President Obama Protects Native American Heritage Sites

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By Britnae Purdy

Rio Grande with Ute Mountain

On March 25th, President Obama established five new national monuments, sites designated by the Antiquities Act as being of “historic or scientific interest.” Two of these sites are significant to Native American culture, and conservationists and Indigenous communities alike are celebrating. According to National Geographic, this action “marks the culmination of years of work by conservationists, cultural organizations, and local citizens to save slices of American history, preserve native fauna and flora, and boost local economies.”

There are now a total of 108 sites designated as national monuments by presidential decree. National monuments do not have the same status as national parks, but do protect the designated land from being sold for development, mining and extractive industries, and limits motor vehicle use in the area. Once a site is designated as a national monument, Congress may make it a national park as well, adding additional protections and often increasing tourism in the area. Nearly half of the national parks established today began as national monuments.

The largest of the new national monuments is the Rio Grande del Norte, encompassing 236,000 acres along the Rio Grande river in northern New Mexico. The site will include a canyon cut out by the winding river, the Taos Plateau, a large volcanic field, and Ute mountain, a 3,000 feet tall former volcano. The site is known for its large collection of petroglyphs, dating back 11,000 years.

“I applaud President Obama for protecting Rio Grande del Norte National Monument because many of the wildlife species that live in that corridor come in and out of this area. Left unprotected, there may be very few animals available that the Native American people of Taos Pueblo can depend on for food, clothing, and shelter,” says Benito Sandoval, Taos Pueblo War Chief.

President Obama also designated the San Juan Islands of coastal Washington state as a national monument. These islands mark the intersection of three waterways, making it a historical site for human settlement. The Salish people settled in the islands 11,000 years ago, as the continental ice sheet began to recede. Evidence of hunting and gathering in the area dates back 6,000-8,000 years, and artifacts from the marine culture have been found that are 2,5000 years old. Six Central Coast Salish tribes inhabit the area, speaking the Northern Straits of Klallam languages: the Sooke, Saanich, Songhee, Lummi, Samish, and Semiahmoo. The monument encompasses 1,000 acres and 75 different sites. Though this represents only 10 percent of the total San Juan archipelago, it is an undeveloped site protecting ancient Native American fishing sites, gardens, and settlements. Designation as a national monument will reduce the burden left on the area by the nearly 75,000 tourists who visit the islands each year.

The designation will engage the local community in developing and carrying out management plans for the areas, and also stipulates that the Secretary of State will “consult with Indian tribes to ensure the protection of religious and cultural sites in the monument and provide access to the sites by members of Indian tribes for traditional cultural and customary uses, consistent with the American Indian Religious Act.”

In 2012, President Obama also gave national monument status to Chimney Rock Park, Colorado, a site with deep spiritual significance and history to Native Americans. The other sites established on March 25th include the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland, the First State National Monument in Delaware, and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers Memorial in Ohio.


(Photo by Adriel Heisey, Indian Country Today Media Network,