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April - Awakening to the Invisible

Recently I saw a promo for the documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea which read, “The story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical; that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone”. I looked forward to viewing it again…until.

I saw this soon after reading Justice at the Heart of Climate Activism, an article in “YES!” magazine by Breanna Draxler which awakened me to the fact that I hadn’t been thinking about the justice issues behind the creation of our national parks. Did I really believe these lands were void of people and care all those years, just waiting to be saved by white preservationists in order to protect them for personal enjoyment and from exploitation for commercial gain?

In reality, according to Draxler, “…the establishment of these untouched wilderness areas was the product of colonization and genocide”. She goes on to say, “Defining these wilderness areas as being untrammeled by man erases the millennia of Indigenous land management that shaped them”. It seems that this series on the parks is part of the invisibilzatio of Indigenous peoples because, for the most part, they fail to give voice to native peoples in telling the story of the parks. In addition, Draxler comments, "When environmentalists laud America's best idea and reiterate narratives about pristine national park environments, they are participating in the erasure of Indigenous people, thus replicating colonial patterns of white supremacy and settler privilege". How to take that in to my consciousness!

Eager to learn more, I read This Land Is Their Land, an informative article about sixteen National Parks and the deep connections tribes have had and still have with each one. When I came to one close to home, the Gateway Arch National Park, my eyes were opened even more. I know that the park was established as a tribute to the opening of the West, but the article reminded me that...westward expansion also paved the way for epidemics, forced removal, armed confllict, near-extinction of bison and forced assimilation of Native Americans, among other hardships. Visitors to the St. Louis based park can ascend to the top of the 630-foot-high Gateway Arch and contemplate the complicated legacy of Manifest Destiny and the settling of the American West. That contemplation would be a powerful spiritual practice!

The Catholic Church, which has its own difficult history with regard to native peoples, showed it is also waking up, concerned that the invisible become visible: In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. (Laudato Si, paragraph 146)

Maybe I will still watch the National Parks documentary and enjoy the stunning beauty; however, I will watch with a broadened vision and increased motivation to change my perspective on America’s Best Idea as one that is American as the Declaration of Independence.

Final note: I realize this is just the tip of the iceberg as I continue waking up to all who have been invisibilized.

Photo: Thanks to Johannes Andersson in Unsplash


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