Gary S. Morishima, Quinault Management Center, Quinault Indian Nation

Gary S. Morishima
Gary S. Morishima, Quinault Management Center, Quinault Indian Nation

Printed with permission of Gary S. Morishima

Open Eyes, Open Minds
By: Gary S. Morishima[1]
Quinault Management Center, Quinault Indian Nation, Bellevue, Washington, United States

November 13, 2017

“Hear me, four quarters of the world - a relative I am!
Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is!
Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand,”

Black Elk, (1863-1950)

Relationships between Native Americans and agencies managing federal public lands are beginning to change from tumultuous conflict to cooperation and collaboration. To understand this evolution, we need to be prepared to open our eyes and confront the colored history of the policy, practice, prejudices, and attitudes that have characterized the administration of federal public lands in order to open our minds to changes that will be needed to face the challenges that lie ahead.

The story of European settlement of the Americas and the origin and management of public lands is marred by a sad history of colonialism, religious fabrication, expropriation, coercion, and propaganda.

When European explorers encountered the shores of the New World in search of riches during the late 15th century, they found a land unlike any they were accustomed to seeing. Instead of large cities and villages, they found bands of native peoples who lived in temporary shelters built of gathered materials and lived primarily by hunting, fishing and gathering. Fish and game abounded. Foods, medicines, and materials for crafts and shelters were gathered from the wild or places with little evidence of cultivation or fencing to indicate property ownership. In their eyes, the land was a vast wilderness, an untouched Eden of plenty.

European colonial powers realized that wealth and riches waited to be taken. Because the indigenous peoples of the New World were not Christians, they were viewed as savages and their lands were open to claims of discovery under the aegis of religious license in the form of Papal bulls, decrees of privilege. Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas on 18 June, 1452, which authorized Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any “Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers” to perpetual slavery. The January 5, 1455, bull Romanus Pontifex extended to the Catholic nations of Europe dominion over discovered lands, sanctified the seizure of non-Christian lands, and encouraged the enslavement of native, non-Christian peoples in Africa and the New World. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Caetera stating one Christian nation did not have the right to establish dominion over lands previously dominated by another Christian nation, thus establishing the Law of Nations and providing protection against competing claims of discovery. Together, these three Papal Bulls served as the foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery, the global slave-trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Age of Imperialism. Eventually, these fabricated religious notions became incorporated into the laws of the United States by decisions of its Supreme Court.

The creation of the United States was made possible as Indigenous Peoples were removed through conquest, treaties of alliance and removal, and disease. As European settlement proceeded westward, it brought with it notions of property, farming, grazing, and systems of governance. Treaties were signed in which Indigenous Peoples ceded claims of title to vast areas of land and reserved certain rights to hunt, fish, trap, and gather in exchange for promises of peace, permanent homelands, food, health, and education. In all, some 365 Indian treaties were negotiated and ratified by the United States Senate from 1777 until 1871 when the practice of treaty making ceased. Over time, the United States frequently broke its treaty promises to accommodate demands from its citizenry.

Settlers were loath to recognize the influence of Indigenous Peoples in shaping the landscape and producing the abundance they found. Forests were cleared, land was fenced and cultivated, large herds of domesticated grazing animals were introduced. In the process, populations of native fish, wildlife, and plants were routinely extirpated. Widespread fire and waste led to outcries over wanton destruction of the land and eventually led to the reservation of lands for public use.

Over 84 million acres of land are managed by the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Army for public enjoyment.[i] These lands are now variously designated as national parks, monuments, seashores, battlefields, wildlife refuges, national forests, national grasslands, military reservations, and cultural/historic sites, among others. However, management of these lands has paid little heed to the fact that they were once homelands for Indigenous Peoples who used traditional knowledge accumulated over countless generations to sustain their cultures and economies for thousands of years.

As an example, since the creation of the National Park Service (NPS) by President Woodrow Wilson "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations", the NPS was driven by its mission to protect its parks from human activities that involved the removal of plants, roots, animals or materials. At its core, the story of formation of our National parks is rooted in the world view that mankind is separate from nature and the environment. Exclusion of Native Americans was premised on an American Model for National Parks that was based on the notion that humankind is a kind of trespasser, a despoiler of pristine environments.

