I grew up along the edges of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The history of this place coursed through my upbringing and forms a crucial part of who I am as an Apsaalooké (Crow) person. I often lead tours there now and relate the story of the battle that occurred in 1876 between Custer's 7th Cavalry and Plains Indian warriors. There’s no doubt that this battle was a defining event in the history of our country and our state.
About 321,000 people visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 2015. According to the National Park Service, those visitors spent an estimated $18.2 million in local gateway regions, supporting more than 300 jobs in the area and accounting for $23.6 million in economic output. While the location is beautiful, I’m quite confident that few of those visitors came to the Little Bighorn for the scenery. They came because the monument, like so many other national monuments, tells the story of who are and where we come from – as Native Americans, as European Americans, as Montanans.
National monuments have been made possible almost always through the Antiquities Act, a few times by Congress. A central pillar of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy, the Antiquities Act gives U.S. presidents the authority to create national monuments – that is, to set aside and safeguard public lands with significant natural, cultural, historical, and scientific value. In the past 110 years, 16 presidents – eight Democrats and eight Republicans – have used the Antiquities Act to designate around 130 national monuments.
Our new secretary of the Interior and a self-proclaimed Roosevelt conservationist, Ryan Zinke said during his confirmation hearing that one of his first orders of business will be to visit our nation’s newest national monument, Bears Ears. He’ll do so at the behest of Utah’s congressional delegation and governor, all of whom are gunning to have the designation revoked, as well as to dispose of our public lands entirely.
Bears Ears contains one of the greatest concentrations of archaeological sites in the world. Located in southern Utah’s canyon country, Bears Ears is spectacularly scenic. But, like the Little Bighorn, it’s also extraordinarily historical and even sacred. Contrary to the false rhetoric of Utah’s political leaders, its designation occurred as a result of a groundswell among tribal members and leaders in the area who, for decades, could do little but stand by as pot hunters, looters, and grave robbers desecrated and plundered ruins and artifacts that constitute their heritage. If any place ever fit the need for and purpose of protection through the Antiquities Act, Bears Ears is it.
As an educator and Crow tribal member, I’m calling on Secretary Zinke to respect the designation of Bear Ears. Revoking or reducing Bears Ears would set a precedent that would have destructive repercussions well beyond Utah and put other national monuments at risk, including those in Montana. It would mean caving to and emboldening Utah Rep. Rob Bishop and other anti-public land extremists who have asked President Trump to revoke or shrink all Clinton and Obama-era monuments and who are currently sponsoring legislation that would gut the Antiquities Act.
Sadly, Sen. Steve Daines is one of those sponsors, in spite of the fact that 77 percent of Montanans support national monuments, as shown by Colorado College’s 2017 Conservation in the West Poll.
The Antiquities Act is one of the best tools we have for preserving, protecting, and perpetuating the heritage we share as Montanans and Americans. Let’s honor that heritage by first honoring the use of the Antiquities Act in protecting Bear Ears.