Public Lands Day

ArticlePublic lands are important to celebrate, but we should also think about who owned them first

Rachel Mead
September 24, 2020
347 words

On National Public Lands Day, take some time to celebrate the protection and preservation of lands set aside for the public good. But while you’re doing so, it’s worth considering how land in North America came to be “public” in the first place. Long before Euro-American governments acquired what would become their “public domain,” the land of North America was home to millions of Native people.

An 1890 map of Yosemite Valley

An 1890 map of Yosemite Valley

In 1890, California’s Yosemite Valley became the United States’s second national park, although it had already been set aside as a state preserve in 1864. Before this, however, the Ahwahnechee people, a Me-Wuk band with Paiute family ties, lived here. The Ahwahnechee call the area Ahwahne, which means a gaping, mouth-like place.

Ahwahne is part of “Cession” 274, an unratified 1851 treaty. The language around ceding land is misleading at best. It erases the brutal conditions under which Native groups were forced to make impossible decisions to protect their people in the face of encroaching settler colonialism.

Not all the Me-Wuk left the area in the 19th century. The public administrators of Yosemite forced Indigenous people out of the area many times, up through 1969, when the last homes were razed. Descendants of the same people removed from their land still live in California today, as well as around the country and the world. There are ongoing attempts to achieve federal recognition, land claims, and language revitalization.

Without the controlled burns that the Ahwahnechee and neighboring groups used to maintain the environment, the forest ecology of California changed—setting the stage for the out-of-control wildfires that we have seen in recent weeks. As a result, some government officials are finally starting to consult with local Me-Wuk people and other Indigenous Northern Californians to reinstitute native land management practices.

When you find your park today, or participate in the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort, be sure to think about the long history of land settlement and occupation that continues to the present day.