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Your Road Trip Is Not More Important Than Indian Country

Americans are itching to get out of the house while Native communities remain under quarantine.

DANIEL SLIM/AFP/Getty Images

In an article published last week by The Wall Street Journal, novelist and reporter Mark Childress wrote that he wanted to spend time traveling to “the parts of the country where nobody is.” Documenting his pandemic road trip, Childress wrote that he “felt the pandemic lifting up as the civilization thinned out.”

Having altered virtually everything else about American life, the coronavirus is now having its way with our summer vacation plans. While demand for air travel is seeing a “slow but steady” uptick, airlines are still expecting to only service a fraction of flights compared to normal summer rates. For many people, a road trip is the next best option; naturally, America’s national parks will climb to the top of many lists as prime destinations for a socially distant getaway. Should this include you, allow me to make two simple requests: Remember that “the parts of the country where nobody is” were built atop broken treaties and Native blood. And respect the fact that Indian Country is still here.

Prior to European colonization, most of the public spaces now overseen by the National Parks Service and the National Forest Service were not free of human contact. The national parks system in the United States, much like the country itself, was created by the federal government’s violent removal of Indigenous nations and communities—nations and communities that are still here. As Montana attorney Isaac Kantor wrote in a 2007 paper reflecting on his visit to Glacier National Park—land long used and inhabited by the now-neighboring Blackfeet Nation—these spaces “are built upon an illusion. They seem to offer us a rare chance to experience the continent as it was, to set eyes on a vista unspoiled by human activity. This uninhabited nature is a recent construction.”

Upon the creation of the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872, the lands still belonged to the Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, and Tukudeka peoples, among others, per Kantor. Within seven years of Yellowstone’s creation, the federal government forcibly removed all those inhabiting the new park’s borders, as the tribes frightened the white tourists who came to vacation in their homelands. America did not stop at land theft. As Native people were erased from the public eye through forced assimilation efforts in the twentieth century—another organized effort to steal all remaining Native land—the national parks began to use Indigenous people, not just their land, as a draw for visitors.

As recently as 30 years ago, American tourists could go to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and gawk in awe at the bodily remains of people hailing from 24 tribal nations. The park’s museum openly displayed their bones until 1990, when Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. The legislation sought to return the remains of Indigenous people to their tribes so they could be respectfully honored by their ancestors. The law was no swift remedy: Native skeletons and artifacts from Mesa Verde that were stolen and displayed by the U.S. government are still being returned for reburial to this day.

America and its national parks preferred this fragmented legacy of these looted lands. In their eyes, Native people were worthy only of the same amount of grazing attention granted to the mountains and the trees—another memory of this country prior to colonization; another picture in the family photo album. Thankfully, Indian Country is resilient. Native communities have persevered through broken treaties, forced removal, and termination policies to maintain their status as sovereign nations. But as the pandemic has laid bare, the ongoing legacy of colonization has left Native communities at a higher risk for the coronavirus. The rural reservation communitieswhich are systematically denied basic amenities like running water, broadband access, and nearby healthy food options—have been left especially vulnerable to the worst of the virus.

In a recent conversation with The New Republic from her reservation in southeastern Montana, Dr. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear—a sociologist and incoming assistant professor at UCLA who is also a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe—said she was fearful of the upcoming busy season for the national parks and other nearby tourist attractions.

“On Northern Cheyenne, where I’m at, we have a major highway that runs through our reservation,” Rodriguez-Lonebear said. “It’s a shortcut to the Black Hills that cuts off at least an hour of traveling time. So we get a massive amount of traffic on this highway from semi-trucks, but also massive tourist traffic that cuts through our reservation on their way to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. And we know that that’s going to start picking up as we move into the summer months.”

Thinking about the national parks, Rodriguez-Lonebear is similarly concerned about the parkgoers, who frequently make stops along the reservation and border towns and who now might bring the pandemic into the community. While the coronavirus is known to be deadlier for all people over 60 years old, this is particularly a concern in Indian Country, where elders continue to foster languages and traditional beliefs that they were very recently persecuted for practicing.

“People are easing up on the masks and on the restrictions; it’s kind of scary,” Rodriguez-Lonebear told me. “We can’t get complacent. We have to be even more cautious now as the summer months approach and tourism traffic increases. The hope is that there’ll be fewer international travelers this summer, but we’ll still get the domestic travelers. And they stop in Bozeman and Billings and these big cities where reservation residents have to travel to get supplies and groceries.”

In an ideal world, tribes facing higher risk of Covid-19 spread would employ their sovereign status to set up roadblocks and limit access to their reservations, as the Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribal nations in South Dakota did last month. But many tribal economies bordering major national parks, like Navajo Nation with the Grand Canyon and the Blackfeet Nation with Glacier, depend on this seasonal influx of tourists to bolster much of their annual income. “Essentially, here in our community, unemployment rates are so high that summer jobs are basically what get people through the year,” Rodriguez-Lonebear said. “That’s literally how families live.”

This is further compounded by the fact that in order to enter some national parks, there is no way to physically avoid tribal nations. For instance, Rodriguez-Lonebear pointed out that “anybody who goes to Glacier National Park has to go through the Blackfeet Nation.” Speaking recently with NPR, Blackfeet Covid-19 Incident Commander Robert DesRosie acknowledged the economic damage that the nation’s shutdown has caused tribal businesses, like that of Darrel Norman, who runs a campground for tourists that is on the verge of permanently shutting down. But as DesRosie pointed out to NPR, “it’s his job to look at this as an issue of protecting human life and not an economic crisis.”

The reason that Rodriguez-Lonebear, DesRosie, and others are concerned is because from the very inception of the national parks to the present day, Americans have routinely placed their tourist goals and desires ahead of the needs of Native communities. The national parks are beautiful spaces because Indigenous people protected and maintained them. Although it might be nice, as Childress did, to draw up a trip to parts of our nation that many may consider unsettled or untouched, no matter how comforting that manifest destiny blanket feels, it is still a lie. These lands were stolen and then shielded by the guiding hand of white supremacy: To be able to visit the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone or Yosemite or Glacier is a privilege built upon a great sin.

None of this information is meant to serve as a guilt trip: It’s more a reminder to be conscientious of one’s self and place in the world. These are values that should persist at all times, but our present crisis makes them all the more important. It is entirely understandable that people feel the need to get out of their cramped living spaces after being quarantined for three months. If that includes taking a road trip through the communities facing the highest rates of the coronavirus, you damn well better ensure that you are doing everything within your power to limit exposing these communities to the havoc of the pandemic. The absolute least any colonizer can do is go out of their way to ensure that they don’t put the people, whose traditional homelands will be just another page in their scrapbook, at further risk.