Celebrating 100 Years on Timeless Lands
The National Park Service is officially 100 years old. Some parks, including Grand Canyon in Arizona, Glacier in Montana and Niagara Falls in New York, honor the anniversary by forging partnerships with the land’s original, Indigenous caretakers.
Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service; photo by Tim Rains.
On Aug. 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, which created the National Park Service. As the federal agency celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, parks across the country are paying tribute in ways that acknowledge their rich Indigenous histories.
Here, we profile three parks with deep ties to Native peoples and cultures.
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona will celebrate the centennial with the kickoff of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, a three-weekend event beginning Aug. 25 at the Desert View Watchtower with the world premiere of Puhutawi, a new genre of Hopi music from Hopi composers Clark Tenakhongva and Trevor Reed that fuses traditional sounds with contemporary chamber music.
Visitors to Glacier National Park in Montana will have a variety of opportunities to ring in the centennial throughout the summer in what park officials are calling low-key celebrations, including interpretive activities and artist residencies, among other events. Glacier, one of 35 national parks established prior to federal oversight, celebrated its own centennial back in 2010. Additionally, the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Mont., located just east of Glacier, will host the 65th annual North American Indian Days July 7-10.
Though Niagara Falls is a New York state park with lands extending across the Canadian border, it also shares a designation under the National Park Service as a National Heritage Area. These areas are recognized as places where national, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. The state park and heritage area have events planned throughout the summer, though not necessarily in conjunction with the centennial.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
On the south rim of the Grand Canyon stands the Desert View Watchtower, where visitors get a breathtaking view of the 1-mile-deep and 10-mile-wide canyon.
Architect Mary Colter designed the stone tower in 1932 in an Ancestral Puebloan style, says Emily Davis, public affairs specialist at the Grand Canyon.
“[Colter] wanted to build the tower, in her words, to introduce people to the depth of Native culture,” Davis says. “The watchtower is a reflection of cultural preservation.”
Inside the tower is the Kiva Room, a recently repurposed open space for local Native artists and community members to give cultural demonstrations and tell their own stories. The Kiva Room’s transformation is part of the Desert View Tribal Heritage Project, which honors the National Park Service’s centennial.
Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service; photo by Michael Quinn.
The park worked with the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, ArtPlace America, the Grand Canyon Association and the Grand Canyon Inter-tribal Advisory Council for this project.
“It’s a groundbreaking project to have Desert View Watchtower now as a place to celebrate and learn about all the cultures that were here before, that were maybe sort of forgotten about or maybe stories we haven’t told before,” Davis says. “We’re bringing these stories home. We want to be able to tell those stories from not the Park Service’s perspective, but from the [perspective of the] people who call this place home.”
The Grand Canyon Inter-tribal Advisory Council was established in 2013 for government-to-government consultation with the Grand Canyon’s Traditionally Associated Tribes: Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai-Apache and Kaibab Paiute representing five bands of the Southern Paiute. The council serves as an overall forum where park managers and Indigenous nations can exchange ideas.
Tim Begay (Diné), a member of the advisory council since its inception, says the park has been understanding of the cultural importance of the Grand Canyon to neighboring tribes, and the conversation between the park and the Navajo Nation improved. From about the 1920s to the 1980s, many of their concerns were not heard and boundaries were not respected.
“Through consultation, we’ve overstepped some of those difficult boundaries we had, like understanding each other, understanding our way of life, our religion, our ceremonial practices,” Begay says. “A lot of neighboring tribes still hold the Grand Canyon a sacred place.”
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park rests near the northwest corner of Montana and shares its eastern border with the Blackfeet Nation.
The Nits-aa-tapi, or the three bands of the Blackfeet, refer to Glacier National Park as Mo’ka-kinsin (Backbone of the World), says Ed DesRosier (Blackfeet).
At one time, the Blackfeet inhabited both sides of the Rocky Mountains that run north and south from Canada down to the Yellowstone area. The backbone symbolizes the central landscape of the Blackfeet, he says.
DesRosier owns and operates Sun Tours, a business he started 24 years ago. He works with Glacier National Park to provide accurate information about Blackfeet history and culture, including their views of the park land.
“It’s important to reflect on our history and culture from a people that lived in balance with the values in a modern world that the national parks represent,” he says.
Centennial celebrations are constantly being added, updated and posted on every National Park website. For more information about the parks featured here, visit:
Before it became a national park in 1910, much of the land was part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation until the park service purchased it from the tribe for $1.5 million at the turn of the 20th century, according to Margie Steigerwald, Glacier’s public affairs specialist.
More than 2 million visitors explored the park in 2015, Steigerwald says. A majority of the park’s annual traffic occurs during July and August, when folks are traveling along Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile stretch of road known for its expansive mountain views. The road’s name was taken from a local Native legend.
Centennial activities have been happening throughout 2016, Steigerwald says, including youth outreach that incorporates cultural history and Indigenous significance. Additionally, this summer marks the 32nd year of the park’s Native America Speaks program, which invites Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribal members to share their knowledge, history and culture with park visitors. The program is credited as the longest-running Native speaker series within the National Park Service.
As a Blackfeet tribal member with a close relationship to the land, DesRoiser calls the centennial a two-sided coin, saying his people lost a great deal to the park system.
“The land was taken. We lost the land,” DesRoiser says. “The government took lands from tribes that were powerless to defend their land or keep their land, and they became national parks.”
Still, DesRoiser acknowledges that the national park values of conservation and sustainability mirror those of the Blackfeet and other tribes.
Niagara Falls, New York
The 8 million tourists who visit this place annually might describe the water and its many falls as thunderous or earth-shaking, but to tribal people indigenous to the region, it’s also a symbol of economy, heritage and health.
“The falls itself represents medicine,” says Neil Patterson Jr. (Tuscarora), director of the Tuscarora Environment Program and co-author of Tuscarora Nation. “It’s the idea of this buried entity that we represent. We have medicine to offer—to honor the creation itself.”
Niagara Falls State Park straddles the U.S.-Canadian border and is considered the oldest state park in the country. Established in 1885, this state park influenced the founding of the national park system during the conservation movements of the early 1900s. It’s estimated that the falls are 12,000 years old.
Niagara Falls. Courtesy Photo by Saffron Blaze.
Niagara Falls is also a National Heritage Area, a designation falling under the National Park Service, where interpretive programs are taught to visitors. Among other things, National Heritage Areas recognize the modern and historical cultural contexts within landmarks and landscapes and serve as collaborative vehicles to engage a community’s relevant history, heritage, interests and needs, according to the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area website.
Indigenous nations of the area are the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy tribes (Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora), as well as the Huron, Petun, Erie and Susquehannock peoples, among others.
“When you go to those places, when you go to the cornfields, when you go to pick wild strawberries or you tap a maple tree, or you’re at the falls itself, and you’re there listening to the falls, you’re thinking about gratitude and reciprocity, and all these other things that we celebrate,” Patterson says. “It reinforces a person’s ability to be comforted, to know that these things are provided for us by the Creator.”
Jourdan Bennett-Begaye (Diné) is a writer and co-founder of the Survival of the First Voices Festival in New Mexico. She is a Newhouse Minorities Fellow at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Follow her on Twitter @jourdanbb.