New Perspectives on National Park History

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration, the Western History Association, and the Society for History in the Federal Government

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Environment; National Park Service; Public History and Memory


The National Park Service today serves as one of the nation’s largest landholders and public history commemoration. This panel will critically interrogate how the agency has operated as a part of the nation state in negotiations with communities over representation, land, and economic interests. The papers demonstrate that the imperialism promoted by the National Park Service takes many forms. A closer look at inclusionary community advancement projects highlights the often hidden colonialist agenda of the National Park Service.

Helis Sikk critiques the National Park Service’s recent interest in LGBTQ landmarks and pasts as a homonationalist attempt to catch up with the post-1960s cultural history and foster inclusion. Sherri Sheu’s paper examines the professionalization of law enforcement in the NPS in the 1970s, which occurred as part of Richard Nixon’s broader law and order policies. Mattea Sanders’ paper focuses on the establishment of Southwestern National Monument and the role of the Dine in the making of these cultural resources into public lands in the early twentieth century. Ashanti Shih’s paper examines how science and preservation were used as a justification for massive NPS land expansions in Hawai’i in the 1930s and 1940s, and offers alternative knowledges and approaches to preservation.

The papers in this panel think through the ways in which diverse communities engage with the state while maintaining their autonomy to define (in)equality on their own terms. We ask, what are the possibilities for communities to collaborate with the National Park Service while continuing to fight against its colonialist and normalizing policies?

Papers Presented

Law and Order in the National Parks: Examining the Green Carceral State

Scholarship on the carceral state has flourished in the last two decades and made critical inroads across a number of fields. Yet, scholars of the environment have been slow to examine the carceral state as a site of inquiry. What can be gleaned from the intersection of these two fields? What questions might we ask if we consider the development of the carceral state as a critical component of the environmental state? What sorts of motivations might scholars find? How has the carceral state molded how Americans experience—or do not experience—nature? This paper offers one look at what such a perspective may offer. Through an examination of events on the National Mall, at Mount Rushmore, and at Yosemite National Park in 1970, this paper argues that the creation of modern professional law enforcement forces within the national parks arose not out of resource or visitor protection, but as part of Richard Nixon’s war on crime. In attempting to enforce “order” in these spaces, the National Park Service’s chief aim was to make the parks feel safe for the “suburban families” that it saw as the core audience. In doing so, the agency embraced a vision of the national parks where law enforcement became integral to day-to-day operations. This talk suggests that the rise of the carceral state and the environmental state are mutually constitutive.

Presented By
Sherri Sheu, University of Colorado Boulder

The Dine’s Application of the American Antiquities Act of Southwestern National Monuments

The American Antiquities Act of 1905 created the first protections for historic sites and cultural resources. It gave the president the authority to designate National Monuments, and it criminalized through fines and imprisonment destruction and looting of cultural resources. Previous scholarship has highlighted the successes of the American Antiquities Act in allowing for the first protections of archeological sites in the Southwest. However, what were the human implications of these protections? American Indians resided in and around these cultural resources. The establishment of these sites as National Monuments involved the buying of allotments, negotiation long-standing treaties, and determining if rights to minerals and grazing in these areas still held after they became public land. This paper will examine the establishment of Southwestern National Monument through the lens of the Dine. This paper will discuss how the American Antiquities Act informed Department of Interior, National Park Service, and Office of Indian Affairs officials in understanding the process of making cultural resources into public lands. The three case studies within Southwestern National Monument I will use are Canyon De Chelly, Manuelito Archeological Complex, and Chaco Canyon. I will argue that in these three cases the Dine played a major role determining policy outcomes. The Dine developed their own interpretation not only of the American Antiquities Act but also of the preservation of cultural resources in the early twentieth century.

Presented By
Mattea V. Sanders, Department of the Air Force

Preserving N/natives: Native Species Restoration and Salvage Anthropology in Hawaii National Park, 1940s–50s

From the 1930s to the 1950s, 100,000 acres were added to the national park system in Hawai’i. A discourse of N/native disappearance served as the justification; as scientists and National Park Service personnel were anxious about two kinds of so-called vanishing natives—one human (Native Hawaiians) and the other nonhuman (native flora and fauna). Positioning itself as the savior of these N/natives, the Park Service swallowed increasingly more land to create a tourist wonderland and what it believed to be a “refuge” for Native Hawaiian culture and native species. My talk discusses the land-grabbing and knowledge-making projects of the Park Service in Hawai’i during this era to argue that the Park Service was a settler colonial force central to Native Hawaiian dispossession and elimination, and the commodification of Native culture and species. Central to these processes was the settler understanding of Hawaiian nature and Hawaiian culture as separate, static entities. Native Hawaiian culture was not allowed to change; and neither were native species—and both required the removal of indigenous people. I focus on two case studies: Park Service efforts to restore the nēnē (Hawaiian goose) through forest acquisitions; and the anthropological work of Native Hawaiian surveyor Henry Kekahuna, who interpreted cultural sites in the newly acquired areas of Hawaii National Park. The resistances of the nēnē and Kekahuna suggest alternatives to the way we might understand and approach preservation work going forward, perhaps cherishing more dynamic forms of living and collaboration.