For decades, some federal rules and regulations, including some of the NPS, prevented Native American tribes from accessing and utilizing lands and resources that sustained their cultures and economies for countless generations, despite treaties reserving hunting, fishing, gathering, and trapping rights which were protected as the supreme law of the land under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.[ii] Gathering of plants and medicines within National Parks by Native Americans was prohibited under interpretations of the Organic Act of August 25, 1916, and Materials Act of 1947. Opposition to Native American hunting and fishing persisted even though recreational hunting was permitted in 75 areas managed by the NPS and recreational fishing was extensively allowed and legislation establishing some National Parks contained provisions disclaiming any intention to affect reserved treaty rights. There has been a lengthy history of conflict between the managers of federal public lands and Native American hunting, fishing, land claims, sacred sites, water rights, religious freedom, concessions, and management. [iii] Not until the early 21st century and the new rule “Gathering of Certain Plants or Plant Parts by Federally Recognized Indian Tribes for Traditional Purposes” was the need to provide access and use of certain resources within National Parks acknowledged.[iv]

Former use, occupancy, and management of federal public lands by Native Americans are largely lacking in official accounts of agency histories. That task has been left to others. Mark David Spence describes the removal of Native Americans from three national parks, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite.[v] The establishment of these National parks and dispossession of the Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, Crow, Paiute and Miwok peoples gained favor as outdoor enthusiasts pressed the view that before European contact, the land was a wilderness, a mythical, uninhabited Eden, which should be preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of vacationing Americans. [vi] Fire is a prime example of how societal attitudes, values, perceptions, and prejudices have shaped federal policy. Fire was excluded from federal lands as a destructive force in the early 20th century. The exclusion and prohibition against the use of fire to maintain ecological functions on the landscape was diametrically opposed to the world views and practices of Native American Tribes who considered humanity as a part of the environment in which all things are connected. Native Americans had long utilized fire as a tool to promote production of foods, medicines, wildlife, and materials to sustain their cultures and economies. Conflict between the policies of federal land management agencies and perspectives of Native Americans were frequent and sometimes intense throughout the United States. For instance, in Washington State, Native Americans persisted in burning areas within lands designated as National Forests and National Parks to produce huckleberries, a cultural staple food. In northern California, Native Americans used fire to maintain a landscape that sustained plants and wildlife for foods, medicines, clothing, shelter, transportation, and household and ceremonial purposes.

Early observations of European explorers are rife with comments about fire, both lightning and purposeful, frequent, low-intensity ignitions by Indigenous Peoples. See for example, Muir’s description of an 1875 fire in the sequoia forests of California’s Sierra Nevada Range.[vii] But the importance of fire in maintaining ecosystem functions took a back seat to the control or elimination of anything that might be considered to detract from enjoyment of scenery and charismatic wildlife.[viii]

Fire exclusion was sold to politicians and the public in the early 20th century on the pretext that the low intensity, frequent fires employed by natives were unscientific, deserving of scorn and pooh-poohed as “Paiute Forestry”.[ix] The seeds of that view are reaching fruition as intense megafires scorch the landscape, take lives, consume property, and devastate agency budgets by ever increasing costs of fire suppression.

The 1963 Stark Leopold Report, Wildlife Management in the National Parks[x], brought attention to the effects of fire suppression on Park ecosystems. After decades of fire suppression that had led to the buildup of understory vegetation and ladder-fuels, NPS policy was modified to authorize prescribed burning and limited allowance of naturally caused fires to help accomplish agency-approved management objectives. By 1988, some 26 parks had incorporated fire programs. [xi]

The condition of charismatic megafauna important to attract tourism to our National Parks is another example of the results of NPS policy that neglected the Native American worldview of interconnectedness of all things. Wildlife populations are suffering from genetic isolation, introduction of invasive species, and trophic cascades fueled from removal of predators.[xii] A 1987 study by William Newmark (U of Michigan) found that 14 western National Parks had already lost 42 populations of mammals, attributed to the loss of habitat on adjacent lands and active elimination of fauna - i.e., isolation.[xiii] Promotion of tourism and recreational development near National Parks have also been inconsistent with the notion that their special social character as unspoiled places were to be preserved. Clearly, the thinking behind establishment of National Parks as islands of wilderness has proven to be seriously flawed.

The exclusion of Indigenous Peoples from protected areas such as parks is counterproductive to their conservation purposes and objectives because it creates conflicts, reduces interest in long-term stewardship, and can increase the rate of damage.[xiv] Interest in involving Indigenous Peoples and their traditional knowledges in management of public lands, protecting biodiversity, promoting cultural heritage, and the broader landscape is increasing worldwide.[xv]

In 1994, Frederico Mayor, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) remarked:

The indigenous people of the world possess an immense knowledge of their environments, based on centuries of living close to nature. Living in and from the richness and variety of complex ecosystems, they have an understanding of the properties of plants and animals, the functioning of ecosystems and the techniques for using and managing them that is particular and often detailed. In rural communities in developing countries, locally occurring species are relied on for many - sometimes all - foods, medicines, fuel, building materials and other products. Equally, people’s knowledge and perceptions of the environment, and their relationships with it, are often important elements of cultural identity.

