The problem with wilderness

Oil painting 'Indians in Council, California', by Albert Bierstadt, 1872. Dark night scene, people in foreground and mountain in background.

The American environmental movement is rooted historically in ideas about pristine wilderness, free from human presence, that replicate colonial patterns of white supremacy and settler privilege. Native-led movements are changing the script.

Image: Indians in Council, California, by Albert Bierstadt, 1872; oil on canvas (Smithsonian American Art Museum). Bierstadt spent two years in California in the early 1870s, sketching the landscape of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, as white settlers were driving Indians off the land. Yosemite was made a state park in 1864 and a national park in 1890.

Smithsonian American Art Museum


Historians of the environmental movement often locate the movement’s genesis in mid-nineteenth-century literature, most commonly invoking writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir.

After Emerson published Nature in 1836, a new mystical and philosophical movement called Transcendentalism began to emerge in Boston. The Transcendentalists believed that a direct experience with the divine could be attained through intimate interaction with nature. While Emerson and Thoreau were paving fresh intellectual ground in the East, the artist George Catlin (who was unconnected to the Transcendentalists) was traveling out west documenting the last of the “wild” Indian tribes, becoming famous for the hundreds of paintings that are now his legacy and for beginning a national dialogue on the need for national parks. In Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1841), Catlin lamented what he believed was the beginning of the extinction of the buffalo and the tribes who depended on them. He proposed that the U.S. should create a “Nations’ park containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!” While the idea for a national park was not yet taken seriously, a growing national angst about modernity made conditions ripe for it by the early 1870s.

Book cover "As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock

Adapted with permission from As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, © 2019 Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Beacon Press).

© 2019 Dina Gilio-Whitaker

The national park system has long been lauded as “America’s greatest idea,” but only relatively recently has it begun to be more deeply questioned. In Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (1999), Mark David Spence delivered a long-overdue critique that linked the creation of the first national parks with the federal policy of Indian removal. Spence points out that the first so-called wilderness areas that had been deemed in need of preserving were not only and in actuality Indigenous occupied landscapes when the first national parks were established, but also that an uninhabited wilderness had to first be created.

What is today Yellowstone National Park was originally the territory of numerous tribal nations, including Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Nez Perce, and other smaller tribes and bands. The treaties of Fort Bridger and Fort Laramie in 1868 ceded large tracts of land to the U.S. and created separate reservations for the tribes, which retained the right of the continued use of the ceded lands for hunting and other subsistence activities. Although early settlers had claimed the Indians avoided the Yellowstone area due to superstitions about the geysers, they in fact had long used the lands, a rich source of game and medicinal and edible plants, for spiritual ceremonies and other purposes.

After the park’s establishment in 1872 the Indians continued to frequent the area, especially since limited reservation land and government food rations were insufficient to feed the people and the threat of starvation constantly loomed. Yellowstone was set aside initially not in the interest of preserving wilderness but as a “wonderland” for its unique natural features—an ideal tourist attraction. By 1886 the Department of the Interior’s stated purpose for the park’s existence had changed to the preservation of the wilderness (animals, fish, and trees), to be enforced by the military, which was already aggressively pursuing resistant Indians throughout the Plains. Anxiety about hunting in the park over the next few years led to the passage of the Lacey Act in 1894, a law prohibiting all hunting within park boundaries, including Indian hunting—in direct violation of treaty protections.

The lingering result of the Yellowstone story is that coded within the language of preservation, “wilderness” landscapes are, or should be, free from human presence. But this logic completely evades the fact of ancient Indigenous habitation and cultural use of such places. When environmentalists reiterate narratives about pristine national park environments, they are participating in the erasure of Indigenous peoples, thus replicating colonial patterns of white supremacy and settler privilege.

