Native Americans Challenge Park Agency for Land Rights

By Todd Wilkinson, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

Native Americans Challenge Park Agency for Land Rights


Todd Wilkinson, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For thousands of years Timbisha Shoshones' roamed the sands of the Mojave and had no ties to the Miccosukees in the Florida Everglades. Likewise, the Hualapai in Arizona were strangers to the Pai 'Ohana in Hawaii.

But today, an unusual circle of native American tribes has found a common enemy: the US National Park Service.

Despite praise for its environmental stewardship and partnerships in some parks, native Americans are quietly banding together to challenge the Park Service for unrestricted access to lands they have inhabited for much of the past millennia. The pending showdown could set important legal precedents and sully the agency's benevolent image. It also poses a tough political test for the Clinton administration. Yesterday, when the National Congress of American Indians convened its annual convention in Phoenix, the Timbishas and an angry alliance of Indian tribes delivered a poignant declaration to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and other Clinton administration officials. "We want the world to hear the real story of how the National Park Service views Indians," says Richard Boland of the Timbishas. "When most people think of the Park Service they think of the happy, smiling ranger wearing a Smokey the Bear hat in Yellowstone and Yosemite. We have a different tale to tell." The US government, they claim, is perpetuating a de facto policy of "cultural genocide" by forbidding aboriginal peoples from living in national parks and preventing them from pursuing the kind of traditional activities considered essential to their cultural survival. "The National Park Service has no understanding of its obligations to Indian people," claims Billy Cypress, tribal chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe that is in the midst of a protracted dispute with the government over where to locate tribal housing. "They {the Park Service} give the plants and animals more respect than the native people who lived and cared for these lands long before the parks even existed." The Alliance to Protect Native Rights in National Parks, formed this summer, includes six tribes: the Timbishas, the Miccosukees, the Pai 'Ohana in Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, the Hualapai on the edge of Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajos near Canyon de Chelly, and five Sandoval Indian Pueblos in New Mexico. But the number of tribes in the alliance is expected to double by the end of the year. Already, members of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe have filed a lawsuit against the government pressing for unrestricted use of Glacier National Park and the Shoshones in Idaho have raised the possibility of trying to secure limited hunting privileges in Yellowstone. The uprising - and a potential flood of lawsuits - has captured the Clinton administration's attention. The last thing the president wants, aides say, is to be accused of ignoring the pleas of America's dispossessed. Two years ago, in 1994, President. Clinton issued an executive order instructing all federal agencies, in their negotiations, to respect the status of Indian tribes as distinct sovereign nations. Another provision of the decree, calls for Congress to hold oversight hearings specifically on the role of Indians in the national parks. The alliance is hopeful that such hearings will be given bipartisan priority in the 105th Congress particularly from Sen. …

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