In national parks, repairing the wound of Native Americans

In national parks, repairing the wound of Native Americans
In national parks, repairing the wound of Native Americans

When Raeshaun Ramon first put on the green and gray uniform of the American “rangers”, the guardians of the national parks, he was “hesitant”.

His new job, for the Saguaro National Park, in Arizona, this member of the Tohono O’odham Native American tribe initially did not want to “talk about it too much” around him.
“I was afraid of what my people might think of me,” confides the 28-year-old young man. “Why work for a place that has done us great harm?”

Before becoming national parks, these large spaces were part of the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.
From the 19th century, they were expelled or forced to cede them via treaties with easily betrayed clauses.

A heavy heritage, rarely associated with these natural settings adored by Americans.
Raeshaun Ramon is the first “ranger” of Saguaro Park, a member of the Tohono O’odham – literally, the “people of the desert” -, whose historic territory it is.

Among the cacti, he told AFP of his relief when those around him were finally delighted that “someone who looks like them” finally occupied this position.
He, who before did not feel “welcome” there, today sees himself as a “bridge” between the park and his tribe. A “heavy responsibility”, he said.

His journey illustrates the changes slowly taking place within the National Park Service (NPS) to improve its relations with indigenous peoples.
For the first time since 2021, the director of this agency in charge of national parks is Native American.

A strong signal to try to repair deep historical wounds.
“Visitors must realize that these are Native American lands, worked by them for centuries,” underlines Mike Turek, author of one of the rare books on the subject.
“There was violence when we took these lands” from the Native Americans and then “restricted” their access, while trying to make them “invisible,” he said.

In Yellowstone, the first park established in 1872, its leaders claimed, for example, that Native Americans had never entered it. It was “about minimizing the Native American history of the parks,” explains the expert.

Elsewhere, the confrontation with settlers was bloody: before the creation of Yosemite National Park, Native Americans were forcibly expelled or killed.
Today, the traditional use of land by these tribes is one of the main areas of contention.

Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan, a member of the Tohono O’odham, remembers difficult interactions with Saguaro Park employees who “yelled at them” when she came as a child to pick the fruits of the famous cacti, considered sacred.

This tradition has been practiced by her people since “time immemorial”, she says in front of a camp on the edge of the park. The syrup, prepared there from the fruits, is used during ceremonies or as medicine.

According to this doctor of Native American studies, the NPS even tried in the middle of the last century to completely ban these harvests. Today, they are subject to a permit.
“The relationship between the park and the Tohono O’odham has not always been the best,” says this 35-year-old woman. “But recently, it has improved. (…) We are moving in the right direction, that of being partners.”

In 2021, in The Atlantic magazine, Native American author David Treuer defended a shocking idea: “return the parks to the tribes”, a strong symbol which would restore “their dignity”.
The new director of the federal agency, Chuck Sams, is currently defending the development of partnerships.

There are currently some 80 co-management agreements between the NPS, in charge of more than 400 sites across the country, and some of the more than 500 Native American tribes.

In northern Montana, Termaine Edmo participates in the Native America Speaks program which, each summer, allows the Blackfeet Nation to share its history with visitors to Glacier National Park.

Last year, around forty bison were reintroduced to repopulate the park.
Glacier officials are trying to “work with us” like “never before,” she said.

But this 35-year-old woman, with furrowed brows, keeps harsh words against those who administer these lands “stolen” from her people, where plant harvests remain rationed.
“They still oppress us,” judges Termaine Edmo, whose license plate begins with the letters “DECO,” for “decolonization.”



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