Hearing Indigenous Voices in Parks: Ethical Indigenous Representation

Stella Davis, Grace Dho, Anna Lowe, & Lindsey Monteith

Indigenous Voices in Conservation 2022

Think about your favorite local state park. You probably associate it with beautiful landscapes, wildlife, and trails. But, how much do you know about the Indigenous history of that park or the land it’s on? Despite having extensive Indigenous connections, the education systems in National and State parks rarely represent these Indigenous stories and knowledge. Jonathan J. Fisk argues in “Cultivating sovereignty in parks and protected areas” that Parks and Protected Areas (PPAs) silence Indigenous stories and ways of knowing (Fisk et al., 2021). 

Photo by Lindsey Monteith (2022). Image: Stella Davis, Grace Dho, and Anna Lowe walk down a coastal trail at York River State Park.

We recognized this issue at York River State Park in Virginia. Indigenous voices were absent, and the tribal history of the park was extremely limited and likely misrepresented. It is important that parks begin to integrate Indigenous voices into their educational and management frameworks. However, this integration must be done from an ethical standpoint. Parks need to work with indigenous peoples, consider how they treat their artifacts, take care in how they frame indigenous stories and move beyond surface-level #LANDBACK activism.

Teaching Indigenous history within parks is extremely valuable to both Indigenous and non-Native people. While Indigenous representation within parks is not to the level that it should be, there are still many Native Americans who are working with park systems to pass on their knowledge. For example, W. Otis Halfmoon, a Nez Perce descendant, enjoys working for the National Park Service because he finds great joy and pride in sharing the true story of his ancestors with visitors (Zotigh, 2020). Aba Cha Ha (Roger Aberman) of the Choctaw Nation adds that it is “paramount and respectful” that the public hears and understands the stories of his ancestors (Zotigh, 2020). Connor Tupponce of the Upper Mattaponi and Chickahominy Tribes ties these feelings together by explaining,

Our ancestors have entrusted us with the duty to protect the lands that make us who we are and define our past, present, and future… and it is our duty to carry on that legacy and educate others on our perspective on national parks,” (Zotigh, 2020).

Some indigenous peoples benefit by being able to carry out their ancestral duties, and the non-Indigenous population is able to learn about the silenced history of the lands in which they reside currently.

Working Alongside vs on Behalf of Indigenous Peoples

One of the main issues about how Indigenous knowledge is shared within parks is that parks often work on behalf of Native peoples rather than alongside them. This has led to parks sharing incorrect information because Indigenous people were not allowed to share their own stories. W. Otis Halfmoon recounts that as a teenager he would go to the Nez Perce National Historic Park and correct interpreters as they told completely changed versions of his tribal history (Zotigh, 2020). Fisk et al. highlight this issue as they state,

Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons License. 2019.

“Colonial institutions maintain a long history of cultural incompetency and often fail to understand and acknowledge the genealogy and cultural significance of places and Indigenous Peoples,” (Fisk et al., 2021).

This same phenomenon has made its way into science, where scientists often ignore Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in favor of Western Scientific Ecological Knowledge (WSEK). In a class seminar, Rappahannock Tribe member Ms. Judith Fortune explained that Western scientists benefit from working alongside Indigenous peoples when studying the ecology of parks because they are able to gain a deeper understanding of the land through TEK. She remarks that pairing TEK with WSEK provides a fuller picture of the land and everything that lives there, rather than just relying on the limited perspective given by WSEK (Fortune, 2022). By working alongside Indigenous peoples, park systems are able to teach and correct the history of the land. Park systems can also gain a more complete understanding of the land, which can then translate into how the flora and fauna are taught to visitors.

The Paradox of Indigenous Artifacts

It is widely understood that Indigenous peoples lived on the land that is now designated as York River State Park. However, the areas in the park thought to contain many artifacts from these communities have yet to be archaeologically explored. There is a paradox surrounding the uncovering and displaying of Indigenous artifacts for educational purposes. On one end, searching for Indigenous artifacts can reveal details of tribal histories within landscapes where they have previously been ignored. However, the complex histories surrounding the taking, claiming, and presenting of Indigenous artifacts have created ethical challenges in displaying artifacts at State Parks to educate visitors.  In her book Fresh Banana Leaves, Jessica Hernandez (Binnizá & Maya Ch’orti’) discusses how European and Euro-American settlers frequently dig up artifacts and claim them as their own. They then misrepresent Indigenous histories and knowledge in museum cases. (Hernandez, 2022) This is a form of settler colonialism where Euro-American archeologists and museums claim knowledge and objects which rightfully belong to Indigenous people.  Hernandez also expresses how the presentation of Indigenous artifacts reinforces the narrative of Indigenous peoples exclusively existing in the past. This issue is evident even at York River State Park, where the Indigenous artifacts are presented alongside information about “hunter-gatherers” from the “Paleo-Indian period”, and there is no acknowledgment of what happened to the communities or which Tribes are present in the area today. 

Addressing whether or how to uncover and display Indigenous artifacts in state parks is not straightforward. It is, however, undeniable that local tribes need to be involved in the process.  Whether it’s hiring Indigenous archeologists, returning uncovered artifacts to the present-day tribal communities, allowing tribal members to decide whether or how to display the artifacts, or a combination of these approaches, just and ethical education about Indigenous peoples in state parks centered around artifacts requires Indigenous voices. 

Acknowledging Tragic History Without Making the Entire Narrative Tragic

Photo by Stella Davis (2022). Image: Taskinas Creek at York River State Park.

