This Land Was Their Land: The Growing Interest in Tribal National Parks

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Buffalos migrate out of Yellowstone National Park
Buffalos migrate out of Yellowstone National Park in winter. Yellowstone is one of many U.S. national parks located on land originally owned by Native American tribes. Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images

Most Americans know about Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the U.S., which was established in 1872. Probably less well-known is the fact that Native American tribes were removed from the land to make the park possible.

Yellowstone is not an anomaly. Many Native American tribes once lived on sprawling ancestral lands that the U.S. government either forcibly took from them or purchased through treaties whose provisions were subsequently nullified. Some of this land later became part of the nation's 400-plus national parks and sites, with the U.S. government providing the historical interpretations. These interpretations, however, either downplayed or ignored the Indigenous point of view.


Creating tribal national parks allows Indigenous people to be in charge of the narrative. Simply put, tribal national parks are national parks created on tribal lands. The first of these tribal national parks was Frog Bay Tribal National Park in Wisconsin, opened by the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in 2012. The park is on the state's Bayfield peninsula, across from the famous Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Several more tribal national parks are in the works, as Indigenous people seek to preserve and protect their land, while creating recreational opportunities for their members and others. But there's another important reason for these parks' creation: They allow the tribes to tell their own stories.

The idea to create Frog Bay a decade ago came up organically, after a small parcel of land was repatriated to the Red Cliff, says Gabrielle VanBergen, who was until recently deputy administrator of the Red Cliff Treaty Natural Resources Division. The main priority in declaring the land a tribal national park was to protect and preserve it, as it's part of the large, yet sensitive, Lake Superior watershed. But the tribe then decided to share it with both tribal members and the public.

Frog Bay Tribal National Park
Frog Bay Tribal National Park in Wisconsin is the first national park of its kind in the U.S.

Today, you can enjoy nearly 2 miles (3 kilometers) of hiking trails that wind through an old-growth cedar-hemlock forest and down to the shores of Lake Superior, where five of the 21 Apostle Islands are visible. The park also contains a smattering of interpretive signage offering information about the flora and fauna and about the Anishinaabe, a culturally related group of Indigenous people that includes the Lake Superior Chippewa.

"We could go further and put up QR codes, but there's a hesitation to take that step," says Andy Edwards, Red Cliff Treaty Natural Resources Division administrator. "The park is a unique remnant landscape, and right now our values are to keep it more natural."


Other Upcoming Tribal Parks

The Ioway Tribal National Park will be the nation's second such park when it opens in 2025. Located on the Nebraska-Kansas border, this 800-acre (324-hectare) park will feature several miles of hiking trails, two areas for primitive camping, wayside exhibits and signs and special programming, says Lance Foster, park director and vice chairman of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska. The park, which overlooks the Missouri River, will include the Leary Site National Historic Landmark, a historic trading village dating to the 13th century that contains three burial mounds. The Nature Conservancy, which had owned some of the ancestral land, donated about 444 acres.

Unlike Frog Bay, this tribal national park is mainly intended for tribal members, Foster says. But there are plans for a guest permit system for non-tribal members who wish to visit.


"I hope this park will preserve a small part of our land the way our ancestors knew it and help our tribal members connect with the land and our history in a deeper way," he says.

Proper Indigenous interpretation is one reason the Blackfeet Nation is pushing for a tribal national park in northwestern Montana. Blackfeet territory once encompassed much of Montana's northern tier. But the U.S. government obtained a substantial chunk of this acreage in a controversial 1895 land purchase, eventually transforming it into the eastern half of Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is one of the most visited parks in the U.S. It sits on land once owned by the Blackfeet Nation. The tribe is pushing for a tribal national park in northwestern Montana.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

While some 3 million tourists recreate in Glacier annually, they often have little knowledge or appreciation of the Blackfeet tribe's rich history with the land. These tourists also spend big bucks in the park and its environs — $344 million in 2018 — but the Blackfeet see little of this largesse, even though the two share a border and many tourists pass through their reservation en route to Glacier. Creating a tribal national park open to the public would protect Blackfeet natural resources, highlight the tribe's place in Glacier's history and hopefully allow the tribe to tap into some of these tourist dollars.


Improving Native American Representation in National Parks

Today, National Park Service personnel often collaborate with Indigenous tribes when it comes to interpreting the history of their ancestral lands. And tribes share co-management responsibilities with NPS personnel at four national parks: Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota and Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.

There may be more co-management arrangements in the future, thanks to a new NPS co-stewardship policy giving more clout to the role Indigenous people have in federal land management.


"All national parks are located on Indigenous ancestral lands and this policy will help ensure Tribal governments have an equal voice in the planning and management of them," said NPS Director Chuck Sams in a Sept. 2022 press release. To give just one example of a co-steward agreement: Acadia National Park in Maine has been working with the Wabanaki Nations of Maine on a multi-year project concerning the traditional gathering of sweetgrass in the park, the press release said.

Sams, a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, is the first Native American to lead NPS, which is part of the Department of the Interior. And Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.

"I'm really excited about this new policy," says Edwards, who already has a solid working relationship with Lynne Dominy, superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, an area once inhabited by the Red Cliff. "If you talk to the tribal elders here, they talk about the stories, traditions and how they were led here hundreds of years ago. They don't see the landscape as separate from the Apostle Islands. They see it as part of the tribe."

Dominy is enthused as well. "You have to think about the landscape as a whole," she says. "About everything being connected. This is not about boundaries and ownership and egos. It's about doing the right thing together to ensure this landscape is here for seven more generations and beyond."