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. 

goldbutte-jpg
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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.