Ken Burns' National Parks: An Unnatural Wilderness

By Randy Woodley 10-05-2009

Last week Ken Burns unleashed his new series on America's national parks, subtitled "America's Best Idea." The cinematography is incredible and Ken Burns is known as a progressive thinker. In his recent interviews promoting his new series he appeared to be a true believer in democracy for all Americans, rich or poor, black or white, et al. That is why I was so surprised how "off the mark" his narrative about the formation of the national parks really was concerning the parks and the role of America's indigenous peoples.

The national parks, in all their grandeur, have never been the "unspoiled wilderness" that Burns and millions of others have suggested. In fact, the whole idea of a naturally unspoiled wilderness is part and parcel of the American myth that was used to justify the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from this continent so white folks could do with it what they wanted. The areas we now call our national parks were no different. There is no accessible region in the United States that was not home to, or considered a part of, the life-ways of at least one Native American people. Take, for example, the most visited national park on the list: The Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Smokies, including the designated park boundaries, were once home to the whole Cherokee nation of Indians. There were numerous cities (known popularly as "villages") throughout the region for thousands of years. The land was macro-managed to ensure the best possible fertility of soil for growing crops; the best hunting conditions including controlled fires; and the best living conditions for tens of thousands of people.

Only in a worldview built upon the dualistic assumption that nature is categorically distinct from human beings can the idea of pristine wilderness exist. In our Native American worldview we are symbiotically intertwined with the earth and all her creatures. To view the land without humanity living with it in harmony is unnatural.

The bifurcated western worldview has summarily viewed the earth with all its resources as something to be exploited and conquered, a "thing" whose resources are to be extracted and utilized to make a small amount of people wealthy. Like a flock of locusts, the wealthy destroy everything in their path and the rest of us believe that is somehow good for us. I guess the payoff for those less fortunate people is that a small portion of land, still somewhat unmolested by greed, is set aside and everyone gets to see it on a limited basis in the same way they view wax figures of American Indians in a Natural History Museum.

My question is this: What kind of worldview makes laws to protect a few particularly stunning places on the earth so they cannot be exploited? Answer: a society with a sick, twisted worldview. A society addicted to exploitation and greed so much that it has to even protect the earth from itself because it knows if it does not, nothing will be left. Might this action also engender a propensity to believe it is okay to destroy everything else?

While I am thankful that we have national parks (and I have visited more than a few of them) I am concerned that a dualistic worldview, founded primarily upon greed, will eventually exploit these beautiful places as well. People living in these great places did not stop "progress" that resulted in a rationalized ethnic cleansing. Do we think that land without people living on it will stop the "march toward progress?"

To Ken Burns and others I would say, if we want to keep our national parks we need to start by telling the truth about their history. We need admit the foundational flaws in the western imperialistic worldview that allow such a history and permit us to continue to view those places as "natural" even when they are without people. If we don't begin here, the story of the national parks just becomes another building block in the American myth: The Story of the Locusts.

Randy WoodleyRev. Dr. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian descendent and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity. He teaches history, theology, and culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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