Tribal History Imperiled as Zinke Mulls Monument's Status

Tribal History Imperiled as Zinke Mulls Monument's Status
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Everywhere around us was a history, whether of the past few days, the past thousand years, or the past thousands of millennia.

Jailhouse Ruin. Junction Ruin. Perfect Kiva. Turkey Pen Ruin. Split Level Ruin. Green Mask Ruin. High in the parched and sun-bleached Utah desert, on a backpacking trip earlier this year we couldn’t walk more than half an hour without seeing brick walls held together by mortar, buildings tucked into alcoves and under sandstone overhangs where Ancestral Puebloans lived nearly a thousand years ago. As we walked in the wash at the bottom of Grand Gulch, we traced the evidence of recent rains in piles of dead branches and flattened grasses left by the receding floodwaters while we chased the shade of 190-million-yearold Navajo sandstone walls. 

Bears Ears is an old landscape but a new monument. After a long campaign by an inter-tribal coalition of Native American nations along with conservationists and local supporters, President Obama designated Bears Ears a national monument by executive order on Dec. 28, 2016. In April, President Trump issued an executive order directing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments of over 100,000 acres that were created since 1996. Bears Ears and more than 20 other monuments are threatened. Zinke’s decisions are expected soon.

He removed Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado from the list in mid-July. The monument protects the past 10,000 years of human history in the American Southwest by preserving one of the largest concentration of archaeological sites in the United States. The majority of the sites belong to the Ancestral Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi, the same civilization whose ruins lie within Bears Ears National Monument. According to a Department of the Interior press release, Zinke said that “the history at [Canyons of the Ancients] spans thousands of years, and the federal protection of these objects and history will help us preserve this site for a thousand more years.” Yet national monument designation does the same for Bears Ears (and, in different ways, for 128 other monuments in the United States). So why is Bears Ears on the list? Especially considering that most people agree protecting our shared history is part and parcel of making America “great”?  

Every national monument and national park is unique, but the designation of Bears Ears in the final weeks of Obama’s term marked the first national monument created at the request, and with the collaboration of, indigenous nations. Bears Ears follows in the spirit of the many recent national monuments that tell the stories of civil rights triumphs: Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar where a violent police raid in 1969 sparked the modern LGBTQ rights movement; the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, commemorating the struggle for equality in Alabama and the South; and the California home of Latino labor activist César Chavez. Preserving the stories and experiences of marginalized groups is not commonplace in our national monuments. The protection of places like Bears Ears promotes a more inclusive American history, one that illuminates communities long silenced in our history. And, in the case of Bears Ears, the monument is both a place of history and a place where Americans can enjoy outdoor recreation. 

This marginalization goes beyond history books. When Zinke came to Utah in early May to visit Bears Ears and Grand Staircase as part of his mandated review of monuments, his visit angered tribes, conservationists, and supporters at the local and national level. Zinke traveled and held extended meetings with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Congressman Rob Bishop, and others opposed to the federal designations. He only met briefly with tribal leaders and refused other requests from indigenous groups to meet to discuss the monument. Zinke’s treatment of Native Americans reinforces a history of oppression that national monuments like Bears Ears, Stonewall, and Birmingham work to undo. Rescinding these monuments — especially without serious engagement with the groups that were instrumental in their creation — would continue a long history of marginalization by the federal government and further erase the histories of marginalized groups from the great American story. 

National monuments exist to connect us — all of us — to our shared, complicated, and, yes, great history. When we visit a national monument we travel through the layers of time that have created that place. Those layers may be represented in a building or a house, or in a wild canyon or a remote mountain range. And whether you walk up from your car for a few hours or backpack in for a few days, this is time travel that helps us find our place in history and rediscover the humility that comes with feeling a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Sara Porterfield is completing her PhD in history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she writes about the transnational history of the Colorado River Basin. She also works as an instructor at the Colorado Outward Bound School on the rivers and in the canyons of eastern Utah.

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