The Past, Present, and Possible Future of History in Our National Monuments


Perfect Kiva in Bullet Canyon, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Sara Porterfield

Erstwhile editor Sara Porterfield weighs in on the current debate over national monuments in the wake of President Trump’s April  26th executive order mandating a “review” of all monuments created since 1996 and Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in Utah this past week. 

Jailhouse Ruin. Junction Ruin. Perfect Kiva. Turkey Pen Ruin. Split Level Ruin. Green Mask Ruin. 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. At the confluence of Sheiks Canyon and Grand Gulch we marveled at the vivid pigment that colors the eponymous petroglyph of Green Mask Ruin. At Perfect Kiva we climbed down a ladder into the restored ceremonial space where indigenous peoples performed rites they believed kept the cosmos in balance. As we walked in the wash at the bottom of Grand Gulch we traced the evidence of the recent rains in piles of dead branches and flattened grasses left by the receding flood waters while we chased the shade of 190 million year old Navajo Sandstone walls.

Everywhere around us was a history, whether of the past few days, the past thousand years, or the past thousands of millennia.

Two friends and I recently spent three days backpacking through this history in Kane Gulch, Grand Gulch, and Bullet Canyon, deep in the heart of the newly created Bears Ears National Monument. President Barack Obama signed Bears Ears into existence by executive order on the 28th of December, 2016, making it one of the newest national monuments in the country and one of Obama’s final conservation actions as president. Obama’s authority—and indeed the authority of any president—to set aside federal land as a national monument comes from the Antiquities Act, passed (by a Republican Congress) in 1906. The Antiquities Act states:

“That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

The Antiquities Act’s origins lie in the very region where Bears Ears is located. Originally intended to protect indigenous ruins in the Southwest from illegal “pothunting”—digging up ruins and even graves for rare and valuable artifacts to sell, usually on the black market—the Act has been interpreted capaciously by every president since Theodore Roosevelt, the first to use it. In less than three years, Roosevelt established eighteen national monuments including Grand Canyon (Arizona), Devil’s Tower (Wyoming), Chaco Canyon (New Mexico), and Mount Olympus (Washington), six of which are now national parks. Since Roosevelt, presidents—both Republican and Democrat—have protected areas of federal land for their cultural, scientific, and scenic values. Critics of the Antiquities Act have been strident in their opposition of what they see as the abuse of executive authority, as in the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, though they are in the minority.


Pictograph panel at Green Mask Ruin in Sheiks Canyon, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Sara Porterfield

National monuments protect areas that are extraordinary, but Bears Ears is unique both in what has been protected and how that protection came to be. In 2015, the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe founded the “historic consortium” of native nations called the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. This unprecedented alliance of tribes worked to protect “a place,” one member wrote, “many Native peoples in the Four Corners area continue to define as home, soul, and the setting for the cultivation of cultures.” 

The proposal for and proclamation of Bears Ears marks the first time a national monument has been designated at the request and with the collaboration of indigenous nations. Bears Ears follows in the spirit of the many national monuments designated by President Obama that tell the stories of civil rights triumphs: Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar where in June of 1969 a violent police raid sparked the modern LGBT rights movement, the Birmingham Civil Rights monument, commemorating the struggle for equality in Alabama and the South, and the California home of Latino labor activist César Chavez.

Designation of such sites marks a positive change in the kinds of history we as Americans seek to preserve. This desire to preserve the stories and experiences of marginalized groups has not typified the history of the Antiquities Act and the National Park Service (NPS), who manages many of our national monuments. Though the Antiquities Act originally sought to protect indigenous sites from looting and vandalizing, it included an inherent assumption that native peoples were not able or willing to protect their own histories. The Act contained a provision that only those who held academic credentials could conduct excavations, which, as anthropologist Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh has pointed out, “divorced Native Americans from their own heritage while privileging academic researchers who were to preserve Indian history and culture for all Americans.”

This paternalistic attitude of the Antiquities Act, passed a decade before the formation of the National Park Service, laid the foundations for the attitude of the NPS towards Native Americans who had historically lived on and used park lands. This led to a policy of dispossession and removal of indigenous peoples from national parks and national monuments, unless, of course, they appeared as carefully controlled tourist attractions. For Anglo Americans to experience national parks as “pristine” nature, historian Mark Spence argues, “uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it existed” by the forced removal of Native Americans to reservations outside of park boundaries.

But recent actions by the Trump administration threaten to revert national monuments and national parks—as do many of his policies—to a whitewashed, paternalistic history of our federally protected public lands. In April, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the former congressman from Montana, to review all national monuments created since 1996. This “review” is a not-so-subtle attack on Clinton’s controversial Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as well as the more recent designation of Bears Ears, located just across the Colorado River from Grand Staircase.

Zinke came to Utah in early May to visit Bears Ears and Grand Staircase as part of his mandated review of national monuments. Following the lead of Trump’s executive order, Zinke’s visit, choreographed by Utah’s congressional delegation, has angered tribes, conservationists, and supporters at the local and national level. He has refused to meet with local proponents of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, instead traveling and holding extended meetings with Utah Governor Gary Herbert, Congressman Rob Bishop, and others opposed to the monument designations. Even more alarmingly, Zinke only met briefly with tribal leaders on May 7th and refused other requests from indigenous groups to meet to discuss the monument. Zinke’s treatment of Native Americans (as well as his response to this woman who attempted to speak with him) reinforces a history of oppression that national monuments like Bears Ears, Stonewall, and Birmingham work to undo.

Bears Ears is the sacred home of the Navajo people. This place served as a remote refuge for Navajos resisting the 1864 forced removal to Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. Navajo people still cherish the Bears Ears as a symbol of those who avoided this “Long Walk” to an internment camp where nearly one-third of those relocated died. National monuments like Bears Ears keep alive the history of indigenous peoples and minority groups who have for centuries been subject to the kind of paternalism exhibited by Zinke on his Utah tour this week. Rescinding these monuments would further erase the histories of already marginalized groups.

National monuments exist to connect us—all of us—to our shared history. When we visit a national monument we travel through the layers of history that have created that place, as my friends and I did in Grand Gulch in March. With this time travel, we find our place in history and rediscover the humility that comes with feeling a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

If you’d like to see our national monuments remain in their current state, consider contacting Secretary Ryan Zinke to let him know you oppose President Trump’s executive order. 


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