UNESCO has also noted that traditional knowledge is valid and important in ensuring that the best available science is used to address today’s environmental challenges[xvi]:

In the face of global environmental change and its emerging challenges and unknowns, it is essential to have access to the best available information and knowledge. While science contributes significantly to understanding earth systems, social systems and their interactions, there is growing awareness that scientific knowledge alone is inadequate for solving the emerging environmental crises. The knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities – often referred to as local, indigenous or traditional knowledge – is now recognized as essential, alongside science, for developing effective and meaningful action world-wide.

Indigenous knowledge is already seen as pivotal in fields such as agroforestry, biodiversity conservation, natural resource management, traditional medicine and sustainable development. Indigenous communities are also being increasingly recognized as important source of knowledge for climate change assessment and adaptation.

Among the efforts underway to incorporate traditional knowledge are initiatives in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United States. In the United States, special statutes and Executive Orders have been enacted to require consultation with federally-recognized Indian Tribes. Department of the Interior Secretarial Order 3342 (10/21/16) was signed to encourage cooperative management agreements and collaborative partnerships between Department of the Interior resource managers and tribes; the Native Act (P.L. 114-221, 9/23/16) enhances opportunities for collaboration between federal agencies and tribes in support of Native American heritage and cultural tourism. The Department of Agriculture adopted regulation 1350-002 “Tribal Consultation, Coordination, and Collaboration” on January 18, 2013.

Much of the effort has been largely focused on cultural preservation pursuant to the establishment of an applied ethnography program within the NPS in response to legal consultation requirements and the need to gather data for planning, management, and interpretation. However, substantive involvement of Native Americans in developing and implementing management policy and practice has been slow in coming.

The 1963 Leopold Report created the first unified vision for management of the natural resources and wildlife of the US National Park System. In 2012 the National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee published a second report Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks. In an article introducing that report, Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the NPS commented:

For my nearly 40 years working as a biologist, ranger, superintendent and now Director in the NPS, the Leopold Report has been my guide. But in recent years, I have seen challenges to that paradigm, much of it due to a rapidly changing climate. I witness glaciers melting, species driven by climate appearing for the first time in parks, fires burning for a longer season, and storms ravaging coastal parks. I realized that attempting to hold our national parks in some sort of ecological stasis based on an interpretation of a pre-contact America was no longer possible and not even viable. We needed a new paradigm for the management of our natural and cultural resources that was reflective of these emerging challenges but also respectful of our history and basic mission to leave these parks ‘unimpaired for future generations. The Future Role of National Parks: Introducing the ‘Revising Leopold’ Report and Responses.[xvii]

Both the 1963 and 2012 Leopold reports make only cursory mention of Native Americans, but argue for managing or sculpting the Parks as they would have been at the time of settlement. This goal would necessarily involve the substantive involvement of the peoples who had lived on the land and managed its resources for thousands of years. Native American place-based experiences provide invaluable foundations and perspectives for stewardship and sustainability to provide for the generations yet unborn. A treasure trove of knowledge and practical know-how has been amassed within their communities which can help inform adaptive resource management, including insight into where, when, and how to safely employ fire to accomplish desired objectives.

On December 16, 2016, the NPS issued Director’s Order 100 Resource Stewardship For the 21st Century [xviii]which recognized the role that traditional ecological knowledge can play. Sadly, this Order was rescinded on August 16, 2017, by the Trump Administration without explanation.

As former NPS Director Jarvis noted, unprecedented challenges from impacts of climate change loom ahead. A new paradigm is needed if our National Parks are to be available for the use and enjoyment of future generations. For the NPS, open minds will be needed to build relationships with Native Americans and benefit from their traditional knowledges. Those relationships need to be based on mutual respect and reciprocity so that both NPS and Native Americans benefit.

Even though providing for consideration of traditional knowledges in wildlife management has been incorporated into NPS procedures for over a decade, more needs to be done. Working in concert with Native Americans and incorporating traditional knowledges into NPS policies and practices won’t magically materialize. Substantive effort will be required. As a start, here are a few areas that NPS could embrace to build a productive future working in partnership with Native Americans:

  • Increased understanding of federal-Indian relations and history would be helpful at all levels from leadership to the field, and should be mandatory for those in leadership positions. Public awareness programs should be developed and deployed to provide information on the history of relationships between Native American peoples and the land.
  • Collaboration, cooperation, and substantive engagements by Native Americans in the application of traditional knowledges can improve management of the federal public lands for future generations. Agency staff must be informed about traditional knowledges, issues, and protocols, especially when natural resource and cultural considerations are involved. [xix]
  • Acknowledge and act in a manner consistent with the duties of agencies of the United States to fulfill treaty obligations and trust responsibilities towards Native Americans.
  • Diversification of the federal workforce is needed to better incorporate multi-cultural perspectives. More Native Americans are needed in positions of authority and responsibility.
  • Career advancement within federal agencies should value and encourage developing and sustaining long-term relationships, understanding, and accountability with local communities and Native American Tribes.
  • Establishing solid working partnerships requires confidence, trust, and respect. These will be difficult to establish and maintain unless standards are in place within agency operations to prevent misconduct, harassment and discrimination.[xx]

Open Eyes and Open Minds are vital to building a better future for working with Native Americans and improving management of federal public lands. There’s a lot to do, but it’ll be well worth the effort.


[1] Natural Resource Technical Advisor, Quinault Indian Nation, Quinault Management Center, 11900 1st NE, Suite 3106, Bellevue, WA 98005.

[i] 16 U.S.C. § 3 (Interior); 16 U.S.C. § 9a (Army); 16 U.S.C. § 551 (Agriculture).

[ii] Article VI.

[iii] Keller, R.H. and M.F. Turek. 1998. American Indians and National Parks. University of Arizona Press.

[iv] 36 CFR Part 2 [NPS–WASO–AILO–15846; PX.XVPAD0522.0.1] RIN 1024–AD84.

[v] “Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of National Parks.” New York, Oxford University Press, 1999. The origin of federal public lands for conservation purposes is steeped with undertones of ethnic superiority. See for example Corry’s op-ed in the August 25, 2015 edition of TruthOut, “The Colonial Origins of Conservation: The Disturbing History Behind US National Parks”; Wohlforth’s article in Orion Magazine, “Conservation and Eugenics”,; Allen’s article "Culling the Herd: Eugenics and the Conservation Movement in the United States, 1900-1940 .“ Journal of the History of Biology. February 2013, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 31–72; Purdy’s article in the August 13th edition of the New Yorker Magazine, “Environmentalism’s Racist History”

[vi] See also Phillip Burnham “Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks”. 2000 Island Press. An interview of Burnham is available at:

[vii] Muir, J. 1901. Our National Parks, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Cambridge, MA 382p.

[viii] Christensen, N.L. 19965. Fire and Wilderness. International Journal of Wilderness 1(1):30-34.

[ix] Greeley, W. B. 1920. 'Paiute forestry' or the fallacy of light burning [reprinted in 2000]. Timberman, v. 21, no. 3; See also Gerald Williams, Wildfire Management in the 20th Century. Fire Management Today Volume 60 • No. 4 • Fall 2000: 15-20. For NPS fire history see:; Of all the methods of using fire as a servant, the" light-burning“ theory is the oldest, the most important, and at the same time the most undesirable and the most mischievous, from the stand point of Forestry. Boerker, R.H. 1912. Light Burn vs Forest Management. JOF 10(2):184-194. It is of course absurd to assume that the Indians fired the forests with any idea of forest conservation in mind. Leopold, A. 1920. Piute Forestry vs forest fire prevention. Southwestern Magazine 2:12-13

[x] (link no longer works)

[xi] See Parsons, D.L. and S. J. Botti. 1996. Restoration of Fire in National Parks. In Hardy, C & S. Arno eds. The use of fire in forest restoration. Gen Tech Rept INT-GTR-341. Ogden UT. USFS Intermountain Research Station.

[xii] Chase, A. 1987. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. Harcourt Brace Jovonavich. 464p.

[xiii] Newmark, W. 1987. Land Bridge Island Perspective on Mammalian Extinction in Western North American Parks. Nature 325(6103):430-2.

[xiv] Carey, C., Dudley, N. & Stolton, S. 2000. Squandering Paradise? The importance and vulnerability of the world’s protected areas. Gland, Switzerland: World Wide Fund for Nature- International.

[xv] World Wide Fund for Nature-International (1996). WWF Statement of principles: indigenous peoples and conservation. Gland, Switzerland: WWF.

[xvii] Parks 2014 Vol 20.2.

[xix] Some helpful publications include: Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives; Tribal Climate Change Principles:

Last updated: July 10, 2023