Parks that Celebrate Native American Heritage
The land where the United States of America lies is vast, comprised of many cultures dating back millennia. Today, national parks across the country preserve and share the stories, histories, heritage, and traditions of Indigenous peoples and the National Park Foundation is proud to support projects, programs, and research that continues to explore the multifaceted history and culture of native people. Join us in visiting just a small sample of the national parks that honor and celebrate Native American heritage and history.
Alcatraz Island was used for camping and gathering food, as well as seclusion and isolation, over 20,000 years ago by Indigenous people. Over 10,000 Indigenous people, later called the Ohlone, lived in the coastal area between the San Francisco Bay and Point Sur before the European colonizers from Spain and Portugal began exploring the area in 1542. By 1801, all of the Ramaytush Ohlone had been incorporated into Mission San Francisco de Asis, and about 80 percent of their population had died from disease or poor living and working conditions.
In November 1969, a group of Native American activists in San Francisco’s Bay Area called Indians of All Tribes, Inc. occupied Alcatraz Island in a powerful act seeking to reclaim their ancestors’ space. Approximately 100 people occupied the island to protest government policies that stole the land from Indigenous peoples and destroyed their cultures, garnering national attention for the movement. The Occupiers wrote messages of peace and freedom around the former prison island and discussed plans to build a cultural and education center for Native Americans. In June 1971, federal marshals arrived and forcibly removed the remaining Occupiers from the island.
Today, Alcatraz Island, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, commemorates this watershed moment in the movement for Native American civil rights with an exhibition that premiered in 2019, upon the event’s 50th anniversary. Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspectives 50 Years Later tells the story of the 19-month occupation of the island and can be explored digitally.
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
When Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey described what is now Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve in 1794, he made sure to mention the native people who paddled out in their canoes from what is now Point Carolus to meet his boats. While it is difficult to know how long human inhabitants had been in the area when Whidbey set ashore, we do know that there were people living in the nearby Groundhog Bay over 9,000 years ago. It appears that lower Glacier Bay was habitable for many centuries, up until 300 years ago when a final glacial surge would have forced human inhabitants to flee their homeland.
Today, descendants of the Indigenous people who occupied Glacier Bay before the last glacial advance, now known as Huna Tlingit, embrace their homeland, its resources, and retain strong connections to their culture and traditions. Working with the park, Huna Tlingit have resumed their tradition of harvesting gull eggs, an important traditional food source, as well as constructed Huna Tribal House, or Xunaa Shuká Hít (roughly translated as “Huna Ancestor’s House”), a gathering place where tribal members can reconnect with their treasured homeland and visitors can learn more about Huna Tlingit history, culture, and traditions. In February 2020, with support from NPF and The Conservation Fund, the park added a 150-acre cultural site that will be managed in collaboration with the Hoonah Indian Association. The land will provide opportunities for tribal members to engage in traditional cultural practices and support public access to fishing, hiking, and camping opportunities.
Natchez Trace Parkway
Just 10 miles northeast of Natchez, Mississippi, along Natchez Trace Parkway, lies the second largest Mississippian period ceremonial mound in the United States, known as Emerald Mound. Built between 1200-1730 A.D. by Mississippians, a widespread American Indian population living in the Mississippi Valley and southeastern U.S., the flat-topped mound was used for ceremonial purposes. Emerald Mound covers eight acres and reaches heights of 60 feet as two secondary mounds sit atop a primary mound. All of these were built by hand, though many mysteries remain around exactly how mounds were constructed.
Descendants of the Mississippians became the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw of Oklahoma, the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw, and others. Mounds, like Emerald Mound, are some of the most prominent remains left on the landscape by these communities and are enjoyed by visitors today. There are seven mound groups along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, and an established trail at Emerald Mound allows visitors to climb to the top of the mound to survey the surrounding countryside.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The name of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore comes from the Anishinaabek (Odawa/Ottawa, Ojibwe/Chippewa and Potawatami/Bode’wadmi) story of Sleeping Bear, in which a mother waits for her cubs by the shores of Lake Michigan. The area is rich in history, stretching all the way back to the Paleo-Indian period in 11,000 B.C. when hunters romaed the banks of the lake, close to the edge of retreating glaciers. Artifacts dating back to the Archaic period, from 8,000 to 600 B.C., suggest wide-ranging social and trading networks reaching as far as the Gulf Coast of Florida. Woodland pottery found in the area, dating from 600 B.C. to 1620 A.D., suggests that people used the land for seasonal hunting or fishing sites, not necessarily settling in one spot.
Today, the park continues to work with Anishinaabek partners to expand the storytelling about the area’s landscapes and the people who lived there. Visitors can explore these stories and more through the park’s programs, scenic trails, and recreational opportunities.
Tumacácori National Historical Park
Nestled in the Santa Cruz River valley, Tumacácori National Historical Park preserves a wealth of cultural histories, including the Spanish colonialists, who built the park’s recognizable stone missions, and the O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people who also called the area home. The agrarian Sobaipuri, a branch of the O’odham (sometimes known as Pima) used the valleys along the Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers to farm corn, beans, and other crops, as well as gather foods such as mesquite, agave, and cactus.
A large and diverse tribe, the O’odham occupied lands stretching thousands of square miles. Upon the arrival of the Spanish, the Yoeme (Yaqui), who had been in the Santa Cruz Valley well before the Spaniards, recognized opportunities to work within the Mission system that sought to convert Indigenous peoples to Catholicism, often working as freighters, cowboys, and miners. The Apache people, related to the Athabaskan people who had made their way from current-day Canada to the American southwest, got a reputation for raiding, stealing, and attacking the mission system's stationary communities.
Descendents of the Sobaipuri live among the O’odham people today, including the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham subgroups. Their oral histories have been important in expanding storytelling in the park, including the work of National Park Service historical research intern Dorien Scheets. Through the support of the National Park Foundation, Dorien is exploring the links between Indigenous women and the Mission system, using archeological analysis of mission artifacts as well as the oral histories to create a new guided walking tour in the park.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park protects some of the most unique biological and geological landscapes in the world, including two of the world’s most active volcanoes. But the histories and moʻolelo (stories, myths, and legends) of the islands and their people are just as unique and fascinating. Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands were the first to settle Hawai'i, some 1,700 to 800 years ago, bringing with them essential items for survival, including pua'a (pigs), moa (chickens), mai`a (banana), ko (sugar cane), and the seeds and saplings of niu (coconut). After some time, Polynesians from the Society Islands also arrived in Hawai'i and became the new rulers. After contact with southern Polynesia ceased, a unique Hawaiian culture developedon the islands, distinguished by a highly stratified society and a system of laws, known as kanawai, that enforced the social order of the islands.
Over several hundred years, the people of Hawai'i cultivated traditions that were passed on through generations and continue today, including chronicling their history through oli (chant), mele (song), and hula (dance). Visitors to the park today can discover windows to the past through places like Puʻu Loa, one of the largest petroglyph fields in Hawai'i, or Kaʻauea, a site referenced in Hawaiian chants and oral histories now featuring a reconstructed hula platform and hale, a traditional style Hawaiian house.
National parks protect, preserve, and share the stories of our country’s histories and cultures, including those of the first peoples that inhabited this land and continue to do so. Across the National Park System, sites honor these multi-faceted histories and cultures that are an essential part of our collective American story. We invite you to explore these parks and more as you develop your own connections to our lands and #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque.