National Parks & America’s Pioneer Identity

I read biographies voraciously in the second grade; our school library had a whole series of them. Amelia Earhart, Betsy Ross, George Washington – I distinctly remember Thomas Jefferson hating to have his hair cut with a bowl on his head. The biography of Kit Carson said he was a pioneer and explorer who helped clear the west for the settlers. Isn’t that what we all learned? In 1993 (and two weeks ago), I was reading a National Park Service plaque about Kit Carson at Canyon de Chelly which explained that the site was the last stand for a group of Navajos before Carson put them on the Long Walk. The Long Walk? I didn’t remember reading about that part of his biography.

Fortress Rock, Canyon de Chelly, Site of Kit Carson’s campaign of genocide

Kit Carson, American Mass Murderer
Carson, according to modern bio excerpts, was a tireless explorer, traveled 20,000 miles on the back of a mule, spoke nine Native American languages, and married two native women. He fought off the Mexicans and Spanish in the acquisition of California for the United States. In the 1860s, the U.S. army put him in charge of clearing out the west, focusing on the Navajo, who refused to be relocated to a reservation. In 1864, he came into Canyon de Chelly, where hundreds of Navajos had lived for decades, just as the Anasazi had lived in the cliffs for centuries before. Carson attacked them as Spanish soldiers had done before him, and the Navajos climbed up into their hill fortresses for protection. Carson’s response was the euphemistic “scorched earth policy,” meaning he drove their livestock into blind canyons and slaughtered them. He burned all their crops, every last cornfield and melon patch. Then, he waited out the people until they came down, starving. He gathered them together – and other Navajos who had been captured – and drove these thousands of men, women, elders, and children 300 miles across Arizona into New Mexico to the Pecos River. That is the Long Walk.

Of course, hundreds died on the march. At the Pecos River site, people were crowded together into internment camps with insufficient food, poor sanitation, and a timeline towards more death. Some who didn’t die were sold to Mexican families as slaves. By 1868, after the Civil War ended and the government was busy with Reconstruction and challenged by robber barons, the U.S. signed a treaty of Bosque Redondo with the tribe. Carson himself had died of an aneurysm earlier that year, no longer available to continue his peculiar campaign of oppression. Those Navajo remaining were freed and allowed to go their way. The handfuls that could made their way slowly back to their lands in the canyons.

That is what it meant in the old stories to “clear out the west.”

Mind you, I’m not trying to induce feelings of guilt or shame in anybody. I’m no more related to Kit Carson than I am to George Washington or Adolf Hitler, and you probably aren’t either. I am just pondering today about the notion of a pioneering hero.

Teddy Roosevelt, Conservation Pioneer
I have also visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and I wondered as a confused teenager why the wrong Roosevelt was carved in stone. That is, in 1970 I knew that Franklin Roosevelt had pulled the country out of depression, so why was Teddy the one to join Abe, George, and Tom? Well, for one thing, Mt. Rushmore was designed in 1927, before FDR even took office.  But, more importantly, I know now that Teddy should be on Rushmore since he created the concepts of national parks and national monuments like Rushmore in the first place.

Teddy set up the U.S. Forest Service, created five National Parks, and signed the Antiquities Act that established 18 national monuments as well as the method by which more could be created by future presidents. By the time Roosevelt was done in office, he had reserved 150 million acres of land – land which all of us can now visit and share in our appreciation.  That seems to me a better fit for the definition of pioneer.

The National Parks — Thanks, Teddy!

Still, the pioneering spirit of the national parks – the spirit of forging new ideas and new paths – didn’t stop with Teddy. In the 1950s, a Massachusetts novelist and playwright named Freeman Tilden was encouraged by park service leaders to write about the parks that he loved. The results were two books still considered landmarks on the subject: 1951’s The National Parks: What They Mean to You and Me and 1957’s Interpreting Our Heritage.

Freeman Tilden and the Interpretive Dance
Tilden’s first book, a description of the parks across the country, is thought to be one of the best books ever written on the national parks, both comprehensive and evocative in its review of parks across all fifty states. The second book established ideas on interpretation that define best practices of how to help the public interact with these lands. Scientists, museum curators, and countless educators have also learned to adopt these principles on effectively sharing information with eager learners.

I first read about Tilden because our Navajo tour guide in Canyon de Chelly mentioned that her father worked for the National Park Service and had proudly received one of the earliest awards named for the writer, the Freeman Tilden award for interpretation. I didn’t know what interpretation meant; I thought it referred to someone acting as a go-between, helping Navajos speak to the Americans. This was my rather limited understanding of the notion of interpretation, and as I read more about Tilden’s work, a whole bunch of light bulbs went off.

