Call of the Wild: Salvation & Displacement in the US National Parks

The downtown Indianola, Iowa square (a literal square block of small businesses and locally-owned bars and shops surrounding the town court building) ushers traffic along every side of the building on one-way streets.

You really can run all of your errands in 30 minutes in small-town Iowa, and I conclude my quick outing in my usual table at Uncommon Grounds coffee shop. It is only 10:00am, and the regular crowd of local men occupy the big table by the front window. They erupt in bursts of laughter at regular stories and drain mug after mug of regular coffee before their 12:00pm decaf-only cut off. Madonna, the owner’s daughter, knows the medical restrictions of all the regular patrons.

“Don’t make me call your wife!” I hear her say. “You know I will! I called Bill’s wife yesterday!”

I usually take up one of the four-person tables against the wall (though I am always happy to move to a smaller table when the busy hours hit—my Midwest manners at work), sit with my back to the back of the store, meet eyes with newcomers, and take note of people walking by the wall-sized front windows. I can see cars on the east-bound one-way, the south wall of court building, and the small gazebo built sometime around spring 2012.

But I know by heart what lies just two blocks beyond my line of vision. Sitting on two square blocks is Simpson college, my red-brick, red and gold clad alma mater.

Simpson College turned 150 when I was a twenty-year-old religion student. The 4-million-dollar birthday gift bank-rolled the demolition and reconstruction of a student center, a performing arts building, and a physical fitness center throughout my last two years of undergrad. But despite the new-car smell of these birthday present buildings, I have the fondest memories in Mary Berry, a building with only two small classrooms and the offices of the professors in the humanities departments.

I had to look up the term “Divinity School” when I first heard it in Professor Jan Everhart’s office near the end of my first year at school. I had yet to decide on a major, though I had declared two-plus times with the registrar, but my chance placement in a religion class with Professor Everhart could perhaps be termed an act of divine control.

My ex-husband’s Master of Divinity Program spanned three years (and my Master of Arts in Christian Studies took up one of those), and on July 30, 2013, we packed up and drove eighteen hours to Durham, North Carolina—our home for the duration.

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I felt a strange sense of displacement in the first four months away from the open spaces, perfectly drawn, Dutch-inspired lines and plots, and rolling hills. Part of it was, I’m sure, claustrophobia from being surrounded by dense trees and city populations. But I felt a real sense of dispossession. Iowa was no longer my place of residence. I couldn’t claim status as the local Iowan anymore—the one who never left, the one who knew every in and out of my beloved Central Iowa. I had to put energy into learning about a new place, space, and people.

And I was terrified—terrified of learning to live in a place that was a lot different than my home and terrified that I would not return to that land I knew as home.

Divinity School was the tool of my displacement. In drawing near the siren song of advanced education (or was that a “divine call of vocation”?), I was drawn away from the land I knew as home.

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IN THE REST of the nation, “divine call” drove the displacement and dispossession train from the moment non-natives sailed up to the shore. “Manifest Destiny” was the name of the movement.

58 examples of places made empty by Manifest Destiny are given the brand name National Park.

Most of us know how Manifest Destiny worked. The products of the movement are still clear and non-natives still benefit from those products in many ways. But the theology of the movement—the deeply held beliefs, systems, and tradition behind Manifest Destiny—is far more interesting to me as a Divinity student.

Christian missionaries were among the first to introduce the message of Manifest Destiny to native peoples. Manifest Destiny was driven by the idea that those who currently occupied and used the land were not doing so properly. Therefore, God chose to hand that land over to those whom He ordained as worthy of its bounties.

The Indians were doing it wrong, so the whites took over in order to correct the Indians’ mistakes.

God—the deity described by the early Christian missionaries as one of righteous anger toward the sinful humanity—was not pacified by native peoples ceremonies and rituals. And since the land on which such ceremonies were performed was the property of whites by gift of that angry deity, the native plea that such ceremonies were intimately tied to specific pieces of land was moot.

In the push west, new Americans sought to civilize the wilderness. Order and civility were the points of argument for the assimilation of natives. Where land was a communal “possession”—if it can really be considered a possession in native theology—for natives, land was a privatized possession for whites. Whites sought to “whitewash” the natives by collecting and confining them to reservations and requiring them to adopt the mindset of private property for the good of the democratic nation. “From Jefferson on, visionaries foresaw a time when Indians, once tutored in ‘civilized ways’, would merge with whites” (Indian Country; God’s Country, 28).

As if native displacement could get any more ironic, the national parks, as evident in the title of Terry Tempest Williams’ book, are thought of as the Open Spaces of Democracy; they are the wild, untamed, “unmarred” (to use President Teddy Roosevelt’s term), and “the vision of true democracy” (National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Episode 1). The acres of wild land were taken from the wild, uncivilized natives in the name of order and civilization and then kept empty to encourage their wildness.

Even the legendary man of nature, John Muir, shared this negative impression of native peoples: “The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness…nothing truly wild is unclean” (Quoted in Indian Country; God’s Country, 21) . For Muir, salvation came from immersion into nature—God’s natural world...that which is clean and free of sin. But the natives, the unclean, were not ‘saved’. They were not capable of finding salvation in the wild places as John Muir and his disciples were. Their disembodiment, in Muir’s mind it seems, was an effect of their uncleanliness—their un-wildness…perhaps even their civility. For Muir, the National Parks were places of wild nature where the over-civilized people could get back to themselves—back to their true nature of wildness.

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As Williams said in the National Parks documentary, “America’s Best Idea,” “We save the national parks, and they save us.” We, the whites, save the land from the wildness of the native people who were not stewarding the land as we supposed God wanted it to be stewarded; we took that land in order to save the places in which we find our own salvation.

