CSU hosts discussion on the National Park experience for people of color

The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and on Thursday a group of panelists at Colorado State University will take a hard look at the way people of color have experienced the National Parks.

“View of the Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” by Grafton Tyler Brown, one of the only African American landscape painters of the 19th century.

“The Color of Our Parks: Nature, Race and Diversity in the National Park Service” will be held at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 in the Morgan Library Event Hall on campus. It is the Fall 2016 American West Program presented by the CSU Public Lands History Center.

“Most people think of the National Parks as natural places to be explored, enjoyed and preserved,” said panel member Ruth Alexander, event organizer and professor in the Department of History. “We don’t necessarily think about who those parks are open to and how they’ve been experienced in the past by people of color.”

For instance, Ute or Arapaho who visit their ancestors’ homeland in Rocky Mountain National Park experience the park differently than a white Midwestern couple in an RV visiting Colorado for the first time.

A group of girls at Camp Nizhoni, an African American girls camp founded in Colorado 1924.
A group of girls at Camp Nizhoni, an African American girls camp founded in Colorado 1924.

“The National Parks are not just places to be visited and enjoyed,” said Alexander, whose specialties include environmental history and the history of race and gender in the U.S. “They are places with deep histories of residence and removal for indigenous peoples and complicated, often troubled histories of visitation, employment and interpretation. The National Park Service recognizes that historically the parks have been visited primarily by white middle-class Americans and represented the interests of this group, and they are trying to change that.”

All of the panelists have CSU ties. Gillian Bowser is a former National Park Service employee who now works in the Natural Resource Ecology Lab and is a research scientist in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. Camille Dungy is a professor of English whose specialties include poetry about African Americans’ experience of nature. Alexandra Hernandez got her master’s degree in history from CSU and now works for the National Park Service, focusing on heritage management issues, such as how best to interpret Japanese-American internment camps for contemporary visitors. Nina Roberts holds a Ph.D. in Recreation Resource Management from CSU and is a professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism at San Francisco State University.

Alexander said she will focus on how people of color have experienced the National Parks historically, while other members of the panel will discuss contemporary trends in the National Parks, from both scholarly and personal perspectives. She and Hernandez are compiling an anthology of primary sources that will illuminate the history of nature, race and diversity in the National Park Service.

The event is being co-hosted by the CSU School of Global Environmental Sustainability, the College of Liberal Arts and the departments of History, English and Ethnic Studies. For more information, visit sustainability.colostate.edu/events/color-our-parks.