For tribes, new designations are culturally monumental

Obama created national monuments at Bears Ears and Gold Butte, sites with huge significance to Native Americans.


This story was produced in collaboration with The Trail Posse, which focuses on the relationship between people of color and Western public lands.

One of the great fallacies associated with the outdoors is that diverse peoples are not present in or connected to it. If people are sincere in wanting to see us there, they need only look. Even if regarding our history in the most colonial sense — picking the country’s cotton or fruit, building its railroads, or even stewarding its ancient spirit — we have had a highly visible presence outside.

What white America mostly means when it declares the absence of certain communities from the outdoors is that we tend not to be engaged in a manner consistent with mainstream recreational behavior: We usually are not the geared-up seekers of solitude in the wilderness who have banded together in longstanding green organizations to protect the right of that pursuit, as well as the state of the planet that suits us best. 

We are, however, children of nature whose identities, without question, are imprinted upon the American landscape. No president has understood this better than Barack Obama.

On Dec. 28, Obama created national monuments at Bears Ears in Utah and Gold Butte in Nevada, sites with huge significance to Native Americans. He has established 25 national monuments, and expanded several others, during his eight years in office. Of those, 17 have cultural significance to disenfranchised groups.

Preserving public lands of course means shielding them from the scarring unpleasantries of civilization such as development and energy extraction. Displacement and destruction of culture are other, albeit less-considered, byproducts of urbanization and its evil twin, gentrification. These are the main weapons this country has utilized to create a legacy of disconnection between communities of color, LGBTQ and women — and their use and stewardship of public lands. 

An area within now-designated Gold Butte National Monument in southeastern Nevada, where dramatically chiseled red sandstone, twisting canyons, and tree-clad mountains punctuate desolate stretches of the Mojave Desert.
Bureau of Land Management

The Native American connection to public lands has been particularly toxic, a tendril withered by centuries of deception, conquest, forced relocation and assimilation, and the attempted extermination of culture and identity. Obama has worked hard to heal this relationship, establishing nine monuments to protect traditional tribal sites and artifacts. The latest designations, Bears Ears and Gold Butte, tackle longstanding wounds with significance, creativity and abundant symbolism.

The Hopi, Navajo, Uintah & Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni have ancestral ties to Bears Ears and joined in an inter-tribal coalition to advocate for the monument designation. Each tribe will contribute a representative and participate in the management of the national monument. They also will be guaranteed access to the land for tribal ceremonies, firewood and plant collection, as well as hunting, grazing and outdoor recreation. 

Monument status adds a much-needed legal layer of protection for cultural assets at both sites. The region that includes Bears Ears has suffered from decades of looting. In 2009, the FBI and Bureau of Land Management conducted the largest Native American artifact sting operation ever in Blanding, a town on the eastern border of the new monument site. Volunteer patrols have uncovered several major incidences of looting in the area during this year alone.

Gold Butte, the monument in Nevada, has experienced similar damage to local Native cultural sites and artifacts. Nearly all federal oversight of the region ceased for two years, after an armed standoff in 2014 between BLM agents and rancher Cliven Bundy, who was arrested earlier this year while supporting the occupation by his sons of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. In the vacuum, the Friends of Gold Butte, a non-profit support and advocacy group, documented numerous incidents of vandalism of historic sites, deliberate destruction to habitat, illegal water developments and vehicle incursions, and damage to signs and fencing intended to deter illegal trespassing.

Still, supporters have characterized last week’s designations as “reparations” or “give-backs.” There is danger in this as it stirs the “take-ours-back mentality” of the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion,” already amassed against the designations, federal land control and Obama’s aggressive use of the Antiquities Act. Such characterizations also run counter to the belief of most Native American cultures that land belongs to no one and therefore to everyone.

Instead of a re-allocation, Obama’s monument designations should be viewed as a re-engagement of Native Americans and other members of underserved communities. The demographics of our country are quickly changing, and the impacts of global warming mount even more swiftly. We need everyone activated, through support and stewardship of public lands, in the fight to protect the planet from the worst of ourselves. The best path to reconnecting disenfranchised communities to public lands is improving access — not so much in the physical sense but as a construct of historically and culturally manufactured barriers.

I belong to the Next 100 Coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, conservation and community organizations that advocates for greater inclusion of diverse communities in public lands. We commonly hear that no one has barred our access. “I’ve never seen a whites-only sign at a national park,” is a common refrain. While this is true, the actual barrier is the continued conceit of white culture as the American default. The pervasive exclusion of people of color, LGBTQ and various gender backgrounds from the self-perpetuating “picture” of the outdoors is a powerful deterrent.  

Relevancy is a most effective and available tool for improving access. If a young brown person can see her former selves on a butte overlooking a place like Bears Ears, she will feel attachment and inclination to protect it, and places like it. From César Chávez and Pullman to Mojave Trails and Stonewall, the Obama administration has been masterful in sewing relevancy back into the fabric of our protected public lands.

More opportunities exist in places like the Castner Range in Texas and Grand Canyon region in Arizona. America does not have to build these places for us to come. We already are there.

Just see us.


Contributing editor Glenn Nelson is the founder of The Trail Posse, which documents and encourages diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.

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