When it comes to treating Native peoples and their ancestral lands with respect, some politicians and outdoor enthusiasts seem to have a double standard. When ISIS ravages the antiquities in the Middle East, it is a deplorable show of terrorism, when your neighbors, politicians, decision-makers, and even individuals you consider as friends and family are vandalizing, developing, and otherwise destroying the antiquities and heritage of Native American peoples, it is declared as progress.
We have politicians and decision-makers who believe that Native American heritage is not worthy of preservation. Utah congressman Rob Bishop is quoted saying that Native American sites, specifically in reference to prehistoric paintings and carvings, are “not antiquities.” Utah also intends to spend fourteen million tax dollars on a conquest to eliminate federal management from Utah public lands—a move that Utah can only afford if thousands upon thousands of sacred Native American sites are bought, sold, and developed in favor of corporate and private interests.
Bottom line: we can start by listening to the many tribes who have allied to protect a region in southern Utah, known as the Bears Ears, as a National Monument. The 1.9 million acre proposal would provide better federal protections to a valued cultural landscape that would be otherwise vandalized, looted, and prospected for development.
We can continue by paving access for Native peoples to become a part of the political process by reforming a voting system that impedes many from voting. We must also become more inclusive to Native peoples with land management decisions, including full observance of the “good faith efforts” required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation act, to identify cultural sites and mitigate damages from undertakings on Bureau of Land Management land. We can also repair a land management system that has not grown up with the cumulative impacts of social media, illegal off-road trail pioneering, and the disclosure of sensitive locations. We should also no longer allow lease proposals to be recycled when they were pulled in favor of Native American heritage.
Another blatant disregard for Native American heritage comes in the form of the Public Lands Initiative (or PLI), working almost exclusively in favor of corporations and poorly managed off-road access. In short, the PLI would open loopholes within all special management designations therein, allowing for any and all protections to be significantly diminished. Furthermore, the bill would allocate all BLM lands within six counties, which is not currently protected or protected within the PLI, as open for energy development. The bill also blatantly acts against the 25 tribes requesting sacred lands to be preserved as the Bears Ears National Monument. Within the PLI, the tribes’ proposal would be cut by nearly 800,000 acres, downgraded to a National Conservation Area, and would weaken the idea of cooperative management by relegating the Native American voice down to two “management advisors.”
The bill also transfers massive amounts of BLM land into state management, including 156,000 acres of the culturally-rich San Rafael Swell. Considering that the state of Utah has historically unfavorable responses to cultural resources and a record which heavily favors development at any cost, land swapping in Utah’s favor is, in essence, judicial murder to these fragile cultural environments. Finally, the bill encourages an increase in off-road vehicle use in landscapes where sensitive cultural resources are in danger of or currently being destroyed by trail pioneering. Many of these trails actively drive upon or access sacred sites, fracturing artifacts, increasing vandalism, and, at times, dismembering human burials.
We, as a people, must strive for better. Although preserving the treasured vestiges and landscapes of the ancestors to Native peoples is a blatant civil rights issue, these places also overwhelmingly inhabit public lands where it is each and every U.S. citizen’s duty and opportunity to respect, treasure, and protect the past for the very same rights of their children and grandchildren.
Jonathan Bailey is an artist devoted to the protection and long-term preservation of cultural resources and the landscapes that enclose them. His work can be found in his latest book: “Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape” with essays by Lawrence Baca, Greg Child, Andrew Gulliford, James Keyser, William Lipe, Lawrence Loendorf, Lorran Meares, Scott Thybony, and Paul Tosa or via his website or Instagram.