Op-Ed: We Need to Learn the Forgotten Stories in Our National Parks

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Editor’s Note: On June 29, The Mellon Foundation announced a $13.4 million grant to the National Park Foundation to fund 30 humanities postdoctoral fellowships. These roles expand on a pilot program of four fellows started in 2017. During their fellowship, scholars will educate the public about the complex histories of national parks. Their work will support the NPS’s multiyear effort to commemorate the U.S.’s upcoming semiquincentennial. Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation and the featured poet at Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration, shares her thoughts below on the value of the national parks and the importance of telling the diverse stories within them.

Our national parks are the places of everyday outings like class field trips, and extraordinary journeys like cross-country road trips. From the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Everglades National Park, they grant us opportunities to get outdoors, get outside ourselves, and go explore the wild wonders present in our public lands.

When I was a child in Washington, D.C., an afternoon at Theodore Roosevelt Island was a chance to adventure among the tidal marshes of the Potomac, listening for the dozens of bird species that visit the island’s wetlands. As a young woman, I went with my beloved grandmother to Assateague Island National Seashore, where I experienced the magic of a treasured childhood storybook come to life, Misty of Chincoteague. It was through snorkeling in the Virgin Islands’ Coral Reef National Monument that I witnessed how our national parks help preserve the revelations of the natural world underwater. And it was with my own children that I went to hike the forests of Acadia, peer into the Narrows at Zion, and marvel at the old growth redwoods in Muir Woods.

But our national parks are not only where we go to bask in the beauty of the outdoors or to become familiar with our country’s remarkable natural landscapes. They are also one of the few places we visit that immerse us in the stories of American history.

Maybe it was floating the 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 time spent in the rooms of the Medgar and Myerlie Evers Home, a National Park Service site that commemorates the hard parts of our history, that enriched your knowledge of our country’s civil rights movement. Maybe it was time spent at Denali, or in the Great Smoky Mountains, or at the African Burial Ground, or at Valley Forge, or in the Petrified Forest—perhaps it was at any of these NPS national parks, monuments, and historic sites where you learned something new about who we are, and who we have been, as an enormous and enormously complex country of more than 332 million people.

Last year, NPS sites received 297 million recreation visits alone. And this year, at the start of another busy summer season, many of us soon will vacation, backpack, and daytrip throughout them not only to soak up the splendors of the natural world, but also to learn more about our country and to sojourn in that learning—seeking to know more about the land itself, to reflect on our shared history, and to see our historic sites firsthand.

These are the reasons why the Mellon Foundation has just granted more than $13 million to support 30 humanities postdoctoral fellows at National Park Service sites throughout 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 soar high: to illuminate the stories and history present in our national parks, and to tell them in full.

As I’ve spent more time exploring our country, I’ve appreciated how new voices and new perspectives can enrich and expand our experience of our National Park Service sites.

Equipped with the unique skills and expertise that the humanities grant, 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 at NPS sites.  They will ask questions such as, What stories in these places have not been told—and how might they be lifted up? What complexity is missing from the history these sites teach—and how might it be conveyed? How might new voices and new perspectives be better incorporated into the stories we learn and tell in our national parks? Questions like these in an earlier fellowship pilot program shaped documentation of new oral histories at César E. Chávez National Monument, new programming on environmental justice in connection with Martin Van Buren National Historic Park, and new research outcomes at Stonewall National Monument.

As I’ve spent more time exploring our country, I’ve appreciated how new voices and new perspectives can enrich and expand 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 within Bandelier’s own stunning natural setting. A tour of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site was made even more revelatory by the interpretations of a National Park Service staff member who had a graduate education in African American Studies, and who shared those 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 in our National Park Service sites are irreplaceable. And because our national parks commemorate and convey the significance of the historical record of the United States, the stories we learn about our collective history at these sites are also invaluable.

This land mass and its islands, these waterways, these extraordinary stretches of wilderness, this country—it is incredibly vast, and it is incredibly varied. What a gift it is we hold together: the chance to learn more about our history, ourselves, and each other, all in our national parks.

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