Victor Bjelajac, District Superintendent of the North Coast Redwoods District State Parks, tells of his efforts not only on the Madison Grant monument but also on renaming another state park and bringing Yurok and other Indigenous tribes into the park system as keepers of their ancestral lands. Bjelajac contemplates the meaning and possibilities of social justice work in government agencies. He points out, among many other things, the momentum that came to the effort to rename some parks following the George Floyd moment in American history.

One tends to see the world through a lens that may shade, highlight, or obscure what may be in plain view to another person. Thus, we have assumptions (lenses) that shape cultural practices and worldviews. This holds true for federal, state, and local agencies, departments, and educational systems that operate under a set of norms. These norms may not be written or shared as policy, yet they are known implicitly by groups who hold similar beliefs that may be bound by ethos, epistemology, practice, values, policy, law, or tradition. Events of 2020, however, prompted the nation to reexamine its assumptions. Long-term social justice efforts in the US and the reaction to the killing of George Floyd ushered in discussions of reform as well as social unrest and protest. At the same time, racist groups, although long active, became more visible. Instances of police brutality across the country received increasing attention. The year was a time of worldwide pandemic, isolation, and a time of reflection.

In my role working within a state bureaucracy (California Department of Parks and Recreation), I have observed a culture that developed to protect resources (cultural and natural) by creating and enforcing policies that restrict access and inclusion. Voices that have been historically marginalized in the United States by a dominant cultural group (white European Americans) are now challenging their exclusion from the public narrative. Unfortunately, many public places continue to honor people and movements that have historically believed in the cultural dominance of one group over another. They have demonstrated these beliefs through the taking of a “conquered” people’s land, the destruction of cultural practices, and the establishment of a narrative that honors individuals who promulgated hate, established laws that segregated people based on phenotypic characterizations (curly hair, dark skin, epicanthic eye fold, etc.), and implemented the US and California government-sanctioned murder of Indigenous people.

I manage twenty-two state parks on the North Coast of California as part of the North Coast Redwoods District (NCRD). This bundle of parks, which spans three counties and 250 miles north to south, contains ancestral lands of fifteen indigenous tribes, including the three largest tribes in California. The parks are currently managed as public lands that only recently have honored the existence of Indigenous people and their positive impact on these lands. Historically, parks have celebrated the individuals who had political influence and the means to purchase land and gift it to the state. These people often perpetuated hate, murder, and forced cultural assimilation.

California’s state government’s Reexamining Our Past Initiative (2020) was conceived out of our recent time of unrest, the call for social justice, and a governor (Gavin Newsom) who publicly apologized for California’s past treatment of Indigenous people. This new initiative requires state agencies to investigate the historic place names used for parks and other state properties in order to redress names that have a discriminatory history. The initiative also seeks to create access for contemporary traditional cultural practices on public lands and to acknowledge the worldview of people whose contributions have been marginalized, misrepresented, or left out entirely. California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) queried its twenty-one districts in September of 2020 to look for places that feature names that may derive from people or movements that were representative of oppression or individuals who promulgated racist ideology or acts. The NCRD put forth two action items to kick-off the Reexamining Our Past Initiative. The first was redressing interpretive signage and a memorial plaque in two of the NCRD parks, and the second was changing the name of a state park.

One of Save the Redwoods League (SRL) founders, Madison Grant, was honored in the Founders Grove at Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The Founders Grove had an interpretive panel at a trailhead that honored Madison Grant and other founding members of the SRL (see Figure 1). The founders were pictured alongside text that spoke to their conservation legacy. Through research from colleagues in the private sector, university scholars (see David McIntosh’s article in this issue), and CDPR personnel, we identified Madison Grant as a eugenicist who believed in white supremacy, collaborated with the Nazis, and inspired laws in the United States that harmed people because of their ethnic heritage.

Figure 1.

Original sign at Founders Grove. (California State Parks)

Figure 1.

Original sign at Founders Grove. (California State Parks)

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In the spring of 2020, the NCRD Interpretation Program contacted Humboldt State University (HSU) and invited students to collaborate on an interpretative panel that reflected Grant’s historical actions as well as broadened responsibility for the redwood conservation movement on the North Coast to include women’s groups, specifically the California Federation of Women’s Clubs. CDPR staff developed a panel incorporating the revised information and graphics into a new panel, with content reviewed for accuracy by outside scholars, SRL staff, Indigenous tribes, the National Park Service, and CDPR personnel (see Figure 2). The panel was installed on September 3, 2020.

Figure 2.

Revised and updated sign at California State Parks, installed 2020. (California State Parks)

Figure 2.

Revised and updated sign at California State Parks, installed 2020. (California State Parks)

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We also engaged the same group of professionals to conduct research and design a new panel to replace a plaque dedicated to Madison Grant that was originally installed at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in 1948 by a group of Grant’s colleagues (see Figure 3). Requests for the removal of this monument date back to 1991 when a visitor to the park questioned local and statewide CDPR leadership about why they were honoring a known racist on public lands. The CDPR declined to remove the monument, reasoning that it could act as a reminder of the past and a prompt for discussion. The monument stood in place for another thirty years before CDPR initiated the Reexamining Our Past Initiative. The plaque was replaced by a new interpretive panel that explains Madison Grant’s contribution to conservation and white supremacy.

Figure 3.

Plaque honoring Madison Grant, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. (California State Parks)

Figure 3.

