Using Instagram to tell the truth about American history
by Kimi Eisele
Former park ranger Adesbah Foguth wants people on Instagram to know that the word “contact”—long used by historians, anthropologists, and heritage professionals to refer to the arrival of Europeans to the Americas—does not accurately describe what happened.
“Contact is just putting it way too lightly,” Foguth says. “You can say colonialism, but the average American may not know what that means. When we say ‘European Invasion’ though, we can imagine that. We can see it, feel it, and understand how destructive it is.”
Foguth, who’s Diné (Navajo), says using inaccurate terms has led to centuries of abuse of Indigenous peoples.
“I don’t think anyone’s really using the word ‘contact’ to be malicious. But the consequences of using words like that play out in our real everyday real lives.”
To educate people about how inaccurate narratives perpetuate harm toward Indigenous people, Foguth launched an Instagram account called Native Power Rangers (@native_power_rangers), where she posts lessons she hopes will help set the record straight.
“Everything is filtered through this Western lens. That includes national parks, museums, trail signs, tours—it’s all told through this perspective, and it leaves out Indigenous peoples’ history and perspectives, from our culture to our religion and our ontology,” says Foguth.
On the Instgram feed, Foguth shares historic terms that have caused and continue to inflict harm on Indigenous people and perspectives. In other posts, she advocates for free lifetime passes to National Parks for Indigenous people, and discusses how voting impacts Native communities.
Several posts fall under the “Racist terms and common misconceptions in American archaeology” title. Words like “ruin” and “abandoned,” the posts explain, strip ancient structures and sites of ownership turning them into commons that anyone can excavate or “gawk at.” Terms like “discover” and “explore” are similarly problematic, one post explains, since Euro-Americans did neither to sites like Chaco Caynon, where Indigenous people once lived or were still living.
For Foguth, thought, language, and behavior are closely connected. “In Navajo culture, we say that we have to think good thoughts, because that determines the outcome of our lives. Part of that thinking process comes from our language. The words that we use are really powerful, because they direct our action,” she says.
Lessons from Chaco Canyon
Foguth comes to Instagram influencing from the National Park Service, an agency she joined expressly to change dominant Western perspectives about archaeology and public lands.
“My motivation was to be the ranger who was changing the narrative of the stories that are told at parks,” she says.
After earning a master’s degree in archaeology, Foguth was hired to an entry-level position at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, where she encountered an entrenched narrative that glossed over a more contemporary chapter of Indigenous history.
Navajo people were living in Chaco Canyon at the time it was designated a national park, she says. “The Park Service took steps to remove Navajo families from that Canyon. They demolished all the Navajo homes alongside the ancient structures.”
This omission was an egregious erasure, says Foguth. “What the Park Service was doing was erasing history. Literally by bulldozing the buildings back in the 1930s, but also figuratively by crafting a story that they wanted to tell of the Chacoan people, a hyper-romanticized versions of history, of the beautiful Indians that lived here in 800 AD and built this grand site. Their goal was to tell a single story, a crafted history.”
That story, she adds, was largely told and re-told by white Rangers to a mostly white audience. “So again, you have to question, Who is this story for? Why was the story crafted in this way? Who is it designed to serve?”
While at Chaco Caynon, Foguth found a book in the ranger office about interpretation that highlighted two primary tasks for interpretive rangers. The first was to make information accessible to broad audiences. The second was to add an emotional element to every story or lesson.
“It’s really the emotional piece that connects people to the topic, that moves them,” Foguth says. “The whole point, this book said, is to hopefully inspire someone to change something.”
Foguth took the message to heart. On her tours, she told the story of the site’s archaeology but she also shared the more recent history.
“I’m going to give you the fantastic stories of the excavations that happened to here, the heroes of archaeology, but then right after I’m going to tell you about horrors of it, how destructive it is, and how emotionally damaging that is to the lives of Indigenous people today,” she says.
She’d tell visitors about Pueblo people who’d visit and start weeping when they learned their ancestors were removed from graves and artifacts were sent to museums on the East coast.
“I hoped that by the end of the tour, people would feel not only inspired by what they heard, but also feel, for lack of a better word, bad,” Foguth says.
