BY JEANETTE LENOIR
The National Park Service, typically described as one of America’s best ideas, is marking its centennial year preserving the country’s national treasures and cultural identity in an increasingly complex global world. Historian, Enimini Ekong says the park service is part of chronicling the evolution of what we know to be America. “It has stories of our national landscapes and everything that we know man couldn’t create, and it also chronicles the human story. Everything that man has been a part of in making what we call this America,” Ekong said.
In addition to celebration 100 years of America’s national parks, Ekong who serves as Chief of Interpretation, Education and Cultural Resources at NPS’s Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, KS, says the park service is now making the point that its 413 parks has a diversified timeline of the inception of our country. “From the star spangled banner to Thomas Jefferson and Lincoln, on up to our more modern day movements of the Martin Luther King Memorial and sites like Brown v. Board that are national historic sites,” he said. He says NPS is curating the story that often times isn’t told in high school, or put in history books. “The national service almost serves as the supplemental text book to what education in its short and very compact year can’t cover in its history books and sometimes science books,” he says.
The National Park Service was born in 1916 during a challenging time in the country’s history. It was especially challenging for citizens who weren’t in the majority group. With this discernment in mind, including the recognition of our nation’s drastically changing demographics, Ekong says the park service is intent upon furthering its educational objective by having some hard conversations. “We have the conversations about slavery, we’re trying to lead the discussion now on reconstruction and for quite some time, we’ve endeavored on the conversation about civil rights. And, the individuals who have been very iconic in our American history, whose stories speak of the roads that have been trot, for us to speak of the equality that has been engraved, in many ways, on our American documents,” he said. Ekong adds that although the Constitution and Declaration of Independence make clear our rights as people and declaring that all men are created equal, the park service is at the helm of telling the stories of how these American principles and fundamental beliefs have, and are being executed. He says it’s imperative that NPS be a part of America’s cultural conversation.
Ekong goes on to say that despite the progress made to overcome the many social struggles of our nation, the modern-day citizen still has a responsibility to ensure history does not repeat itself. And, thanks to a program called Facilitated Dialogue the national park service is furthering this mission. “We’re inviting both visitors and the general public to have a conversation, not only about what the Arrow Head means, but what it means to the next generation. And so, we’re using our placed based history to engage in that conversation in a way that’s unique to each site,” he said.
For example, currently at Brown v. Board Historic Site, Park Rangers are engaging visitors on what desegregation looks like today, and if it’s still relevant. “What we’re finding in kind of an overwhelming response is that much of the same challenges that America had in 1954, there are many of those similar challenges that the country is facing today,” Ekong said. The National Park Service is another avenue for communities across the country—especially those that don’t have the same resources or the same educational opportunities—to learn about our nation’s history and culture. “The National Park Service is trying to be a part of that cultural conversation in what the modern-day citizen is responsible for in trying to prevent history from repeating itself,” he said.
Borrowing the description she got from a professor, Michelle Riter, Chief of Visitor Experiences at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, NY describes the NPS as the world’s largest university system with over 400 branch campuses. “It’s like one of those little Russian nesting dolls when you go to a park. You open up the big doll and there’s another one inside it and you’re like, oh I’ll open this one too, and it just keeps going on and on the amount of things you can learn,” she said. New York is home to 22 national parks, including Fort Stanwix, known as the Fort that never surrendered during the revolutionary war. “There are always resources and ranger programs and other things to learn if you want to go even deeper within those kinds of Russian nesting dolls so to speak,” Riter said.
Riter says in a way the NPS takes care of America’s treasure box, the things we most value and want to remember as a country. In addition to celebrating the centennial year of the National Park Service, Fort Stanwix is celebrating 40 years of being open to the public. Officials with the Fort are celebrating the event with an initiative launched in July called, 40 for 40. Riter explains that they are releasing 40 videos on YouTube highlighting 40 different NPS stories. “The last one that they launched was actually one of a new immigrant artist. She’s a story teller who actually received her citizenship here at Fort Stanwix and so it’s a way for us to tell different stories of the Fort that people maybe weren’t aware of,” Riter said.
Another initiative the Fort is embarking on as part of its 40th anniversary and the NPS centennial is the launching of a new exhibit in partnership with the Rome Historical Society. “It’s basically going to focus on the creation of the Fort, which includes what the community was like before the Fort was built, as well as, the archeological dig and the building of the Fort. And since a lot of the people in the local community had a lot to do with that, I mean some of them were working as part of the construction, some of them might have been some of the first people to do living history in the Fort. It’s a part of the community and so we’re working on collecting and giving voice to some of those things and showing some of the pictures that were a part of that whole experience in the 1970s around the bicentennial, “Riter explained.
The official launch of the exhibit will take place on November 12. Part of the exhibit will be featured at Fort Stanwix and the other part will be on display at Rome Historical Society.
Riter goes on to say that we are living in a period of time were a lot of the battle fields and historical sites are being looked at not just for what they commemorate but how they commemorate them and tell stories about American society. “Any part of history you’re going to find someone with very strong interests, opinions and passions, and for us we don’t just interpret the story of the American Fort we also interpret some of the stories of the British troops that fought against us. So, it’s not just for us to tell the stories of the victors of the battle, it’s for us to tell the story of the whole experience and so I know that it can be a little challenging for folks to remember that there was a different side,” she explained.
Another interesting development that has increased attendance at Fort Stanwix and other national parks across the country is the search for Pokémon. “I would never have guessed that this would be Pokémon summer at the park but apparently we are quite the hub for Pokémon activity, which gets a lot of millennials and young folks to the park that wouldn’t normally come,” Riter said.
The mission of the NPS is a never ending process she explains, and it will continue to find new ways to reach people, encourage attendance and get visitors excited about American culture.