Op-Ed: We must learn the forgotten stories in our national parks
Editor’s Note: On June 29, the Mellon Foundation announced a $13.4 million grant to the National Park Foundation to fund 30 postdoctoral fellowships in the humanities. These roles extend to a pilot program of four fellows launched in 2017. During their fellowship, fellows will educate the public about the complex stories of national parks. Their work will support the NPS’s multi-year effort to commemorate the coming half-quincentennial of the United States. Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation and star poet of Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration, shares her thoughts below on the value of national parks and the importance of telling the diverse stories they contain.
Our national parks are home to everyday outings like classroom field trips, and extraordinary journeys like cross-country road trips. From Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Everglades National Park, they offer us the opportunity to get out, get out of ourselves, and go explore the wild wonders found on our public lands.
When I was a kid in Washington, DC, an afternoon on Theodore Roosevelt Island was a chance to venture among the tidal marshes of the Potomac, listening for the dozens of bird species that visit the island wetlands. As a young woman, I traveled with my beloved grandmother to Assateague Island National Seashore, where I experienced the magic of a treasured childhood storybook brought to life, Misty of Chincoteague. It was while snorkeling in the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument that I witnessed how our national parks help preserve the revelations of the underwater natural world. And it was with my own children that I went hiking in the forests of Acadia, peering down the Narrows in Zion and marveling at the ancient redwoods of Muir Woods.
But our national parks aren’t just places to go to bask in the beauty of the outdoors or learn about our country’s remarkable natural landscapes. They are also one of the few places we visit to immerse ourselves in the stories of American history.
Perhaps it was the floating Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park that gave you a different perspective on the 174-year-old border between Mexico and the United States. Or perhaps it was the time spent in the bedrooms of the Medgar and Myerlie Evers House, a National Park Service site that commemorates difficult times in our history, that enriched your knowledge of our country’s civil rights movement. Maybe it was time spent in Denali, or the Great Smoky Mountains, or the African Graveyard, or Valley Forge, or the Petrified Forest – maybe it was in one of those national parks, NPS landmarks and historic sites where you learned something new about who we are, and who we have been, as a huge and hugely complex country of over 332 million people.
Last year, NPS sites alone received 297 million recreational visits. And this year, at the start of another busy summer season, many of us will soon be taking vacations, backpacks and day trips not only to soak up the splendours of the natural world, but also to learn more about our country and to sojourn in that learning – seek to learn more about the territory itself, reflect on our shared history and see our historic sites first-hand.
These are the reasons why the Mellon Foundation has just awarded more than $13 million to support 30 postdoctoral fellows in the humanities at National Park Service sites across the United States. The goals of these fellowships, which will be held for two years by humanities scholars from across the country, are simple, yet ambitious: to illuminate the stories and history present in our national parks and tell them in full.
As I have spent more time exploring our country, I have appreciated how new voices and perspectives can enrich and broaden our experience of our National Park Service sites.
Equipped with the unique skills and expertise that the humanities bestow, these scholars will conduct original research, develop new educational materials, or even create new public programming, all with the aim of both broadening and deepening what we learn on NPS sites. They will ask questions such as, what stories in these places have gone untold – and how might they be brought up? What complexity is missing from the history these sites teach – and how might it be passed on? How might new voices and perspectives be better integrated into the stories we learn and tell in our national parks? Questions like these in an earlier fellowship pilot program shaped the documentation of new oral histories at the César E. Chávez National Monument, new environmental justice programming related to the Martin Van Buren National Historical Park, and new findings research at Stonewall National Monument.
As I have spent more time exploring our country, I have appreciated how new voices and perspectives can enrich and broaden our experience of our National Park Service sites. A visit to Bandelier National Monument was made even more powerful by the chance to see the transformative paintings of Native American Pueblo artist Pablita Velarde in Bandelier’s beautiful natural setting. A visit to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site was made even more revealing by the interpretations of a National Park Service staff member who had a graduate background in African-American studies and who shared these insights and teachings with visitors. . The 30 new Humanities Fellowships Mellon is funding will open up the range of voices and perspectives we encounter, and help us learn more about the exceptional stories and complex history they bring with them, when we visit special places like these.
The experiences we have when we spend time at our National Park Service sites are irreplaceable. And because our national parks commemorate and convey the importance of America’s historical records, the stories we learn about our collective history at these sites are also invaluable.
This landmass and its islands, these waterways, these extraordinary wildernesses, this country, it’s incredibly vast, and it’s incredibly varied. What a gift we have together: the chance to learn more about our history, ourselves and each other, all in our national parks.