Foguth had allies at Chaco, including a supportive boss, but being the only Indigenous ranger trying to change a narrative wore her down, she says. After one season, she left the NPS and went to work for the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that brought a new set of challenges. Foguth ultimately decided to spend more time on her primary goal of inspiring action.
“It became more apparent the longer I worked there that the entire system, the whole institution of the Department of Interior, is set up in a way that’s not designed to promote Indigenous people’s health or well-being or our stories,” Foguth says.
During her time at Chaco, Foguth gave tours to nearly 50 people a day. By the end of the season that tallied to over 2,000 people. “But it just wasn’t enough,” she says.
Taking it to Social Media
Foguth got the idea for the Native Power Rangers Instagram account in summer 2020, as protests for racial justice spilled into streets across national and global communities. She was listening to an episode of the podcast, “My Favorite Murder,” when the hosts of the show commented that most of what they were learning about the Black Lives Matter movement had it not been for Instagram.
“I was like, wow, the power of Instagram to educate people is really profound,” Foguth says. “I realized this has to be the way I can affect change in this world, like real change and maybe inspire some people to take some action.”
Foguth believes her work honoring Indigenous rangers and rewriting history on Instagram is “justice work.”
“It’s justice to tell the entire story,” she says. “It’s not meant to make people feel bad or guilty. Although it might. And I would say, that is the correct feeling sometimes.”
But more so, Foguth says, “It’s meant to inspire people to change something about our world, because we cannot keep living this way.”
Since August, the Native Power Rangers Instagram account has drawn over 4,000 followers.
“Indigenous People Are Here”
In recent years, the National Park Service has taken steps to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace, according to Stephanie Roulett, Public Affairs Specialist. Its Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion and youth internship and apprenticeship programs, such as the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps Program and Hawaii Island Youth Ranger Internship Program, work to provide more opportunities to Indigenous and People of Color.
But, Foguth says, “It’s still a very white institution. It serves largely the white public in America. And more specifically, a certain class, people who can afford to travel and take off time from work.”
How parks interact with tribal nations also differs from park to park, says Jan Balsom, senior advisor and tribal liaison at Grand Canyon National Park.
Balsom, an archaeologist, has spent nearly 30 years working to gain trust in a way that can more accurately incorporate tribal perspectives into park programs.
Early on her job was not very easy, Balsom says. “It just felt pretty lonely trying to do this. There was a sense of ‘That’s cute but let’s move on to what we really do’.” More recently, Balsom has felt more supported thanks to stronger park leadership, she says.
Balsom points to the Desert View Watchtower project as a significant example of how the park is not only redefining its relationship with tribes whose ancestral land comprises park territory, but also incorporating native perspectives as told by native people.
The site, a 1932 watchtower built designed by Mary Colter in the style of Ancestral Puebloan towers, will soon shift from a viewpoint and gift shop into an intertribal cultural heritage site, staffed by representatives of tribal neighbors, sharing the history of the lands and site, Balsom says.
The project is the fruit of decades of relationship building, she says. “You can only do this if you establish a solid foundation. It’s all built on trust.”
Additional changes in the park include the future renaming of Indian Garden—a rest stop and campground along the Bright Angel Trail some 3,200 feet below the South Rim—requested by the Havasupai tribe, and a routine land acknowledgement offered by park interpreters before public programs, Balsom says.
These examples signify “a big shift,” Balsom says. “But we have got to change this dynamic. Indigenous people are here, and so were their ancestors.”
While these efforts recognize Indigenous lands and peoples’ contributions, Foguth says hiring Indigenous rangers throughout the National Park Service is critical to shifting long-held narratives within the Department of the Interior. “We can’t rely on the system that already exists to promote us or help prop us up in our career,” she says, “We have to do it ourselves.”
Foguth celebrates Indigenous people working in heritage fields—park rangers, curators, archaeologists by featuring them on the Instagram feed. And she says she’s overjoyed by the recent appointment of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, the first Indigenous woman to hold a cabinet position in the U.S. Government.
“It’s a celebration,” Foguth says. “I would hope that Deb Holland would listen to Indigenous people who are saying, ‘We want free lifetime Park passes. We want Indigenous hiring preference, we want these parks start thinking about how they might give land back, give the whole park back.’ I would hope that she would be interested in listening to that. Because no one’s listened yet.”