The nomination of Deb Haaland to be interior secretary is not just a historic but a redemptive act. For the first time in our history a Native American will hold a Cabinet-level post. As secretary of the interior, Haaland will play a key role at a crucial moment in our nation’s relationship with its more than 450 million acres of public lands, and will have a chance to reverse our exploitive history toward our country’s first people.
Haaland would also serve as a powerful and poetic counterweight to President Donald Trump’s original choice as interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid ethics controversies, and whose signature move was the massive reduction of Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, the only national monument to grow out of the thinking, planning and advocacy of Native Americans. The move was a reminder that American exploitation and broken promises to native people are not limited to the past. Haaland’s appointment offers the hope of changing this course.
Bears Ears, a large region of public land almost empty of people but full of cultural and religious significance for Indigenous peoples, is a place of natural beauty and archaeological richness at a density unheard of in any comparable area in our country. It is rich not just in archaeology but archaeological history, and it is here that Richard Wetherill came to understand that the homes and tools he was uncovering did not belong to one “ancient people,” but multiple cultures.
Bears Ears is an embodiment of the Antiquities Act, passed by Congress in 1906, with a legislative directive to preserve the “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures.” The act gave the president sole authority to declare national monuments and the president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, acted quickly on this new authority. The bill landed on his desk on June 8, 1906, and by the end of the year he had declared four national monuments, including Petrified Forest, El Morro and Montezuma Castle. It was a pace that would continue until the very last day of his presidency when he declared Mount Olympus in Washington a national monument.
But while the Antiquities Act has been an invaluable environmental tool, from the beginning it was also used to wrest land away from Native Americans. Consider the very first national monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, proclaimed by Roosevelt in 1906, an almost 900-foot-tall granite monolith made famous in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Devils Tower had long been called Bear Lodge by the Plains Indians, and was considered sacred by many tribes. In “saving” it, the United States government usurped a place of ceremony in the name of recreation, conservation and science.
Bears Ears was to be different, the byproduct of years of work and activism begun in 2010 by Utah Diné Bikéyah (“People’s Sacred Lands”). While much of land was already public, this primarily Navajo group pushed to make it a national monument, and afford it the protections that come with monument status. This was partly to combat recent looting and desecration of sacred sites. In 2009, the FBI had charged 24 citizens of Blanding, Utah, with stealing, selling and trading ancient Indian artifacts, including more than 2,000 intact ceramic vessels.
The work to create some sort of protection for this oft-robbed landscape proceeded slowly. In 2015, having spent five years doing the initial work of interviewing tribal elders about the significance that particular places had for their clans and tribes and culturally mapping the area, Utah Diné Bikéyah invited other native nations to join in the creation of a proposal for a national monument. The five tribes that would eventually make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute — gathered to craft the initial proposal. One member of the original coalition, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, remembers the spirit animating this push: “We didn’t want to say, ‘We want our land back.’ Ours was an effort to heal. We worked hard to stay away from terms like ‘racism.’ We tried to focus on the light, not the darkness.”
This careful effort involved developing a deep understanding of the Antiquities Act. The result was a transformation of the 114-year-old law into a means of saving native land rather than tearing it away. In 2016, Lopez-Whiteskunk traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the proposal, and she marveled at policymakers taking her seriously and the empowering feeling that she “wasn’t threatened or being belittled, or have someone else speaking ‘in my best interests.'”
Even so, President Barack Obama’s Bears Ears proclamation fell short of what many of the advocates of the monument had hoped for: true comanagement of Bears Ears by the tribes and the government. Instead, the document stated that the secretary of agriculture and the secretary of the interior would manage the monument through the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, while a Bears Ears Commission, made up of a member from each of the five tribes that brought forth the original proposal, would “provide guidance and recommendations.” The commission would “effectively partner with the Federal agencies by making continuing contributions to inform decisions regarding the management of the monument.”
Despite falling short, Bears Ears broke new ground. The proclamation of the monument drew heavily on the original proposal written by the Inter-Tribal Coalition, and offered up an American story of a place that finally included the first Americans, along with descriptions of the archaeology, anthropology and natural history of Bears Ears. It also acknowledged and elevated the importance of Indigenous knowledge, which the document called a “resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come.”
Inside of a year, however, Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke began to undo this work, slashing the size of the monument by 85 percent while also stating their intention of opening up sections of Bears Ears to fracking and other types of mining. It was a return to traditional, dismissive American policies toward Native Americans.
The Biden administration — and secretary-designate Haaland — can change all that. If they choose to restore Bears Ears to its original borders, and better yet if they consider instituting true comanagement of the monument, the president and the first Native American secretary of the interior can make history. They can show that the Antiquities Act can be used to preserve not usurp native land. This, more so even than the symbolism of Haaland’s appointment, will show that the United States is ready to begin righting past wrongs in its dealing with Native Americans.
David Gessner is is the author of 11 books, most recently “Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness,” and the chair of the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.