Although Thoreau was not widely read in his time, the real impact of his work would manifest later, particularly as a result of his (and Emerson’s) influence on John Muir. Both Thoreau’s and Muir’s views on nature and what humans’ relationship to it ought to be were shaped by their experience with Indians. Their biographers tend to admire Thoreau’s and Muir’s views on American Indians, praising them as progressive “Indianists” at a time of intensifying violent colonization of the continent, but also tend to downplay the extent to which both men were influenced by popular narratives of Indian inferiority—what we today call the savage and noble savage tropes. In the process, these commentators often reinforce the patronizing, romanticized views that prevented Americans from seeing Native peoples as fully human in the first place. The overly romantic and fetishized view of Indian closeness with nature inevitably invokes Indians as childlike and intellectually unevolved. Worse, it evades U.S. accountability for its genocidal expropriation of the continent and the violation of its own constitutional law about treaties being the supreme law of the land.

Thoreau wrote extensively about American Indians. He studied their history and cultures and later in his life befriended Penobscots Joe Aitteon and Joe Polis, whom he had hired as guides, documenting his adventures with them in The Maine Woods. He clearly admired the way Indians lived and perceived in their spirituality a mysticism that appealed to his own Transcendentalist orientation. Yet woven throughout Thoreau’s writings about Indians is also a romantic draw to the “wildness” of Indian life—the noble savagery of the Indian, who by virtue of his primitiveness is worthy of respect, because, at least in part, he resists the corruption of the white man’s civilization.

Thoreau also seemed never to have grasped that the New England wilderness, already so altered by European settlement in his time, had in the precolonial period been a cultural landscape shaped by centuries of Indian intervention on the land, not the untouched pristine environment he and many of his contemporaries imagined.

The history of national parks, shaped by ideologies of preservation and conservation that Thoreau and similar naturalists inspired, has a long track record of severing Indians from living on, or traditional uses of, their ancestral lands. When the first white settlers observed the magnificent “cathedral” of Yosemite Valley, they described vast open meadows covered in “luxuriant native grasses and flowering plants,” a place that “presented the appearance of a well-kept park,” “a prairie planted with fruit trees.” These observers were there early enough to witness how the valley had been managed for centuries by Native peoples. With techniques like controlled burns and even hand removal of young willows and cottonwoods, the growth of a thick and highly combustible understory was averted, helping to prevent uncontrollable fires. Ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson, whose voluminous analysis of California Indian land management broke intellectual ground in Native studies, noted that “much of the landscape in California that so impressed early writers, photographers, and landscape painters was in fact a cultural landscape, not the wilderness they imagined.” But within a few short decades of bureaucratic management Yosemite Valley would become almost unrecognizable to its Indigenous inhabitants.

The Yosemite Indians were violently expelled from the valley with the Mariposa Indian War of 1850–51, but unlike the Rocky Mountain Indians of Yellowstone and Glacier, the Yosemites were gradually allowed to return and resume much of their previous customary land-based practices, including hunting, fishing, and food gathering. Limited numbers of them lived in the park for another century, contributing to the tourist economy through the exploitation of their labor and culture. Yosemite was established as a tourist destination from its earliest days, and the presence of Indians still living largely in their traditional manner lent an aura of authenticity to visitors’ “wilderness experience.” But with the tight controls of government bureaucracies came the loss of traditional environmental management Yosemite’s Indigenous peoples had maintained for centuries.

Ironically, the Park Service’s guiding philosophy was more about catering to tourists than it was about actually preserving wilderness. Even the national parks’ founding document directed park managers to manipulate the landscape as necessary to improve views, which could be achieved by “dispos[ing] of timber” or killing predatory animals that reduced populations of deer and mountain sheep, which tourists expected to see. In Yosemite, Indians were prohibited in the late 1800s from hunting and their controlled burning practices. By the turn of the century the valley had become transformed from an Indigenous cared-for cultural landscape to a cultural landscape based on the projection of an imagined, commodified, European American wilderness.

