Mako Sika” (“bad lands” in Lakota language), and indeed these lands are subject to temperature extremes in summer and winter, are short on sources of potable water, and are challenging to navigate and traverse. Yet Indigenous people have lived here for at least 12,000 years, and two dozen tribes are associated with the lands within the park. The South Unit of the park, which includes Stronghold Table where Lakota people performed a religious ritual known as a ghost dance just weeks before the Wounded Knee massacre, sits within the Pine Ridge Reservation and is managed in collaboration with the Oglala Lakota Nation. That unit is currently closed as a result of the pandemic.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, 16 states from Oregon to Pennsylvania
The Lewis and Clark expedition had multiple objectives, including finding a practical route across the western part of the country and paving the way for an American presence in the newly completed Louisiana Purchase, but Meriwether Lewis and William Clark also hoped to learn more about the many tribes that inhabited this vast land and perhaps establish trading relations with them. The expedition had a few tense encounters with tribes, but by and large Native Americans’ attitude toward Lewis and Clark was not only peaceful but even helpful at times. For some tribes, Lewis, Clark and their men were the first white people they had ever met. Many more would follow with tragic consequences for the tribes in the region. From Pennsylvania to Oregon, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail today connects dozens of sites, many of which continue to hold significance for Native Americans.
Redwood National Park, California
For anyone who has stood in awe of the majestic coast redwoods, it should come as no surprise that Indigenous people in what is now coastal Northern California have always considered the trees sacred living beings. Native Americans used redwoods to build plank houses, sweat lodges and dugout canoes, collecting the wood from fallen trees or driftwood. Local tribes continue to be closely associated with the redwood forests within Redwood National Park, and the Yurok Tribe is collaborating with the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce endangered condors to the park. Members of the Tolowa and Yurok tribes also regularly perform dance demonstrations in the park, although these public events are currently on hiatus because of COVID-19.
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About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.
- Wind Cave National Park
- Voyageurs National Park
- Redwood National & State Parks
- Pipestone National Monument
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
- Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Gateway Arch National Park
- Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
- Everglades National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Badlands National Park