National Parks and Honoring Their Native Land

National Parks and monuments across the United States represent expanses of land once inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo and Native American tribes. Though American National Park history is inextricably linked to ethnic cleansing and exclusion, advocates are pushing to highlight and celebrate the land’s native history while giving respect and tribute to the Indigenous ancestors that protected it prior to colonization. While these landscapes are a great way to explore the outdoors and appreciate nature, the following parks preserve and highlight Native American history and their people’s legacy. 

New Mexico: Bandelier National Monument

The Bandelier National Monument is located in New Mexico, less than an hour outside of the state’s capital of Santa Fe. The monument honors the lives of the Ancient Pueblo people, who lived in and built homes throughout the park’s canyons and mesas from 1150 CE to 1550 CE. 

By 1550, the land was dried out, so the groups moved to Pueblos along the Rio Grande river. The people of the Cochiti Pueblo are close descendants of the Frijoles Canyon tribe and the San Ildefonso Pueblo is linked to the village of Tsankawi. 

At the Tsankawi area, you can take a short hike through the village along a mesa filled with petroglyphs and ladder trails. Along the Pueblo Loop Trail, you can see Ancient Pueblo homes lined throughout the Frijoles Canyon, and petroglyphs are carved into the architecture and scenery. 

The Tyuonyi Pueblo ruin was once two stories tall and had more than 400 rooms, mostly used for storing food. Long Homes is a site where three or four-story-homes are built along the bottom of the rocky cliffs.

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The Affiliated Pueblo Community said to NPS, “We have learned from our ancestors how to honor the land. As Pueblo people we carry on what our ancestors have taught us. Their songs, stories, and spirits are part of this landscape, and we are the continuation of the story.” 

The Bandelier ancestors have connections to the San Ildefonso Pueblo. San Ildefonso Puebloans such as Elmer and Deborah Torres take people on guided tours with Passport To Pueblo. The tours take you through the Bandelier Monument and to the San Ildefonso Pueblo north of Santa Fe to experience the architecture, art, food, and dance. There are other options to visit different Pueblo’s and even attend weekend-long guided tours during traditional feasts and celebrations. 

Montana: Little Bighorn National Monument

Montana is home to areas of the popular Yellowstone Park and Glacier National Park, but the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument tells a story. 

The land of Little Bighorn represents the battle where Unites States’ Army Officer George Custer and his cavalrymen were killed after attacking the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, underestimating the amount of Native Americans fighting under the war leader, Sitting Bull. 

Though these tribes were eventually forced from the land that they fought for, the park now stands to preserve the battle. 

National Parks and Honoring Their Native Land
Metal sculpture depicting the battle at Little Bighorn National Monument. Karen Martinez @ Unsplash

Some Native Americans, such as historian and author, David Truer of the Ojibwe tribe, fight for Native American ownership of national parks, honoring the land of their ancestors after being sometimes forcibly removed. 

Truer outlines Native American history from 1830 to the present in the book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee.” The book illustrates the historical struggle for Native Americans to preserve their culture and land but also presents hope for the future of Native Americans’ presence in America and how they are managing to repossess and restore their traditions. 

Though Native American land reclamation has not happened in America yet, there have been moves made in Australia and New Zealand. In 1976, nearly half of the original northern territory of Australia was given back to the Aboriginal people. Just in 2017, the Maori people were granted more conservation power and control of the Whanganui River located on New Zealand’s North Island. 

At Little Bighorn National Monument, Native American tribes like the Sioux, Crow, and Cheyenne are reclaiming the land through the Night Sky program. The program invites visitors to gaze at the night skies with a telescope or binoculars and explore the trails of the park. 

The programming allows Native American tribe members and elders associated with the Battlefield to tell stories of constellations and how the stars connect to their culture and beliefs. Participants walk along major points of the battle on nearby trails, viewing astronomy from the perspective of Native American tribal elders and learning about the cultural connections to each constellation.

Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is another park connected to the Ancestral Puebloans. Located in Southern Colorado, the park has 600 cliff dwellings. Visitors can see the villages and units built before the 13th century. These dwellings are said to be some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in North America. 

Those who lived in the walls of Mesa Verde migrated south into New Mexico and Arizona, where further cave dwellings have been found. Significant historical evidence indicates that closely related Indigenous descendants have a strong presence in this region. In New Mexico, there are 19 Pueblo-associated tribes, and there are several others in Arizona connected to the Mesa Verde National Park Puebloans. 

Alec Krum @ Unsplash
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These dwellings are said to be some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in North America.

Mesa Verde Park was named a National Heritage Site, connecting the ancient Puebloan ways of life to the modern-day Native American tribes of the southwest.  

Enjoy the beautiful open space in Morefield Canyon with camping or hiking trails, and take yourself on a tour to one or more of the park’s cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace or Balcony House, accessible by climbing a 32-foot ladder and crawling through a short tunnel. 

Mariola Grobelska @ Unsplash
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James A. Molnar @ Unsplash
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