But we also save these areas of wild nature from ourselves. Industrialization called for the use of nature: the killing of game for human consumption, the harvest of trees for fuel and construction, the clearing of land for farming and food production. The national parks were also a reaction against such industrialization. In the national parks, we said as a nation, “Here are places we choose to set aside. We choose to keep these areas pristine and unmarred. Though we seek improvement and technological advancement, we will seek neither through the use and destruction of these 58 plots of land.”

LET’S RECAP these reasons for the displacement of indigenous people in the national parks:

1) Manifest Destiny preached that whites were given the land of the north American continent by God in order that they may occupy and use the land in accordance with God’s will.

a. Since Indians were already occupying the land, the assumption was that God was not pleased by native use of such land and therefore gave the task to whites of bringing civilization to the natives through assimilation and taking over ownership of God’s creation.

2) Industrialization pushed for destruction of land for the use of natural resources. In response, Muir, Roosevelt, and other in their camp worked to set aside plots of land that were particularly beautiful—those that could inspire, nay, provide an understanding of human salvation—with complete protection. These lands were to be owned by the people (true democracy)—all the people...except maybe the natives (the original owners of the land who were no longer allowed to occupy it).

3) These spaces were protected and kept wild; people like Muir did not see Indians as truly wild because they were unclean. As Muir was able to seek and find salvation in wild nature, these unclean Indians could not be trusted to protect the salvation-giving land. Indians were banned from performing sacred ceremonies on the land…even if those ceremonies were meant to symbolize the experience of salvation through nature.

DID YOU catch the theme yet? Irony seems to be one of them, but human salvation—as found in the ownership, control, use, or stewardship of God’s creation—is also quite evident.

I wonder if the colonists felt solidarity with Abraham and the Israelites in Genesis as they, like Abraham, entered their own Promised Land—the new Canaan…America. “This land I [God] give to you and to your descendants ,” but pay no mind to the people who are already here. You’ll find a way to take care of them—of your pesky little problem.

Look then at the language in the creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. It’s rather easy to learn about the various sides in the theological debate over the meaning of God’s giving of all creation to humans to own and be “stewards” of. Ecology, conservation, common good: enter any combination of these key words into Google, and you’ll probably find hundreds of arguments for the use, protection, or governed use of land given by lay people, church leaders, respected theologians, government officials, scientists, etc.

Our ability (I say ‘our’ because I am white, Christian, and American) to displace native people in the nineteenth century (and non-natives in the twentieth century) from national park lands has everything to do with how we read those creation stories. Whichever side of the debate we are convicted to represent through interpretation of the creations stories, we are likely to assume that the other arguments are wrong and will produce wrong use/governance/protection of our gift from God.

Additionally, our ability to displace people goes hand-in-hand with our assumption that we determine where our God is present and where our God makes Himself known. Surely God isn’t preset in the Sun Dance or Ghost Dance or in any piece of Indian mythology.

Surely God isn’t present in the shabby chapel in a Shenandoah National Park hollow. Our God gave us the truth, and spreading that truth requires complete destruction of anything that does not look like our understanding of that truth.

I OFTEN WONDER at the despair Indians must feel at knowing that, save some miraculous intervention or change in the structure and belief system of the federal government, they will never be allowed to occupy their ancestral homeland when their homeland is “protected” from them (and the rest of us) as national parks. Non-natives first dispossessed natives of their land through the supposedly God-driven, God-inspired push westward in the expansion of the nation; then, they watched as non-natives began “taming” the land—using it while making no moves to give of themselves back to it; then, with an anthem of “I told you so” playing on repeat in the native mind, they watched as the non-natives decided the land needed saving from themselves and so walled 58 pieces of it off from all human consumption.

Where I feared what the temporary distance from Iowa would mean for my sense of home, natives—knowing their tribal memory and identity to be bound up in the land and the ceremonies the deity entrusted to them with the purpose of cultivating unity and balance with all things—lived, died, and continue to exist in that nightmare. These plots of land were set aside absolutely for the protection of nature, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, and for the security of the source of human salvation.

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I AM GOING to visit each of them. From Shenandoah to Yellowstone, Acadia to American Samoa: I am going to see them all. But I don’t just want to visit these ‘sacred places’ as a tourist whose only task is to observe or admire them for their aesthetic beauty.

I want to go into these places and feel the emptiness—not in search of salvation, but in search of what is lost. I want to listen for the echoes of memory. I want to learn stories and myths of history that breathe out of these places. I want to meet people who care for the land now—and people who long to care for it again. I want to empathize with the historically (and more recently) displaced people.

I want to ask, what ideas fueled their displacement? I want to ask, how do our government and our national conservationists know what the land needs in order to survive and thrive if we do not know the land? And we do not know the lands that make up the 58 national parks. But we seek them out. And we seek something from them.

I want to ask, what is it that we seek in the National Parks? “We save the national parks…and they save us.” John Muir’s salvation came through the immersion into nature, such as the untouched nature of Yosemite and Denali National Parks. As tourists, do we seek salvation in God’s untouched creation, or do we seek respite from our self-made over-civilized lifestyles...or are salvation and respite one and the same?

IN ASKING these questions and temporarily occupying these spaces, I do not seek answers, justification, redemption, or reconciliation for the treatment of natives and other displaced peoples; rather, I hope to chronicle my experience in these places, and in my increased knowledge of such places through research, as a person attuned to the role of Christian theology and tradition in the disembodiment of our nation’s “best idea.”