December 2014

Foreigners in Their Own Lands: A Tribute to the Wilderness Act


Maceo Carrillo Martinet


This year marks 50 years since both the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act were signed into law. Some have suggested that there are powerful connections between these two acts, which free humans and land. “We have this chance, right now,” says Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, which reconnects African Americans to natural spaces, “to think about how wilderness helps enhance people’s quality of life and how access to those places—and recognizing the barriers to accessing those places—has an impact on how people are able to live the fullest lives possible.”

Increasing the diversity and access to nature is not the end goal; it’s learning how to culturally reconnect to nature that is a struggle. Letting the Wilderness Act define how we relate to nature is like putting on unicolor shades to describe a rainbow. What follows is an attempt to briefly take these blinders off and see wilderness (nature) in a different cultural light than the dominant perception. The following italicized excerpts are taken from the Wilderness Act.

[Wilderness is] an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

The late Juan Estévan Arellano, an Indio-Hispano elder whose family and knowledge of northern New Mexico stretched back over 300 years, explained to me one crisp fall morning that there is no concept of wilderness because “everything has a purpose. We see every part [of the watershed] as something that contributes to our existence.” And it’s not just about physical existence but cultural existence.

At the National Wilderness Conference, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, held this past October, very few sessions were dedicated to exploring different cultural perspectives of wilderness. In one of those rare sessions, Ilarion Merculief, an Aleut Native from Alaska and director of the Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways, told a packed room, “Because we live the way we do, we don’t have a word for wilderness. No Alaska Native peoples have a word for wilderness. As we understand it, wilderness means separation, a place where humans do not live; they visit on occasion, and they enjoy it.” If we don’t understand the land and our relationship with it, we will erroneously think, as Mr. Arellano wrote in his recent book, Enduring Acequias, “that being good stewards of the land means doing nothing.”

[Wilderness can provide] solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.

Countless personal stories attest to the power that nature has in opening one’s sense of self. However, there is something missing here. Victor Masayesva, Hopi director of a short documentary called The Color of Wilderness, touched on this by writing, “Those privileged to access [wilderness] areas today appear to me to embody this idea of ‘wilderness’ as an individual experience and not one embraced by community. Wilderness preservation over the years seems to be the preservation of what ‘I’ like about myself…It seems to me to be an individualistic American value imposed on an ecosystem.” Mr. Masayesva goes on to explain that we need to go beyond the relatively new concept of nature as wilderness and get back to a much older perspective that sees all nature “as a broader cultural landscape.” And this is exactly what is happening around the world. For example, in 2008, the government of Ecuador, under indigenous leadership, added several chapters to its constitution, explicitly protecting the right of Mother Earth to be herself and the right of indigenous people as cultural stewards.

[Wilderness is] land retaining its primitive character and influence, where the imprint of man’s work [is] substantially unnoticeable.

Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of a new book called Black Faces White Spaces, which explores the African-American experience in nature, told me during a phone interview, “Terms like ‘primitive’ are actually quite insulting to a lot of black and brown people in this country because we have been associated with the primitive for a long time. There is some dissonance between the good intentions behind the Wilderness Act and the realities of different kinds of people and their histories here in this country.” This dissonance forms a geological rift when one realizes that the whole idea of a wild, pristine, untouched land is a myth. In a prominent 2010 textbook on conservation and human culture, the authors unequivocally write that “there is no such thing as wilderness.” This is what Native peoples have been saying all along.

[The Wilderness Act is] to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

The national conference was touted as a celebration of “our wilderness frontier cultural heritage and its continued role in shaping our national character and identity.” But who is the “our” referring to here? Does everyone in America get all nostalgic for the adventures of pioneers? Does everyone subscribe to “conquering” the frontier? During a panel discussion on race, culture and wilderness, Mr. Masayesva rightfully asked, “Whose wilderness are we celebrating?”

Kicking people out of nature is part of the reason we are so disconnected. A sustainable society is based not on ways to keep people out of nature but on ways that people are connected to nature. Reconnecting means retraining people as land stewards, and it means seeing nature everywhere as important to our existence—again. After being expelled from their grassland homeland in the name of conservation, an African Maasai elder said that his people now feel like “foreigners in their own lands.” Both people and the land are now foreigners to each other.


Maceo Carrillo Martinet, Ph.D., is a New Mexico-based ecologist/educator working on ecological restoration and community-based environmental education.



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  1. The Modern Concept of Wilderness
    No sector of the United States–education, law, certainly not economics– has been free from racism, and natural resources and public lands management is no exception. Many mistakes have been made due to limited knowledge and awareness–yes, and racism–when the Wilderness Act was passed. Throughout American history, public lands decisions by the government were used to remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands.
    The language used in the original Wilderness Act reflects this limited knowledge and awareness but there has been much progress in those 50 years that is not reflected in that original language. Several national laws passed, as well as many actions by agencies and organizations, have expanded that narrow concept of Wilderness.
    Alaska has pioneered many developments in the modern concept of Wilderness especially through enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 which authorized the creation of the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness (from the native word meaning “great river”) and permits traditional cultural uses including the use of motorized vehicles to conduct those cultural activities, superseding the Wilderness Act.

    While no word for “Wilderness” may exist in native cultures, many Native American lands are managed by the tribes as de-facto Wilderness where humans conduct limited activities. Some Native American tribes have, in fact, even designated parts of their lands as official “Wilderness.” The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of central Montana established the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness in a tribal council action that states “Wilderness has played a paramount role in shaping the character of the people and culture of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes; it is the essence of traditional Indian religion…” according to tribal member Tom McDonald writing in the International Journal Of Wilderness.

    Another significant change since the Wilderness Act of 1964 has been the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 which “required policies of all governmental agencies to eliminate interference with the free exercise of Native American religion…” This law authorizes government land managers to take many actions to protect traditional uses such as closing off areas to non-tribal members.

    Around the country Native American tribes have become key members of coalitions in support of Wilderness. The Cheyene River Sioux Tribe called on congress to designate portions of the national grasslands in the Cheyenne River valley of South Dakota as Wilderness. When Wilderness areas are designated adjacent to Native lands, oftentimes management language includes protection of Native American rights. In New Mexco the Ojito Wilderness was designated in 2005 with cooperation from the Zia tribe.

    In New Mexico in 1994, the Ramah Navajo called on the BLM to create a Native American Wilderness that provided the protection of the sacredness of the Malpais area and “unrestricted access and use for native cultural and spiritual purposes, and privacy.” In response to this, the New Mexico Wilderness Study Committee, wrote the Tsezhin Wilderness Proposal which called for joint management of the area as a way to protect Native American practices. Unfortunately that proposal failed partly due to opposition from the national Wilderness Society which objected to exceptions to the Wilderness Act. That issue remains unsettled.

    New Mexico played a leading role in the creation of a land protection mechanism called “Wilderness.” Its earlier definition was born of limited understanding but has evolved. Like many aspects of society in the United States, commercial interests such as recreation and tourism, and grazing played too much of a role in natural resource management decisions. Many progressive organizations have not paid attention to the injustice in public lands’ management where resources have been largely given away to private commercial interests. A glaring example is the 1872 Mining Act which is still in effect and essentially gives away public lands to mining companies who pay no royalties on the minerals they extract.

    Other countries such as New Zealand and Australia have designated Wilderness areas that fully incorporate their Indigenous populations but we still have a ways to go before we can say that but progress has been made. Recent events in the United States—Ferguson, voter ID, Native American mascots in sports, have shown that despite our laws, there is still much more that needs to be done in fighting Racism.
    John Wright, Chair, New Mexico Wilderness Study Committee 1988-97.