Plaque honoring Madison Grant, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. (California State Parks)

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During a ceremony on June 15, 2021, the 1948 dedicatory plaque and rock were removed (see Figure 4) and the new panel was unveiled (see Figure 5). The event was commemorated by CDPR, NPS, and SRL staff, in addition to history scholars and tribal leaders from the Yurok Indigenous community (see Figure 6). With district and departmental staff, university scholars, and park partners’ support, we were able to revisit the social impacts of Madison Grant and reflect them on public land.

Figure 4.

Removal of the boulder with plaque honoring Grant, June 15, 2021. (California State Parks)

Figure 4.

Removal of the boulder with plaque honoring Grant, June 15, 2021. (California State Parks)

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Figure 5.

New panel at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. (California State Parks)

Figure 5.

New panel at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. (California State Parks)

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Figure 6.

Unveiling of the new panel, attended by staff of CDPR, NPS, and SRL in addition to history scholars and tribal leadership from the Yurok Indigenous community. (California State Parks)

Figure 6.

Unveiling of the new panel, attended by staff of CDPR, NPS, and SRL in addition to history scholars and tribal leadership from the Yurok Indigenous community. (California State Parks)

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Making significant and lasting change that welcomes and honors all people within California State Parks will take time. We must also maintain the political climate that allows for the implementation of new laws, policies, practices, and initiatives that are reflective and inclusive of multiple worldviews. Under California’s Office of the Governor, Executive Order N-15-19 and Statement of Administrative Policy (Native American Ancestral Lands), issued June 18, 2019, and September 25, 2020, California state agencies and departments were challenged to develop government-to-government relationships with Indigenous tribes, look for opportunities to work with tribes, return lands to tribes, and give Indigenous people access to practice their culture on public lands.

In addition to removing or reforming memorials dedicated to leaders of the eugenics movement, NCRD identified a state park in Humboldt County that was named for a European immigrant who lived in the area during the 1850s and 1860s. This individual murdered an Indigenous youth and then led a local militia to a Native American village where a larger massacre ensued. The research on this individual was documented by a NCRD colleague and scholar in collaboration with Indigenous governments on the North Coast, who had their own collective memory of the violent acts. The Yurok Tribe had oral histories about this person and his deeds and approached NCRD leadership more than twenty years ago asking that the park be restored to its tribal name of “Sue-meg.”

By leaning on trusted relationships with the Yurok Tribe and a large consortium of supportive groups, NCRD was able to raise the request through CDPR leadership and put it before the California Department of Parks and Recreation Commission (the commission) on September 30, 2021. After receiving over one thousand letters of support, including approximately thirty from tribes and community organizations, the commission approved the name change via a unanimous vote. Together, we were able to reestablish the place name for a state park that previously bore the name of an individual who supported genocide and was responsible for the death of Indigenous people. The park is now named “Sue-meg,” reflecting the name used by Yurok people to describe the area since time immemorial (see Figure 7).

Figure 7.

Sign indicating renaming of Sue-meg State Park. (California State Parks)

Figure 7.

Sign indicating renaming of Sue-meg State Park. (California State Parks)

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NCRD has also engaged Indigenous tribes and people in managing public lands (Joint Powers Authority agreement with the Yurok Tribe to manage Stone Lagoon Visitor Center in Humboldt Lagoons State Park), supported Indigenous contemporary ceremony on public lands, developed signage (in consultation with tribes) acknowledging the Indigenous tribes who have lived on the areas now managed as state parks, and implemented the Indigenous place names associated with those sites.

We have and will continue to partner with Indigenous professionals, elders, educators, and tribal members to develop cultural programs acknowledging and honoring the worldviews of Indigenous stewardship of lands that are now in the public domain; to welcome Indigenous interpreters, tribal elders, leaders, and citizens into joint work that elevates Indigenous voices and worldviews; and to forge new methods that support and honor the cultural history and worldview of our Indigenous neighbors. We are all enriched by these experiences. By issuing gathering permits, we have assisted Indigenous people’s gathering of materials and medicines within State Parks, which has enabled Indigenous people to practice cultural traditions.

Responding to social unrest that led to demands for social justice, and with the assistance of a willing governor and a supportive state administrative policy, the North Coast Redwoods District has changed the lens that California State Parks are viewed through by honoring and partnering with Indigenous governments and people. By elevating Indigenous voices, Native people are now central to the narrative on these public lands.

The state parks paradigm has shifted, from one of exclusive protection of our public lands (and their cultural and natural resources) for wealthy white people to one that welcomes diverse worldviews, culturally relevant land management practices, and contemporary Indigenous ceremony. The lands managed by CDPR are now reflective of their true history.

For non-European Americans, the history of California has been tragic, racist, and misunderstood or ignored by the public. But it is the willingness to have the hard truths and dark narratives delivered to the public (on public lands) by the impacted groups that will lead to true understanding, empathy, and support for worldviews that may differ from those traditionally presented and supported in the spaces we now call state parks. In order to establish a state departmental relationship with Indigenous tribes based on mutual respect, one must first listen to Indigenous tribal entities and develop a foundation of trust, honesty, and transparency. The NCRD of California State Parks has been able to remove public memorials for people who practiced genocide and championed eugenics (and enacted laws to support it) and forged a new relationship with Indigenous people—the original stewards of the North Coast.