National Parks & Their Beginnings as Indigenous Land

By Jack Ripley | April 10, 2024

Alcatraz Island and the Ohlone

We're on a journey through some of America's most cherished natural wonders, where the beauty of the land intertwines with the rich heritage of Indigenous peoples. As we venture into iconic national parks like Yosemite and the Everglades, we uncover stories that transcend time—tales of Indigenous communities who have nurtured and revered these lands for generations. Join us as we delve into the cultural tapestry woven into the landscapes, from ancient dwellings in the redwood forests to resilient communities in the Everglades. Each park offers a glimpse into the enduring bond between people and place, inviting us to honor the past, celebrate the present, and safeguard the future of these sacred lands. Let's embark on this enlightening journey together, embracing the wisdom and spirit of those who have cherished these landscapes for millennia.

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Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Alcatraz Island holds a profound history dating back over 20,000 years when Indigenous peoples utilized its shores for camping, food gathering, and seclusion. Among these early inhabitants were the Ohlone, who thrived in the coastal regions from San Francisco Bay to Point Sur. However, their existence was dramatically altered with the arrival of European colonizers in the 16th century, leading to the incorporation of many Ohlone into Mission San Francisco de Asis and the devastating loss of about 80 percent of their population due to disease and harsh conditions. Fast-forward to November 1969, Alcatraz became a focal point for Indigenous activism when members of the Indians of All Tribes, Inc. occupied the island, aiming to reclaim their ancestral space. This occupation, drawing national attention, symbolized a demand for justice and recognition of Indigenous rights. Messages of peace and freedom adorned the island's landscape as activists envisioned a cultural and educational center. Despite the eventual forcible removal of the Occupiers by federal marshals in June 1971, the Alcatraz occupation remains a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for Indigenous sovereignty and cultural preservation.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

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The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, found on Lake Superior's pristine waters, is not only a haven for natural beauty but also holds deep cultural significance as the ancestral home of the Ojibwe people. For centuries, the Ojibwe traversed these lands freely, their lives intertwined with the rhythms of the islands' rugged terrain and abundant resources. However, in the 1800s, their way of life was irrevocably altered as the United States government negotiated treaties that confined the Ojibwe to reservations, limiting their traditional hunting and gathering grounds and ushering in a period of hardship and struggle. The creation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970 further impacted the area, affecting both its natural splendor and cultural heritage. Yet, amidst these changes, the National Park Service has taken steps to preserve and restore the land, working alongside the Ojibwe and other stakeholders to safeguard the legacy of this cherished landscape for future generations.