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The Real Meaning of Wilderness: Impacts of the Wilderness Act on Native Americans

Sarah Miranda


  • Explains how the Wilderness Act negatively impacts Native Americans in many ways, the most prominent being wide dispossession and violence.
  • Addresses the Wilderness Act’s effect of distancing Native people from their culture and traditions.
  • Argues that the idea of protecting “pristine” wilderness areas entirely untouched by humans erases the history of Native Americans that have occupied and managed the land for thousands of years.
The Real Meaning of Wilderness: Impacts of the Wilderness Act on Native Americans
Teresa Kopec via Getty Images

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This definition describes areas of land that are untouched and thriving without human interference. However, it is a myth to believe that many areas in America are free from human intrusion. Aside from Antarctica, humans have shaped most landscapes on Earth for thousands of years. By defining wilderness in this pure and “natural” way, the Wilderness Act essentially excludes Native Americans from their culture, traditions, homelands, and rights.

Indigenous people have a long history of influencing and shaping the land in the United States. In California, Native people cleared desert springs, pruned and coppiced plants, diverted streams to irrigate dry areas of ground, and engaged in prescribed burning. This altered landscape was what settlers found when they first “discovered” California and later turned these places into national parks and other federally protected areas. Native people outside of California shaped the land by building communities, engaging in intensive farming, constructing irrigation in desert areas, and using fire to manage landscapes. It is historically inaccurate to categorize wilderness areas in the United States as “untrammeled by man” and “without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Doing so further degrades Native people and their rights.

The Wilderness Act negatively impacts Native Americans in many ways, the most prominent being wide dispossession and violence. In North America, the positive ideal of wilderness started around the same time as when settlers started winning the war against North American Indigenous people. The first natural areas that settlers decided to preserve as “wilderness areas” were inhabited by Native Americans. Before turning these lands into wilderness areas, settlers first had to make them wild, which meant getting rid of the Native people already on them. Creating pristine wilderness areas and defining them as “untouched by man” has the effect of banishing Native people from their homelands.

Some of the best examples of dispossession of Native people in wilderness areas are in the history of Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park, both of which include wilderness areas. Yellowstone was originally home to the Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Nez Perce, and other smaller tribes. The tribes obtained separate reservations through treaties, and they retained the right of subsistence use for hunting, foraging, and other activities within Yellowstone boundaries. Due to limited reservation land and small government food rations, Native people in the area continued to visit the park to find food after Congress established it in 1872. In 1886, the Department of the Interior changed the purpose of Yellowstone to the “preservation of wildlife.” The Department also stated that the military would enforce the new purpose of the park. The result was an exclusion of Indigenous people from Yellowstone through military force.

Yosemite National Park had a similar creation story to Yellowstone’s. When white settlers first saw Yosemite, they observed a landscape altered by the Native people for centuries prior. Conflicts between the settlers and Native tribes started when the settlers began exploiting the landscape and continued into the creation of Yosemite National Park and beyond. The U.S. government pushed the Ahwahneechee out of Yosemite by arguing that most of the tribe did not have valid rights to live in the park because they did not have pure enough bloodlines to be considered legitimate members of that tribe. Park officials also cleared Native people from Yosemite by requiring long-term employment and rent, which was unattainable for many tribal members and thus resulted in most of them relocating out of the park. By removing Native Americans from these national parks, the U.S. government essentially created pristine wilderness areas and erased the history of their existence in the process.

In addition to keeping Indigenous people from their homelands, the Wilderness Act also has the effect of distancing Native people from their culture and traditions. Some native sacred sites are located deep within Wilderness areas and are hard to access due to the prohibition of vehicle use and roads. Allowing access to these sites by foot (and not motor vehicle) is based on the idea that Native Americans walked there before the United States created wilderness areas, so they can continue to walk today. However, such thinking ignores changes in the landscape: tribes lived close enough to walk to these sites before white settlers pushed them out.

