My found article or artifact is a recent tweet I saw by the U.S. National Park Service that reminds us November is National Indian Heritage Month. For the record, it’s also National Adoption Awareness Month, Prematurity Awareness Month, and National Family Caregivers Awareness Month, but still.
What strikes me about the fact that the National Parks Services has recognized National Indian Heritage Month is that their web page, which is full of information, doesn’t fully make the connection that the legacy of America’s National Parks is intertwined the U.S. Government’s extraction of Indians from the very land that would be set apart as National Parks. Yes, there is a set of prominently featured articles on the homepage about the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, but these articles reduce the attack on the Arapaho people by a volunteer army of Colorado soldiers to an environmental history about the struggle for natural resources. The page concludes that “The landscape of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is a record of human relationships with the natural environment, the contrasting values of American Indians and Euroamericans, and their competition for limited resources.”
If our study of America’s national parks should reveal anything, it’s that the battle to preserve spheres of wilderness is not solely an issue of environmental preservation. Rather, it is a quest to establish national identity, which often comes at the expense of other people groups. Perhaps the most thorough study of this legacy is Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. Drinnon claims that the driving force of westward expansion is a kind if Weberian asceticism, a larger story of “marching out into the modern world–building economies, founding nation-states, and conquering empires–all the while corrupting the senses and fashioning the ‘iron cage’ for humankind” (xii). The encounters between European Americans and Indians were about the competition for limited resources, but they were (and still are) much more about national identity and cultural superiority.
So what do we make now of the National Parks Service commemorating National Indian Heritage Month? And what does it mean to remember the past? Especially in the case of the National Parks, remembering past exchanges between settlers, “discoverers,” and native populations is a selective process. Our study of landscape art has affirmed that point as well. In general, I’m interested in mainstream, modern artifacts like the web resources of the National Parks services, and how they reflect the ambivalent cultural heritage of our nation’s monuments and identity.