Unpacking the philosophical foundations of the early conservation and preservation movements is crucial to understanding how the organized environmental movement would unfold throughout the twentieth century, informed as it was by stereotypes about American Indian people and the overarching master narrative of white supremacy, and also by wilderness as a historically contingent, socially constructed idea. John Muir and the founding of the Sierra Club was at the temporal intersection of these eras, bridging the nineteenth-century era’s savagist narratives and the twentieth-century federal move toward (re)recognizing Native sovereignty and self-determination.

White Supremacy and the Seeds of the Environmental Movement

Few terms in American vernacular English can elicit the kind of emotionally charged response that “white supremacy” can.

Americans like to think that since the civil rights era, we have achieved the postracial, meritocratic, multicultural state where color blindness and equal opportunity prevail. Liberals and conservatives like to think that racism is defined only by hostile behavior from which individuals can excuse themselves because they have friends, employees, perhaps an old lover or two who are people of color. In this way of thinking, white supremacy is an ideology restricted to rogue alt-right neo-Nazis or white-nationalist fringe groups, and certainly not well-meaning everyday people. But as a foundational worldview constructed by centuries of white European settlement of the United States, white supremacy is far broader than that. It is the thread from which the American social fabric is woven. A few decades of laws promoting racial justice have failed to unravel the systemic forms that white supremacy has taken, reflected by a range of social indicators from chronic wealth inequality to negative educational outcomes to disproportionate rates of violence and incarceration in communities of color. Centuries of dehumanization of American Indians, African Americans, and ethnic minority “others” has left its mark on the American mind and in its institutions, refusing to die.

That Native people were inferior to white Europeans was as true for John Muir as it was for Thoreau. Some writers claim that Muir’s racist views on Indians stemmed from his postimmigration childhood in Wisconsin’s Winnebago territory and became intensified after coming to California. When Muir arrived in San Francisco in 1868, California was engaged in an open campaign of extermination of California Indians, which he didn’t seem to ever have actively opposed. Instrumental in the creation of Yosemite National Park, he supported the expulsion of the Yosemite Indians from their ancient home in the valley and journaled about California “digger” Indians (a derogatory term even then), whom he found dirty, lazy, ugly, and altogether disappointing. Muir’s apologists like to point out that his views about Indians evolved, especially after his travels to Alaska where he spent time among Tlingits and other Alaska and Pacific Northwest Natives. But he never transcended a deeply ingrained pattern of Christian paternalism that presupposed Natives as culturally deficient.

The idea of wilderness as conceived by preservationists and conservationists was a white-settler social construct. It imagined an unpeopled, wild landscape as pristine, pure, and unspoiled, and as the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant asserts, reflected values that equated wilderness with whiteness and, after postbellum black urban migration, cities with darkness and depravity. These tropes, rooted in policies of removal and segregation, she argues, led to the ideal of an American “colonized Eden,” a “controlled, managed garden” from which colonized Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and people of color were systematically excluded and which led to patterns of toxic waste dumping in communities of color.

It is against this backdrop that the Sierra Club, the first nongovernmental, environmentally focused organization in the U.S., was founded in 1892, with Muir as one of its founding members and first elected president. From its inception the Sierra Club’s agenda was to protect Northern California’s wilderness areas, which by then had been largely cleared of its Indigenous population, with the survivors of the state’s genocidal policies confined to small rancherias and reservations. Nationwide, with the Indian population at record low numbers, safely contained within reservation boundaries and guarded by strictly enforced laws against hunting outside those bounds, the stage was set for a burgeoning new phase aimed at protecting what remained of the United States’ “wild” places and animals. On the heels of the industrial revolution and western expansion, and with a still-growing national infrastructure, protecting the environment—framed as preservation and conservation—would be a matter of balancing the needs of development with wise use of land and natural resources.

