Crows circle above as I meander through the Primitive Baptist Church cemetery in Tennessee. I stop to rake my foot across curling brown leaves and reveal markers etched simply with the word “son” or “daughter.”
A dimming autumn sun has begun its journey downward, and wispy clouds swirl across the tops of the red- and orange-flecked Great Smoky Mountains encircling this lowland.
Horses and wild turkeys graze peacefully on grassland pasture today, but the Cherokee hunted in this verdant valley for hundreds of years. By the late 1790s, they’d built a settlement here known as Tsiya’hi, or “Otter Place.”
Westward movement of white settlers into tribal lands in 1818 created tension among the groups, so the U.S. government began “relocating” the Cherokee. In 1819, the Treaty of Calhoun ended Cherokee claims to the Smokies, yet the valley was named after Tsiya’hi leader Chief Kade.
In 1927, many descendents of the settlers — who built the mills, barns, and churches remaining in the basin — resisted federal-government efforts to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Eventually, their properties were seized through eminent domain.
“The creation of America’s national parks has been the creation of myths,” author and public-lands advocate Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.
View a marker inside a park and you’re likely to read an incomplete version of history. It may not reveal that the parks often displaced people, plants, and animals.
But one gift of these hallowed grounds — along with wilderness conservation — is that they reflect as much about our nation and its fraught, violent history as they do about the people and places they honor.
“They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities,” Williams notes. “Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — these inconsistencies, our national parks are incredibly popular among America’s increasingly fractured population. A 2019 survey found that 90 percent of Americans consider the conservation of parks and monuments important, and a majority want more lands preserved.
In a 2018 Pew Research Trust poll, 76 percent of respondents favored a five-year plan before Congress to set aside up to $6.5 billion to address nearly $12 billion in needed repairs.
It seems that legendary naturalist John Muir — who helped draw Yosemite National Park’s boundaries in 1889 — was right when he noted that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”