On July 10 President Obama by proclamation created the Basin and Range National Monument in a remote wilderness region of southern Nevada. At the same, time two other national monuments were created: the Berryessa Snow National Monument in northern California, and Waco Mammoth national Monument in central Texas. Roughly 704,000 acres of undeveloped land, Basin and Range was created in part because it is a repository of ancient Native history, rich with petroglyphs and other archaeological evidence of human habitation going back at least 13,000 years. It is the ancient territory of the Southern Paiute people.
Kudos to President Obama for his foresight to protect such an important cultural heritage place. The site has been used for ranching, military training, and other recreational purposes and will continue to be with the oversight of the Bureau of Land Management. The national monument designation protects it by removing the possibility for the site to be opened to mining and other environmentally destructive processes.
One of the opponents of the Basin and Range proclamation was Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who blatantly referred to it as “bull crap.” Specifically, when asked about the antiquity of the Native artifacts there such as the cave paintings, he said “Ah bull crap. That’s not antiquity.”
If a historical site with artifacts that date back at least 13,000 years can’t be considered “antiquity,” what can?
The statement was so asinine that even Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Az.), bless his heart, wrote a commentary in ICTMN to express his concern about congress’ growing hostility toward Indian country in general, reflected in part by Bishop’s absurd claim.
Rep. Grijalva wrote that congress doesn’t take tribal sovereignty seriously, and that it “is based not on legitimate political differences but on a prevailing attitude that Native American history is important only when it is convenient, Native American economic interests are secondary and Native American land is held by tribes only through the grace and favor of the federal government.”
True enough. If we break it down even more, the workings of the U.S. as a settler society is revealed. Since the goal of the settler society is the elimination of Native populations in order to gain access to Native lands, there is no reason to recognize indigenous sovereignty as a legitimate form of sovereignty, equal to that of state sovereignty. It does, however, pay lip service to Native sovereignty in order to uphold the charade of democracy and implicitly or explicitly deny the genocidal impulse of the state.
Let’s be real. However magnanimous the creation of a national monument at Basin and Range appears to be (in the interest, at least partly in this case, of preserving an ancient Native site), the land is not in Native hands. It is held by the state. By publicly owning a Native site, the state possesses Native history as its own. It says “this is OUR history, OUR heritage.” In this way the settler state erases the Native and stakes its own claim to indigeneity. But I digress.
If we look a little deeper, we can possibly project why Rep. Bishop reacted so irrationally to the antiquities question. According to OpenSecrets.com, Bishop’s top campaign contributors (by far) come from the oil and gas industry. One of the reasons Basin and Range needed protecting, according to the BLM, is that for decades it has been threatened by various development schemes, including from the oil and gas sector. Protecting it by making it a national monument would thus present one less avenue for Bishop to return a political favor.
Another thing to keep in mind is that very few people in congress have any actual knowledge of Native history, worldviews, politics, or even federal Indian law, for that matter, unless they come from a district with a lot of Natives. And even then their knowledge can be quite limited.
Take Bishop, for example. He has a degree in political science from the University of Utah and taught high school-level American government for many years. He represents a district that is racially 88% white and 1% Native American. It is highly doubtful that he ever took any courses that taught Native studies in any depth, let alone spent much time with Native American constituents.
As the chair of a committee that directly oversees Native American issues he would be exposed to Native viewpoints frequently, but given his conservative politics, his loyalties are to big business, which are more often than not adversarial to Native interests. He did everything he could do block the new federal acknowledgement process regulations, for example. As Natives, we want those who represent our interests to be friends, but with friends like these, who needs enemies?
Let’s face it: where Rep. Bishop is concerned, the real bull crap is that we’re stuck with him representing us.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.