The first few decades of the twentieth century saw the establishment of numerous nongovernmental organizations and governmental agencies and laws oriented toward preservation and conservation. While naturalists worked to protect lands acquired through centuries of aggressively imposed treaties and a variety of other legally sanctioned land grabs, tribes struggled to hold on to what remained of their land bases and cultures. By 1934, with the passage of the Wheeler Howard Act, a new policy direction was ushered in, influenced by a new generation of Western-educated Indians. The law allowed tribes to organize their own tribal governments patterned after the U.S. Constitution. It reversed the assimilation policy and empowered newly reconstituted tribal governments to have greater management of their own land and mineral rights (still, however, under the close supervision of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), building capacity for economic development as the answer to the intractable poverty that choked tribal communities.

By 1949, assimilation was back on the table, and in 1953 Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108, also known as the termination bill. Conceived as a final solution to the “Indian problem,” termination was framed as the liberation of tribes from the yoke of federal supervision. In reality, it was no less than another push for the federal government to abrogate its treaty obligations and end its administrative responsibilities to Indians. Tribal governments were dissolved, their lands transferred into white settler ownership, and more than 12,000 individual Indians absorbed into the American mainstream, no longer legally recognized as Indians. The termination policy’s relocation program transferred thousands of Indians from their reservation homes to large cities. More than one hundred tribes were terminated throughout the 1950s and ’60s—at least forty-six in California alone.

But the winds of change were blowing in the U.S. with a growing civil rights movement. Once again Indians were organizing, this time on college campuses and in urban areas. The new Red Power movement activated Indian people on and off reservations who argued for resistance to termination and for honoring the treaty relationship. A policy shift to self-determination solidified a government to government relationship, which by the 1980s would come to be articulated in the legal language of tribal sovereignty. New laws enabled tribal governments to pursue economic development projects, from resource development to gaming, by reacquiring federal recognition and traditional homelands and revitalizing cultural practices—sending them at times on a collision course with the new environmental movement.

The Modern Environmental Movement and Clashes with Indian Country

The Red Power movement was just one aspect of the social revolution that swept across the American social landscape in the 1960s and ’70s, paralleling other ethnic nationalisms, women’s liberation, the antiwar movement, and the emergence of a new, rebellious, and predominantly white middle-class counterculture.

Countercultural youth looked to other cultures for answers to existential questions they perceived as unavailable in mainstream American society. In American Indians they, like Thoreau and Muir, saw a relationship to nature that should be emulated, inspiring a back-to-the-land movement and an aesthetic that unequivocally evoked the Indian—long hair, headbands, moccasins, beads and feathers, leather and fringe, turquoise and silver.

In 1971, just a few months after the first Earth Day signaled the beginning of a modern environmental movement, Indians unwittingly became the symbol of the new movement with the famous “Crying Indian” anti­littering commercial. The image of a buckskin-clad Indian, with a single tear rolling down his face as a factory spews toxic smoke in the background and trash thrown from a car lands on his beaded moccasins, seared itself into America’s collective consciousness. Never mind that the Indian, Iron Eyes Cody, was no Indian at all, but a Sicilian American actor named Espera Oscar de Corti who had built an entire career—and personal life—on Indian impersonation. In a strangely visceral way, the deception of Iron Eyes Cody mirrored the falseness of the ecological Indian stereotype, because like de Corti’s fake, hyper-Indian image, the new stereotype set an impossibly high standard to which white environmentalists would hold Native people for several decades. It came at a time when tribal governments had finally regained enough power to exercise self-determination in nation-building projects that often involved exploiting the only things they had—natural resources—setting the stage for future conflict and discord.