When incorporating Indigenous history into parks and protected areas (PPAs), it is important to acknowledge past trauma and hardship due to forced removal from land and unfair treaties. However, we should also recognize the resilience of Indigenous peoples. The National Park system was built on structural violence through the forcible removal of Indigenous people and broken treaties (Treuer, 2021). It is becoming more common for people to recognize this tragic past through land acknowledgments, which can be important reminders for people to reflect on the settler colonialist histories of the lands they occupy. While we should acknowledge our colonial history, we have to be careful not to fall into the “vanishing Indian” trope. This trope emphasizes the ecocide and genocide as something tragic that only took place in the past. The statement, “we’re on stolen land” is a way to summarize hundreds of years of trauma that puts the Indigenous peoples’ struggles in the past. This phrase does not acknowledge the ongoing problems that Indigenous communities face or the fact that they play crucial roles in maintaining biodiversity by maintaining cultural traditions and integrating traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into land management (Fisk and Jacobs, 2021). We should recognize how, historically, PPAs have excluded and displaced Native communities but also that “tribes are much more than the sum of [their] troubles” (Treuer, 2021). We can use our understanding of the past harms to Indigenous communities at the hands of PPAs to solve current problems within these PPAs. Current PPA management practices, with their roots in the colonialist ideals of the National Parks, often perpetuate harm against Indigenous communities through an imbalance of power and a lack of acknowledgment of past harms to Indigenous communities. It is essential to address cultural tensions and transform current management systems by creating Indigenous spaces in PPA educational settings, integrating TEK into park management and education, and returning park land and sovereignty to Indigenous people. By remembering and recognizing the tragic past, we can promote health, healing, and hope in Indigenous communities and PPAs (Reed, 2020).


A popular phrase circulating social media today is the #LANDBACK movement. The #LANDBACK movement revolves around the notion that land should be given back to the native peoples that once resided on them. Parks and protected areas (PPA) often take the spotlight in this discussion, and many native peoples are dissatisfied with the current direction of the #LANDBACK movement (Fisk et al., 2021). As Ojibwe scholar David Truer says, “The American West began with war but concluded with parks” (Fisk et al., 2021). In place of relinquishing ownership of the land, the parks and other governmentally managed lands are putting out land acknowledgments. As mentioned above, these land acknowledgments are statements that often recognize the native people that used to live on the land, but often nothing substantial. As Fisk et al., state, “land acknowledgments are well-intended but “do not always address the forced removals, relocations, and genocides of Indigenous Peoples” (Fisk et al., 2021). As mentioned above, a simple land acknowledgment is not enough to alleviate the pain that parks have caused.

Though parks may be consulting Indigenous peoples, parks are not giving the Indigenous people any decision-making power. This leaves Indigenous people to give up sacred knowledge, with no guarantee that their knowledge will be considered. Giving native tribes more decision-making power helps alleviate the imbalanced power dynamics between land management systems and native tribes. There is currently very little co-management framework involving Indigenous people, and the native peoples are given very little decision-making power over their land (Fisk et al., 2021). However, partnership ensures that native people are not only being consulted, but that native peoples have the power to make management decisions on their own land. When we look at the #LANDBACK movement, we are not looking to simply acknowledge the suffering native peoples have endured, but we are looking to create shared, generative and just partnerships. We are looking to move beyond land acknowledgments, and we are looking to heal relationships and heal the land (Fisk et al., 2021). Though #LANDBACK movement is a call for recognition of suffering, but co-management framework allows for the alleviation of such suffering.

Towards Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Leadership Into PPA

By integrating Indigenous knowledge and leadership into parks and protected areas, we can better understand the true history of the lands we cherish and the current Indigenous efforts to protect this land. In order to respectfully approach co-management of parks with Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership, we should keep in mind the potential ethical challenges associated with doing this. Despite good intentions, we must remember to work alongside Indigenous people and, on their terms, not ours. This is because not only are they the rightful owners of the land but also because we are not entitled to Indigenous knowledge without their consent. In addition to working alongside instead of on behalf of Indigenous communities, we should also handle artifacts respectfully, acknowledge past and present resilience, and integrate the #LANDBACK movement into management and educational efforts. These requirements are not an exhaustive list of how to respectfully include Indigenous perspectives in parks, but they are some critical core principles we should adhere to when amplifying Indigenous voices in parks and beyond.


Fisk, J. J., Jacobs, L. A., Russo, B. U., Meier, E., Nakachi, ʻA., Spencer, K. K. P., Kaulukukui-Narikawa, K., Datta, A. W., & Quiocho, K. (2021). Cultivating sovereignty in parks and protected areas: Sowing the seeds of restorative and transformative justice through the #LANDBACK movement. Parks Stewardship Forum, 37(3). https://doi.org/10.5070/p537354734

Fortune, J. (2022, April 14). Rappahannock TEK, Indigenous Voices in Conservation (CONS 440), William & Mary, Williamsburg.  

Hernandez, J. (2022). Fresh Banana Leaves: healing indigenous landscapes through indigenous science.

Reed, K. (2020). We are a part of the land and the land is us: Settler colonialism, genocide & healing in California. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, (42), 27–49. https://doi.org/10.55671/0160-4341.1131

Treuer David. (2021, May). RETURN THE NATIONAL PARKS TO THE TRIBES. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/05/return-the-national-parks-to-the-tribes/618395/.

Zotigh, D.. (2020, August 25). How Native Americans bring depth of understanding to the nation’s national parks. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-american-indian/2020/08/25/natives-interpreting-national-parks/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: