Commentary: The invisible heritage of Native Americans is threatened

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) People gather to stand in support of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments on the day Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is speaking during a conservation and hunting expo Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Protests are planned by environmental groups who are upset that Zinke recommended shrinking two sprawling national monuments in Utah.

This is a terrible time in history to be Native American. And that is really saying something.

I was elected to represent New Mexico in Congress in 1982 because of the Native American vote. I’ve always respected the traditions of Native Americans and I feel a certain obligation to speak out because our government has forgotten them and failed them over and over again.

I was recently in the Chaco Canyon area of northwestern New Mexico. Chaco is a World Heritage Site that bursts with cultural and archaeological treasures of the Pueblo culture. As a member of Congress, I introduced legislation to expand the protected areas of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. I was also appointed the first chairman of the Native American Subcommittee of the House Interior Committee.

Yet, when I spoke with my Indian friends there recently, I could feel their sense of dread, resignation and sadness. They’re keenly aware that they are in the target zone for potential drilling on public lands, a high priority of the Interior Department. Since my visit last summer, with drastic assaults on Indian land and the targeting of their sacred wild horses for extinction, things have only gotten bleaker for Native Americans.

There was last year’s drastic cutting of two critical national monuments. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are more than just natural, beautiful places. They are sacred sites for native peoples who were, and are, the First Americans. President Trump’s elimination of the protected status of these sites is nothing less than the systemic eradication of their culture and history. A number of tribes are suing the Trump administration over this decision.

From the first Wounded Knee tragedy in 1890, in which mostly Sioux women and children were killed for participating in their ritual Ghost Dance, to Standing Rock in 2016, in which protesters faced violence and intimidation as they stood against the construction of a pipeline that plunges under their tribe’s water source and through sacred burial grounds, the lives of Native Americans have long been ignored.

If you don’t, or won’t, see people, how can you acknowledge them? And if you don’t acknowledge them, you can certainly pretend their heritage is not worthy of protection and preservation.

Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s decision to extend protection to millions of acres of Native American land was a long overdue yet small step forward to recognize the important stewardship role that American Indians took on long before America was a nation. With his rash decision to rescind protection of more than two million acres in just two sites alone, Trump has once again picked up the mantle of indifference to Native Americans that has been our calling card for too long.

And now, we have the continued threats by Congress to authorize the mass killing of healthy wild horses and burros on public lands. This is an unpopular and shortsighted move that could be cemented with little public knowledge. The wild horse problem is not an easy one, and no solution is without significant investment.

Like other wild horse advocates, I’ve proposed managing the overpopulation with birth control, adoptions and land sanctuaries so they can roam. But some members of Congress have advocated destroying these icons of the West rather than honoring and protecting them. The centuries-long historical and cultural bond between Native Americans and their horses has been dismissed. This would never happen if Native Americans were given a seat at the negotiating table for these decisions that so deeply effect their land and communities.

When we diminish these sites and destroy these animals, we diminish the value and worth of the people who cared for them for generations before the white man ever set foot in them or laid eyes on them across the beautiful American landscape.

Bill Richardson is a former member of Congress, ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. energy secretary, and governor of New Mexico. He founded the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in 2011 to promote global peace and dialogue by identifying and working on areas of opportunity for engagement and citizen diplomacy with countries and communities not usually open to more formal diplomatic channels.