Our public lands should reflect white, black and brown

 

As a black park ranger, I’m often asked why more minorities don’t visit national parks or participate more in outdoor activities. That’s a short question with a long answer, and one part of it involves the perpetuation of historical inaccuracy, since the victors get to write what passes for history as portrayed in movies and on television.

We all know that cowboys, homesteaders, pioneers and mountain men have become American icons. Their images are everywhere, selling cigarettes and SUVs. But almost always, those images are white. From Marlboros to Patagonia, Coleman, North Face, Outside Magazine, and every ski resort in North America, it’s white people on white snow. People of color, blacks especially, don’t find themselves in these images. There’s a message there, probably unintentional, but it’s a message nevertheless, and we get it. We get it so thoroughly that we even believe it’s true. That’s the other part of the answer.

Over the years, I’ve learned something about the boxes that stereotype people and the role they play in un-coloring history. When I worked as assistant director of outdoor programs at Dartmouth College, black students who participated in “white” activities were referred to by their peers by a nasty slur -- “incognegroes.” Not surprisingly, that made it tough for me to recruit black students to come out into the wilderness with me for a simple hike. I was often told that “we” don’t do that.

But historically, black people did do that; we were all over the West. The early cowboys, Indian fighters and fur trappers were not all white; they included a robust red, brown and black population, not to mention the Asians who came West to build railroads. The popular rodeo event of bulldogging -- steer wrestling -- was invented by a black cowhand by the name of Bill Pickett in the late 1800s.

Few people, black or white, know that the first armed “rangers” of our national parks were the all black 24th Mounted Infantry Regiment. Some of the first smokejumpers in this country were the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Black Americans drove cattle into the West, and, as soldiers and scouts, helped drive Indians from the West.

Former slaves migrated westward and founded and settled entire towns such as Tumwater, Ore., and Dearfield, Colo. Black Americans led wagon trains over the plains and fought in all of the Indian Wars. They fought in front of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and they helped win the battle for San Juan Hill. They trekked in front of Admiral Peary to help discover the North Pole, beside Lewis and Clark to explore the Northwest, and alongside Custer to lose the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The trapper and mountain man James Beckwourth found new routes over the Colorado Rockies, became chief of the Crow Indian Nation, helped found Pueblo, Colo., and has a mountain named in his honor.

Yet you don’t usually see people of color in the rural West today, and you don’t see them visiting the backcountry. You also don’t see many blacks or Hispanics working for environmental groups or public-land agencies, even though nonprofit groups and federal staffers will tell you that they want very much to employ more diverse people.

Why is there this disconnect between good intentions and reality? One reason is confusion about what diversity means, with some thinking the term implies something about being sensitive, or that it’s more along the lines of another entitlement program -- as in something “for them.”

The real question is what diversity can do for all of us.

The most recent U.S Census indicates that sometime around the year 2050, people of color in this country will outnumber the current white majority. If the emerging future majority doesn’t find intrinsic value in our birthright of publicly owned lands, how much tougher will it be to fund and protect these special areas?

Programs such as affirmative action were about righting past wrongs. Promoting and believing in diversity in the outdoors is about all of us working together to savor and protect what we have left, from our national parks to our national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands and wild rivers.

A friend of mine, during a discussion about the lack of diversity in the Western outdoors, said, “Well, of course! This is the West. You’re social engineering!” as if the myth of only white people moving across a blank land were so powerful that the story could never change. In the last seven years, I’ve talked to hundreds of people in the backcountry about the value of diversity, and what it might take to make it happen in hiring, education and understanding. I usually end by saying that diversity is worth pursuing because it’s the future of this country.

Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works as a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management at McGinnis Canyons Natural Conservation Area in western Colorado and can be reached at [email protected]

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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