In Pueblo of Sandia v. Babbitt, the Pueblo of Sandia Tribal Council claimed the area around Sandia Mountain in the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico as its own according to a 1748 grant from the King of Spain. Pueblo of Sandia v. Babbitt, No. 94-2624, 1996 WL 808067, at *1, *1 (D. D.C. 1996). The claim included a designated wilderness area. This land was religiously significant to the Sandia Tribe, who worshiped at shrines within the disputed area. The tribe sued the Forest Service for activities that made it more difficult to worship in private and secret, which the tribe requires by tradition. The district court ruled in favor of the Tribe, ordering the Forest Service to transfer the land to the tribe. Pueblo of Sandia v. Babbitt, No. 94-2624, at *9. Fortunately, after eight years of litigation and nineteen years since the initial land claim submission, the tribe was allowed to control the land for religious and traditional uses. Although it was a victory for the tribe, this case portrays how difficult it can be for Indigenous people to protect their cultural rights.

The Wilderness Act has also interfered with Native American subsistence rights. In U.S. v. Gotchnik, the Bois Forte Band of the Chippewa tribe used motor vehicles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) under the Treaty of 1854, which allowed them to hunt and fish within the Wilderness area. U.S. v. Gotchnik, 57 F.Supp.2d 798, 800 (D. Minn. 1999). BWCAW is a wilderness area in Superior National Forest in Minnesota, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Wilderness Act strictly prohibits motor vehicle use in wilderness areas. However, the tribe members claimed they were using motor vehicles to get to hunting and fishing areas.

The tribal members violated 36 CFR § 261.16(a), which prohibited the possession and use of motorized equipment and vehicles in a National Forest “except as authorized by federal law.” They argued that since the federal treaty gave them the right to hunt and fish within the area, their actions were “authorized by federal law” under the Code of Federal Regulations. U.S. v. Gotchnik, 57 F.Supp.2d at 802. The district court ruled against the Tribal members. Id. at 802-803. The judge held that original signatories to the 1854 Treaty would not have understood the use of modern transportation methods to be included in their treaty rights and that banning motors in BWCAW is a valid conservation measure that preempts existing treaty rights. Id.

The tribe appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that their right to hunt and fish includes the right to use modern transportation methods when exercising their hunting and fishing rights. U.S. v. Gotchnik, 222 F.3d 506, 509 (8th Cir. 2000). They believed that signatories to the treaty understood their rights to include using “evolving transportation methods” to exercise those rights. Id. at 510. However, the Eighth Circuit also ruled against the Tribe, finding that signatories to the treaty could not have reasonably contemplated the use of modern transportation to exercise hunting and fishing rights. Id. The court also held that although using motors can make it easier to exercise subsistence rights, motor use is not part of the protected act of hunting or fishing. Id. at 510-511. The tribal members petitioned for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they were denied the petition without an explanation. U.S. v. Gotchnik, 222 F.3d 506, 509 (8th Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 1051 (U.S. May 29, 2001)(No. 00-1182).

The case is important because it limited the subsistence rights of Native Americans in BWCAW and other wilderness areas around the United States. The BWCAW area is large, and limiting transportation in the area limits the effectiveness of finding food. As technology continues to evolve and change, Native Americans are forced to rely upon old traditional methods of living that do not always match the modern world. This limit makes it harder for Native Americans to exercise traditional subsistence rights, and it discourages using these rights until they go extinct.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was revolutionary in America because it legally protected designated “wilderness areas” from human development and intrusion. The Act provides many benefits, including habitats for wildlife, clean water and air for surrounding communities, strong local economies, and recreational areas for visitors. Despite the plentiful benefits, the very nature of the Wilderness Act negatively impacts Native people. The idea of protecting “pristine” wilderness areas entirely untouched by humans erases the history of Native Americans that have occupied and managed the land for thousands of years. This wilderness concept has resulted in wide dispossession and violence of indigenous Americans, and it continues to impact their cultural and subsistence rights today.