Tilden’s ideas were that visitors to the parks (or any spot worth visiting) should be assisted in their appreciation with more than a simple information dump. He established a famous set of Six Principles of Interpretation, which can be paraphrased* as follows:

Interpretation should:

–Relate the display to the visitor
–Let information should become revelation
–Provoke, rather than simply instruct
–Be a combination of many arts
–Be part of a greater whole
–Be unique for children rather than a dumbed-down version of a display for adults


Freeman Tilden

Tilden’s ideas have become the displays inside the Visitor Centers, the websites, the old photographs, the signs at the vista points, the ranger talks, the kid’s park badges, and all the things that you interact with as a national park visitor. Every time you stand looking at a sign, handle an artifact or rock displayed as a visual aid, or watch national park videos that bring history to life, you are experiencing Freeman Tilden’s legacy.

The best displays are courtesy of the individual creativity of a ranger at that site, but the idea of excellent interpretation, of bringing the visitor to a level of intimacy with the land, is now built into the core mission of the National Park Service. Consider another Tilden quote:

You sometimes note an impatience on the part of a specialist that the public does not show sufficient interest in his assemblage of information as such. He is likely to conclude that the average person is somewhat stupid. The opposite is true. It is a sign of native intelligence on the part of any person not to clutter his mind with indigestibles.
Interpreting Our Heritage

Latter-day Pioneers
In 1991, Wilson Hunter Jr. (the father of my Navajo tour guide) received the Freeman Tilden Award for his work at Canyon de Chelly. The award recognized his role in creating a training program for the Navajo tour guides of the canyon, drafting by-laws for that newly formed Guide Association, and co-founding a council for interpretation of American Indian sites across the Four Corners region. He was the first Native American to receive the award and went on to author several books on the Canyon de Chelly area.

The 2016 winner of the Freeman Tilden award was Lynette Webber of Keweenaw National Historical Park, Michigan. Webber designed a multi-faceted Missing in the Copper Country program to highlight the region’s once-famous “copper fever.” The program superimposed old photos onto recent ones to transport visitors back in time and also set up a Lego area to help children recreate historical buildings. She engaged local high school students to convert social media posts into interactive ArcGIS maps so that visitors could take self-guided tours on mobile devices, merging history with up-to-date technology.

The 2015 winner was Ernie Price of the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, who created the Footsteps to Freedom program which honored the life and death of Hannah Reynolds, a slave wounded in the Virginia battle who ultimately died a free woman, days after the surrender was signed. The program re-enacted her death as part of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end, a way of bringing the history of the African-American experience into the frame of this event. (I recommend reading Price’s recounting of the experience here  to see exactly how interpretation can bring history to life.)

The more I read of these interpretive ideas from the National Park Service, the more I want to return to the parks again and pay more attention to all they have to offer.

American Interpreters, American Pioneers
We can consider who we continue to laud as pioneers. Take your pick. Should we have our children read a biography about an explorer who forced thousands of Navajos to march hundreds of miles to be shut up in a camp for years or about a man who wanted all visitors to the national parks to experience them first-hand rather than through passive communication?

Should we continue to name schools after someone who “killed two Indians before breakfast”? Or should we focus more on celebrating the park staff who reach out to bridge communities together, bring history to life, and create ways for you to feel history breathing every time you step onto our national lands?

I would be happy for Carson’s name to end up only at a plaque above Fortress Rock at Canyon de Chelly, eroded by the wind, bit by bit, until it is too faded to read.


Today’s Essay is brought to you by the Daily Post word: Identity

*Six Principles of Interpretation
1 .Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.
3 .Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.
4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.
–Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 1957

0 Replies to “National Parks & America’s Pioneer Identity”

  1. Ugh, history is written by the victors, right? The atrocities we perpetrated against the Native Americans. . .

    And yet it’s difficult to cast historical figures in black and white as heroes and villains. What Kit Carson did was absolutely wrong, but in historical context he thought he was doing the right thing. This is not an excuse, just a reminder that. . .

    Humans are so short sighted. The best we can do is learn from our history, and it’s frustrating when we don’t. This kind of thing still goes on today. Look at Myanmar right now. . .

    Hell, look at the xenophobia and racism that still persists here at home.

    In any case, thanks for a great read.

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