The relationship between the counterculture and Indian country was complicated from the beginning. Desiring a deeper connection with the Earth and a more meaningful form of spirituality, hippies made pilgrimages to reservations searching for the mystical Indian wisdom they had read about in books like John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks and Carlos Castaneda’s wildly successful but fraudulent series about the Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus. The problem was not so much that hippies looked to Indian country for answers. It was that as settlers they unconsciously brought with them worldviews and behavior patterns that were inconsistent with Indigenous paradigms and tried to fit Indigenous worldviews and practices into their own cognitive frameworks. Non-Natives couldn’t comprehend that Native spiritual principles evolved over eons based on ancient relationships to place and were reflected in language and specific histories, and that the function of Indigenous ceremonies was primarily for the perpetuation of particular communities, not personal enlightenment. An orientation based on rugged individualism combined with a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement translated into the toxic mimicry that today we call cultural appropriation. Despite their blatant appropriations, however, countercultural hippies did at times work constructively with Indian country. As historian Sherry L. Smith documents, the Pacific Northwest Fish Wars, the cultural revolution in California, and the Wounded Knee occupation saw productive partnerships between hippies and Native people who were working for Indian rights alongside calls for other social justice reforms. Indians sometimes even exploited non-Natives’ misplaced beliefs about Native cultural authenticity, but overall “most leftists did not understand that their adulation and reverence carried this darker undercurrent [of colonialism and racism].”

With the 1975 shift in federal policy to tribal self-determination and as tribal governments sought economic development, clashes between tribes and white environmental groups were on the rise by the early 1980s, exposing the groups’ historic roots in (white) settler privilege and racism. In 1983, for instance, the Nature Conservancy purchased 400 acres of land on the White Earth Reservation and donated it back to the state of Minnesota, not the tribe. In 1985 the Sierra Club sued to prevent Tlingit and Haida in Alaska from logging on Admiralty Island, after the U.S. had returned 23,000 acres as part of a land claims settlement. In 1999, after years of legal, cultural, and spiritual groundwork, the Makah tribe in Washington State successfully hunted and killed their first gray whale in more than seventy years from a traditional cedar canoe. The reprisals were swift and furious, coming from a variety of antiwhaling and animal rights groups. The Makah received death threats, hate mail, public harassment, and the inevitable challenges to the authenticity of the tribe’s culture.

Opposition to gaming has also been a platform upon which environmentalists have battled with tribes, as in the bitter fight to stop the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria (FIGR) from establishing a reservation and casino in Sonoma County, California. When lawsuits failed to stop the project, opponents tried blocking construction with appeals to environmental harm. The Center for Biological Diversity determined that the habitat of the endangered tiger salamander would be affected. Efforts to stop the project to protect an endangered species ultimately failed, but the highly divisive public battle led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in 2015.

Legal strategies aimed at protecting the salamander may have failed to stop the project, but the conflict raised troubling and provocative questions about what it means for non-Indians to use environmental issues as a political wedge against tribes’ right to exercise sovereignty, especially if seen through a lens that recognizes settler colonialism as an ongoing process of environmental injustice. If settler colonialism is a structure that disrupts Indigenous peoples’ relationships to their environments (as clearly happened to FIGR) and the exercise of sovereignty is at least a partial effort to reverse that structure, then opposition to it would be read as favoring a system that continues to commit environmental injustice against Indigenous peoples. To what degree is environmentalism deployed as just another weapon of colonial domination in unpopular tribal economic development projects?

Born from the Manifest Destiny of western expansion, the preservation movement was deeply influenced by a national fixation on the imagined pre-Columbian pristine American wilderness and the social Darwinist values of white supremacy. Those legacies carried forth into twentieth-century environmental organizing, resulting in a contentious—and sometimes openly antagonistic—relationship between environmentalists and American Indians, making the attainment of environmental justice for Native people more difficult. During the 1990s, however, indigenous environmental groups sprang up, and new alliances formed between tribal nations and people with whom they had historical enmities to oppose destructive development. With the rise of the climate justice movement, Indigenous and fourth world people who are on the front lines of climate change have emerged as global leaders. By April 2016, when a handful of Lakota women and youth were quietly setting up the Sacred Stone Camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, a critical mass had been reached and the ground laid for what would become the biggest tribally led act of civil disobedience in U.S. history. The #NoDAPL protest at Standing Rock was precedent setting on numerous fronts, not the least of which for the degree of collaboration between Native and non-Native people it inspired. The relationship between environmentalists and American Indians is changing, resulting in more productive partnerships and greater justice for both the environment and Native peoples.