Honoring America’s First Inhabitants

Many national parks and public lands are located on what was once the ancestral territories of Indigenous people. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we think it’s fitting to briefly explore the Indigenous history of our partner parks.

“Oasis in the Badlands” by Edward S. Curtis from the New York Public Library

JNPA partners with nine national parks and public lands across five states. As many of our parks are located near each other, we have broken down their Indigenous heritage by region.

Missouri

Gateway Arch National Park, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, and Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park are all located in eastern Missouri. This area was traditionally home to the Otoe-Missouria Nation as well as the tribes of the Illini Confederacy: Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, and Peoria. As you might guess, the state’s name comes from the tribal name “Missouria” which means “big canoe people.”

Throughout the 1800s, tribes were forcibly removed from Missouri. The Illini were removed in 1830. The last remaining tribe, the Otoe-Missouria Nation, was removed in 1881. Throughout this period, several other tribes passed through Missouri during their own forced relocations, including the Cherokee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, and Shawnee. In 1956, Public Law 959 (known as the Adult Vocational Training Program), attracted many Native Americans to St. Louis as part of a program intended to “assimilate” them into the urban areas by promising moving assistance, vocational training, medical insurance, and other benefits.

An exhibit at Gateway Arch National Park

Arkansas

Arkansas is home to two of our partner parks, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site. The most prevalent tribes in this region were the Caddos, Quapaws, and Osage before their forced removal in the 1830s. The Cherokee also briefly inhabited the state as they moved along the Trail of Tears to present-day Oklahoma. The French called the Quapaws the “Arkansas,” derived from the Illini word for “people of the south wind.”

Members of the Osage Nation at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, in 1865.

Nebraska & South Dakota

Along the Nebraska/South Dakota border, you will find our partner sites Missouri National Recreational River and the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center. With the nearby Missouri River, this area was an ideal home for the Ponca, Omaha, Yankton Nakota, and Teton Lakota tribes. The Santee Dakota were also relocated to the area from Minnesota when their lands were seized. As in other parts of the U.S., these tribes were forced out of the area in the mid-1800s.

In 1879, a lawsuit involving Ponca leader Standing Bear (Standing Bear v. Crook) was filed in federal court in Omaha. The presiding judge ruled in favor of Standing Bear saying that Native Americans were, in fact, “persons” under the law. The impact of this landmark decision meant that Native Americans were entitled to sever tribal connections and leave their reservations and were free to enjoy the rights of any other person in the land. This paved the way for United States citizenship for all Native Americans. More information about this case can be found here.

Chief Standing Bear. Photo Credit: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Minnesota

Minnesota, whose name is a Siouan word meaning “cloudy water,” is home to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and Voyageurs National Park. This area is the ancestral home of the Monsoni, Assiniboine, Ojibwe, and Dakota Sioux people. The confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, called “Bdote Minisota,” played a significant role in the creation stories of the Dakota people. Although much of the tribal lands of Minnesota were seized, there are seven Ojibwe reservations and four Dakota Sioux reservations that remain in the state today.

An Ojibwe named Boy Chief, by the noted American painter George Catlin, who made portraits at Fort Snelling, MN in 1835.

While we celebrate the stewardship efforts of our federal land agencies today, it is important that we do not forget the original stewards of these lands. Many tribes were decimated throughout history, but there are still vibrant tribal communities living across the nation and keeping their heritage alive.

An exhibit at Gateway Arch National Park featuring interviews with modern-day Native Americans.

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