Commentary: The Antiquities Act was meant to protect Indian history

Bureaucrats and politicians currently threaten the heritage of Native Americans — the groups whose histories the Antiquities Act of 1906 was intended to protect.

Earlier this year, President Trump ordered Secretary of the Interior Zinke to review whether 27 national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations are “too big.” If Trump’s concern is one of scale, he should take the time to listen to Native communities — something Secretary Zinke continuously fails to do — and perhaps his narrow vision could grow to be more inclusive.

Many iconic national monuments in the American West — including some of the ones Trump and company have in their crosshairs — remind us that scale is relative to cultural perspective. The view of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, headquartered near Yuma, Arizona, is a case in point.

With their traditional lands situated just above the Colorado River Delta, the Quechan have a stake in what happens throughout this mighty river’s watershed, including Utah. What enters the waters in southern Nevada, southeast Utah, southwest Colorado, southeast California, and throughout Arizona ultimately flows through the Quechan homeland. Damming of the rivers, deforestation, pollution, and overall degradation of the Colorado River watershed have a profound effect on the livelihoods of Quechan people and other tribes along the Colorado River.

Equally important, the sacred geography of the Quechan encompasses the entire length of the Colorado River, as well as the middle and lower stretches of the Gila River in southern Arizona. These waterways are where the Quechan Creation Story began and continues to unfold. During the cremation of Kukumat (the creator), Coyote stole his heart and carried it eastward along the Gila River; drops of greasy blood now stand as prominent mountains within this landscape. Later, Kukumat’s son pierced the earth with his spear and dragged it across the desert, causing water to well up and fill the furrow — the Colorado River was henceforth born.

From a Quechan perspective, the entire Colorado River watershed is sacred and should be protected. Seven existing national monuments in four different states represent prior successes: Sonoran Desert, Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, Gold Butte in Nevada, Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears in Utah. To the Quechan, these seven national monuments are connected because they all fall within the Quechan sacred landscape. And all but two, Canyons of the Ancients and Grand Canyon-Parashant, are on the chopping block.

Only one of us is a tribal representative, and we do not speak expressly for all tribes. Nevertheless, we know that for many Native communities, including the Quechan, history and spirituality are in the land. The conservation of natural landscapes and the preservation of ancestral sites are essential to the continuance of tribal identities and to the sharing of endangered cultural knowledge with younger generations. Vast tracts of former tribal lands are now public lands, and national monuments serve to safeguard the cultural heritage of many Native communities. A threat to reduce or eliminate any of them adds to a long list of transgressions against Native Americans.

Lorey Cachora is a member of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe. Aaron Wright is a Preservation Archaeologist at Archaeology Southwest in Tucson, Arizona. The two recently collaborated on a study of the tribe’s ancestral connections to the Colorado and Gila Rivers.

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