Native Americans are at the heart of Yellowstone. After 150 years, they are finally being heard
America’s first national park inspired a global movement of ‘fortress conservation’, but we know today indigenous peoples are essential stewards of nature
On 1 March 1872, the US president, Ulysses S Grant, enacted a federal protection for the Yellowstone landscape, creating America’s first national park and one of the first in the world. The decision affected thousands of people from at least 27 distinct Native American tribes. More than 10,000 years of history were erased from the narrative at the stroke of a pen.
Yet Yellowstone inspired a global national parks movement. Early parks were established to preserve “wilderness”, mostly by colonists grabbing land. The removal (or worse) of local people was not always an objective, but was too often a result. Despite many successes, protected area designations worldwide have notched up a catalogue of legacy issues. In response, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed the green list of protected and conserved areas, offering certification for just and effective nature conservation. The first green list national park, awarded in 2014, was Arakwal in Australia, managed by Indigenous Australians. The first certified green list site in the Peruvian Amazon was the indigenous Amarakaeri communal reserve. And in the US, California’s entire network of marine protected areas has adopted the standard and is a candidate for green list status. The green list proves what we already know – that indigenous nature conservation is highly effective.
A focus on legacy is fundamental, but author and historian David Treuer reminds us that Native Americans never left the landscape and they never lost their heritage. He proposes that America’s national parks could be returned to Native stewardship.
Native Americans are champions of ecological connectivity, essential for protected areas in an uncertain future
Native Americans are champions of ecological connectivity, essential for protected areas in an uncertain future under the biodiversity and climate crises. The late Don Shoulderblade, a Cheyenne spiritual leader, helped galvanise action by hundreds of Native American leaders and their allies through the Grizzly Treaty to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife. “The grizzly is sacred, an ancient spirit, a great healer and teacher. The grizzly is integral to our traditional spiritual lifeway,” he said. Their cause is to prevent the delisting of the grizzly bear under the US Endangered Species Act.
Native American campaigns have seen bison relocated to their lands, rather than be culled, and raised awareness on living with bears and wolves in the wider landscape. Native activism for the conservation of predators has contributed to a cascading trophic impact on the Yellowstone ecosystem, proving, Meghanlata Gupta, founder of Indigenizing the News, tells me, that: “Indigenous voices and knowledge systems should be at the forefront of environmental conservation movements.”
Today, as it continually addresses legacy issues and demonstrates world-class conservation impacts, Yellowstone could likely achieve IUCN’s green list status. This year, most of the world’s governments will meet to negotiate new global targets to halt the biodiversity crisis. It is crunch time for life on Earth. Scientists say we must effectively conserve at least 30% of the planet so that biodiversity and ecosystems can recover, thrive, and sustain societies now and for future generations.
“Fortress conservation”, the idea that protected areas must be devoid of people, is morally wrong and simply does not work. The key to saving our planet lies both within and beyond the boundaries of our national parks. Our future is in their connectivity to the wider landscape and seascape, in the diversity of conservation approaches that we bring to bear, and in securing their contributions to people and nature.
After 150 years, thanks to our Native American allies, the beating heart of Yellowstone can empower us all.
James Hardcastle is global head of protected and conserved areas at the IUCN Find more age of extinction coverage here.