All Public Land is Native Land

Photo: Mike Cavaroc/ Tandemstock

It’s important to be respectful, thoughtful, and informed about a place and the Indigenous Peoples of that landscape before heading out.

We know that more than 840 million acres—or one-third of the country’s land—is public land. What some people may not know is that all public land is Native land. Indigenous peoples of America have lived on and cared for the land long before state borders were drawn and national parks and other preserves were created. In fact, some of these national parks (like Yosemite, Glacier, and Yellowstone) were formed after the forced removal of the Indigenous peoples who had long lived there. When planning a trip to recreate on these lands—which is basically anywhere you might think to go in this country—it’s important to devote time to learning more about their history and that of the Indigenous Peoples who lived there, and who still live or spend time there. In this guide we’ll outline a few tips for preparing to go out on your next trip.

Find Out Whose Land You’re On

A good first step before you head out is to determine whose lands you’ll be on when you travel. For example, if you’re planning to visit Mukuntuweap—the present-day Zion National Park—you’ll be on the lands of the Southern Paiute. To figure this out, go to  Native-lands.ca or use their mobile app. Simply type in where you’re going and you’ll start to get an idea of thelands you’ll be on; many times you’ll find overlap between a number of different Indigenous Tribes and Nations. Of course, this and other apps aren’t always 100% accurate so take it to the next level and do anonline search to make sure the information you have is correct.

Learn More About the People Whose Land You’re On

Once you know whose land you’re on you can start to learn more about them. How did people once live there? How do Indigenous people live there today, and/or how do they use the land? What are the significant places, features, or animals? Connecting with the stories of the place will make your experience all the more enjoyable. The internet is your friend here. Visit Tribal websites and seek out books and articles written by Indigenous individuals.

Learn the Indigenous Name of the Land You’re On

If you’re hiking a certain trail or a certain peak, see if you can find the traditional name. For example, the original name for the John Muir Trail is Nüümü Poyo (Paiute for the “People’s Trail”). President McKinley had no connection to the Alaskan mountain that was named after him, and in 2015 the peak was officially renamed Denali, the Koyukon name for it. Climbing Mount Rainier? That’s actually Mount Tahoma. 

 A woman hikes past a sacred site of petroglyphs along the coast in Olympic National Park. Photo: Ben Herndon/Tandemstock

Hire a local Indigenous Guide

What better way to get to know a place than by being guided by the land’s original stewards? Do a quick search to see if any Indigenous-owned guiding companies operate in the area, whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally. Here are a few examples:

Respect Sacred Sites and Closures

This should be obvious, but it’s a recurring problem in many areas. For example, every June at Wyoming’s Bear Lodge (the most commonly used original name for Devil’s Tower), there’s a voluntary climbing ban in order to respect tribes that hold their ceremonies there. The area is the traditional land of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapahoe, Shoshone, and Kiowa, and it’s a sacred site. Still, hundreds of climbers choose to ignore the June ban and climb anyway. When visiting various lands it’s important to follow the rules: stay on trails, pack out trash, and don’t vandalize petroglyphs or other rock art (which is also still a big problem). And most importantly, if an area is closed or people have been asked not to go there, choose another destination and come back when it’s open again.

Visit a Cultural Center or Local Native-Run Business 

Before you head out, see if there’s a cultural center or museum that you can visit in order to learn more about local tribal history and culture. If you’re in the Southwest, visit the 125,000-acre Ute Mountain Tribal Park where tribal members lead tours (no self-guided tours are available). If you’re heading to the incredibly popular Monument Valley, make it a point to stop by the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. And finally, when choosing a restaurant or lodging, seek out a Native-owned hotel. Here are a few different ideas in some popular locations:

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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