The case for more land conservation and a new national monument

Imagine for a moment, a stunning landscape of carved sandstone canyons dotted with ancient dwellings, peaceful forests and grasslands cherished for indigenous subsistence and ceremony.

Imagine this treasure of Federal land in the hands of national leaders who see public lands as a warehouse of natural resources, ripe for exploitation.

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Happily, we don’t live in such a place. With only weeks remaining in President Obama’s final term, there is still time for the President to take a bold step to respond to Native American Tribes and preserve land in the West that carries deep meaning for America’s indigenous peoples and for generations of other Americans.

As we consider the role of public lands, let us acknowledge that what we call “public land” is in fact also ancestral land, the source of life and wellbeing for indigenous peoples who played an integral role in maintaining its ecological vitality, producing not a “wilderness” but a cultural landscape, a home.

One such cultural landscape, known as Bears Ears, lies in the remote wilds of southeastern Utah. In a visionary act of biocultural conservation, an intertribal coalition has proposed national monument designation for the Bears Ears to protect this treasure.

The proposed monument takes its name from two rounded buttes that rise from the land like a bear about to raise its head over the horizon. In my own Potawatomi culture, Bear is understood as a protector and a keeper of medicines.

Designation of the Bears Ears National Monument is also protection — and medicine, a tangible sign of an intention for healing. For healing the land and human relationships to land are a step toward healing a troubled relationship, borne of a history which is painful for native people and shameful for settlers.

Bears Ears National Monument would protect a legacy as rare and precious as its ancestral villages and rock art: traditional land care knowledge. The Traditional Knowledge Institute proposed for Bears Ears offers an opportunity for powerful synergy between science and traditional knowledge.

Land management at Bears Ears would be shared between an intertribal coalition and federal partners. This brilliant symbiosis is at the cutting edge of visionary conservation practice. Native peoples tended their homelands with sophisticated stewardship based in traditional knowledge, a deep understanding of place grown from long-term relationship with the land.

Traditional Knowledge is both philosophy and practice, embedded in the indigenous worldview which guides right relationships between humans and the living world through the principles of respect, reciprocity, relationship and reverence.

The inspirited land is understood as far more than what scientists call natural resources, it is the source of identity, knowledge, the healer, the library, the sacred, the home of ancestors, descendants and our more than human relatives.

Humans are inseparably linked to land through a responsibility to give their own gifts, in return for all that the land so generously provides. Human gifts of gratitude, respect, attention, restoration, art, science, ceremony and care create a mutual symbiosis between people and land.

Land is the place where we enact our moral responsibility to creation.

President Obama has an extraordinary opportunity to right an historic and ongoing injustice while elevating the United States as a global example of the linkages between conservation and indigenous knowledge through establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Protecting this cultural landscape also invites settler society; todays’ citizens of the United States, to recognize that one day, they will also be named among the ancestors of these lands.  They have a choice as to what kind of ancestors they wish to be. May we humans live in such a way that the land for whom we are grateful, will be grateful for our presence, in return.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, writer, distinguished teaching professor, and serves as the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. Kimmerer’s interests in restoration include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land. She is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and is the author of two books, "Gathering Moss" and "Braiding Sweetgrass."


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.