Philip Burnham - Journalist * Historian * Author

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Indian Country, God's Country: Native Americans and the National Parks

The mythology of "gifted land" is strong in the National Park Service. But some of our greatest parks were "gifted" by people who had little choice in the matter. Places like the Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Mesa Verde had to be bought, finagled, leveraged—or taken by force--when Indian occupants resisted government pressure The story of national parks and Indians is, depending on your perspective, a triumph of the public interest, or a bitter betrayal of America's native people.

In Indian Country, God's Country historian Philip Burnham traces the complex relationship between Native Americans and the national parks, relating how Indians were removed or relocated from lands that became some of our nation's most hallowed ground.

Based on archival research and personal visits and interviews at five major parks--Glacier, the Badlands, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, and Death Valley—Burnham examines the beginning of the national park system along with later Congressional initiatives to mainstream American Indians and expand and refurbish the parks.

The final chapters visit the parks as they are today, presenting the thoughts and insights of superintendents and rangers, tribal officials and archaeologists, ranchers, community leaders, curators, and elders. Burnham reports on hard-won compromises that have given tribes more autonomy and greater cultural recognition in recent years, while highlighting stubborn conflicts that continue to mark the struggle between tribes and parks.





The Indian village doesn’t appear at all on my map. At the turnoff from California 190, I’m surprised to find the road is even paved. I follow the winding curves toward the Panamint Mountains, rising picture perfect across the valley. In the foreground a dozen or so house trailers and adobe bungalows emerge, strung across a sandy tract of 40 acres. There are tamarisk trees, a rock-strewn playground, roaming dogs, a neglected basketball court—an unlikely scene in the heart of a national park. The January morning is balmy. I bear to the left and look for the third trailer down, parked in a copse of tamarisks and mesquites, sheets on the porch flapping in the breeze. An SUV is parked outside. I climb the steps, and a woman greets me gruffly but politely at the door. Known by most local people simply as “Pauline,” she has lived in this village, on and off, for sixty-three years.

Pauline Esteves remembers when the government first came to Death Valley. About nine years old at the time, she was living with her family in a camp of brush shelters and tents in this isolated corner of California. Her people made camp near Furnace Creek Ranch, she tells me, a place where the temperature soars above 130 degrees in summer—and the land dips to 200 feet below sea level. Esteves is a mixed-blood Shoshone Indian. She played with white children at the ranch sometimes, she remembers, but “there were more of us” and “we all spoke our own language.” Her mother was a Shoshone who spoke no English; her father a Spaniard from the Pyrenees who did little better—that’s one thing they had in common, she says wryly. That young Pauline was learning English at the local school was a sign of things to come: the strange men who came wearing National Park Service uniforms spoke nothing else…





Midwest Book Review : "A superb contribution to Native American studies."

Washington Times : "This book is a well-written treatment of a subject barely touched on by historians of the American West. It is an in-depth look at the symbiotic relationship of the national parks and Indian reservations, and is for the scholar and general reader alike."

Choice : "Combining highly charged prose and convincing evidence...this superb book constitutes a moving account of [tribal] defeats and victories."

Christian Science Monitor : "It's not just Indians who need to heed the lessons of this book and the ultimate illusion of ownership."

The Bloomsbury Review : "Burnham's book...proves that quality writing still lives; that you know it when you see it; that "civilization" is not restricted to narrow assumptions about the 'canon'; and that one of the reasons we read is for the experience of...the affirmation of the human spirit..."

Salt Lake Tribune : "This is not a feel-good book, but those who have never realized how our national parks benefited from the mistreatment of American Indians should force themselves to read it."

Santa Fe New Mexican : "This is a detailed, depressing, and important book for residents of 'The Nation' to read."

American Indian Culture and Research Journal : "...a great asset to the literature on the relations between Indian people and the NPS."

Conservation Biology : "...a profusely documented piece of environmental history in which the author systematically unveils the roots of what would be called a human rights issue."

Western Historical Quarterly : "Burnham adds to our growing understanding of how the once-inhabited landscapes of the national park system lost their longtime residents, and more importantly illuminates the ongoing social costs of this process."

Ethics, Place, and Environment : a well-written chronology of events that typify the exceptionally poor relationship between native populations of North America and the United States government.





 © 2012 All rights reserved Philip Burnham