Presented By
Ashanti Shih, University of Southern California

Fighting for Socio-spatial Justice: National Park Service and Queer Decolonial (Re)Mapping

In recent years, the nation-states in the global North have shown a continued interest to identify and recognize LGBTQ landmarks. In the United States, the National Park Service launched the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative in 2014, a community-based preservation project that seeks to recognize the cultural legacy of LGBTQ individuals by adding relevant landmarks and memorials to the National Register of Historic Places. Currently, about 100,000 total sites and about 2 million contributing properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with 30 sites marked for LGBTQ cultural relevance. Community-based sociospaital justice projects have a considerable potential to challenge state-sanctioned definitions of normativity and to shift misperceptions of queer life. Yet, how does this investment in queer pasts rearticulate queer present and future? I also ask, what kind of histories are we investing in? What are the possibilities (if any) for the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative to be part of the “the liberatory practices” of “queering space and spatializing the queer” as articulated by queer urban geographer, Jack Gieseking (2013)? This paper considers this heightened homonationalist interest in LGBTQ pasts in the context of debates around confederate monuments in the United States and the global rise of xenophobia. By looking at specific LGBTQ landmarks and how they are mapped both online and offline, I consider the possibilities for relying on state-sanctioned queer pasts to create possibilities for more equal queer futures.

Presented By
Helis Sikk, University of South Florida

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Marla R. Miller, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Marla Miller's primary research interest is U.S. women's work before industrialization. Her book The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in August 2006, and won the Costume Society of America's Millia Davenport Publication Award for the best book in the field for that year. In 2009 she published an edited collection, Cultivating a Past: Essays in the History of Hadley, Massachusetts, also with the University of Massachusetts Press. Her book Betsy Ross and the Making of America (Holt, 2010)--a scholarly biography of that much-misunderstood early American craftswoman--was a finalist for the Cundill Prize in History at McGill University (the world's largest non-fiction historical literature prize), and was named to the Washington Post's "Best of 2010" list. A short biography of Massachusetts gownmaker Rebecca Dickinson appeared in the Westview Press series Lives of American Women in summer 2013. She is presently completing work on a microhistory of women, work and landscape in Federal Massachusetts.

Miller also publishes in the field of Public History. In 2016, with UMass Amherst colleague Max Page, she published Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016). In 2012, she and three co-authors released Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a multi-year study funded by the NPS Chief Historian's office and hosted by the Organization of American Historians. In 2013, Imperiled Promise won the National Council on Public History prize for Excellence in Consulting.

In addition to her own scholarship, Professor Miller contributes to her fields of study as an editor.  She has served on the editorial board of the Public Historian, and is the founding editor of the prizewinning UMass Press series Public History in Historical Perspective, and is currently serving on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Early Republic  and the  New England Quarterly. 

As Director of the History Department's Public History program, Professor Miller also teaches courses in Public History, American Material Culture, and Museum and Historic Site Interpretation, and continues to consult with a wide variety of museums and historic sites. In 2016, Professor Miller was elected vice president and president elect of the National Council on Public History.

Presenter: Mattea V. Sanders, Department of the Air Force
Mattea Sanders is a historian with the American Battlefield Protection Program with the National Park Service in Washington, DC. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the role of historic preservation in preserving the voices of American Indians in National Parks in the New Deal Era. She holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee in History and a Master's degree in Public History from American University.

Presenter: Sherri Sheu, University of Colorado Boulder
Sherri Sheu is a doctoral candidate in environmental history at the University of Colorado-Boulder whose work examines the intersections of race, environment, and the carceral state.

Presenter: Ashanti Shih, University of Southern California
Ashanti Shih is a doctoral candidate at Yale University. Her work explores the history of science, preservation, and settler colonialism in the US and Pacific.

Presenter: Helis Sikk, University of South Florida
Helis Sikk is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at DePauw University. Her research takes a feral multidisciplinary approach in exploring the relationships between queerness, affect, the built environment, communities, media, and visual cultures. She is the co-editor of The Legacies of Matthew Shepard (Routledge 2019), a collection of essays that documents the cultural legacy of Matthew Shepard. Sikk is currently working on her monograph, Mainstreaming Violence: Affect, Activism, and Queer Politics of Place, which traces the affective genealogy of anti-LGBTQ violence since the 1960s.