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Know the West

The vital diversity of our parks


It's appropriate that this issue's cover story on diversity in the national parks opens in Mesa Verde, Colorado. Mesa Verde represents one of the Park Service's earliest attempts at increasing racial and ethnic diversity, by showcasing and preserving Native American culture. Yet its history also demonstrates the challenges public lands face, both in hiring minorities and in drawing minority visitors.

Mesa Verde has been tainted by racism, both blatant and subtle, since its founding in 1906. In order to obtain some of the most valuable archaeological structures, the feds basically forced the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to trade those lands for another parcel – which, it turns out, already belonged to the Utes.

Some of the early museum displays were insensitive, at best. For four decades, local tribes were horrified by the prominent display of the mummified remains of a young woman, dubbed "Esther."

And the sites' Anglo-centric interpretation muddied history in other ways. White rangers used to tell visitors that the "Anasazi" had "mysteriously vanished" and "abandoned these ruins." It made for an intriguing mystery, but in fact, it's long been known that the Ancestral Puebloans simply moved away – for reasons that remain unclear – ultimately ending up at what are now the pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico. Yet for years no one asked today's Puebloans about their ancestors' history. Indeed, the ties between the occupants of Mesa Verde and today's Puebloans were erased from the narrative, in a sort of intellectual ethnic cleansing of the park.

Beginning in the late '60s, Native American activists fought back, inspiring a gradual shift in the archaeological community that's still occurring today: "Esther" was removed from the Mesa Verde museum display case in the '70s, and the 1990 Native American Graves Preservation and Repatriation Act led to similar changes. The link between Mesa Verde's former inhabitants and contemporary tribes has now been incorporated into interpretive materials and rangers' talks. Federal legislation in 1992 created tribal historic preservation offices to consult with parks and other agencies. And two dozen tribes connected to the park collaborated in the design of the new visitors center.

None of this has been easy, and some critics complain about "political correctness." But "correctness" is also another word for "accuracy." We have always looked at the past through a kind of telescope, and now we're simply expanding the focus. The benefactors in this case aren't just the tribes, who can reclaim their own history, but also the park and all of its visitors.

Diversifying the Park Service itself might be equally complex. But as HCN managing editor Jodi Peterson points out in her cover story, by making our parks more welcoming to minorities, we also awaken enthusiasm. The people who work for, and visit, our parks should reflect the nation we live in. That's one of the many reasons why the national parks are still our country's "best idea."