Public Lands or Stolen Lands?


“The President Stole Your Land” was written in bold letters on the main page of Patagonia’s website during December 2017 when President Donald Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This illegal move outraged the country, especially those who love public lands. But the question could be asked, since when is it “our” land?

Illustration By Annabel Driussi

When European colonizers began their influx into North America during the late 15th century, an estimated 112 million indigenous people lived in the Americas. After hundreds of years of genocide and cultural erasure, the U.S. population today is made up of around two percent Native American and Alaska Native — or 5.2 million people. Equally disturbing is recent data that shows that 25 percent of the Native population lives in poverty.

Trump reduced the size of the monuments by 85 percent to appease uranium and fossil fuel developers, eviscerating a favorite climbing spot, but more importantly, a homeland of many indigenous groups. Unfortunately, the mining of uranium puts the people who live in the area at higher risk of uranium contamination, which causes kidney failure and cancer. In a recent study conducted on the Navajo Nation, 27 percent of participants had high levels of uranium in their urine, compared to five percent of the U.S. population. Thousands of abandoned mines across the West add to pollution, and accountability of companies to clean up the areas has decreased during the Trump administration.

The public lands that make up the National Parks and Forest systems were appropriated from land originally belonging to indigenous tribes or intended to be reservations. For example, when Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, the land was home to around 26 indigenous tribes, who still regard this land as sacred.

Our nation has a genocidal history: a history which is not taught correctly in schools and one that still has effects on native populations. I implore you all to heighten your awareness of where you are. As CC students, we have the immense privilege of spending four years situated in close proximity to many of the most beautiful of these public lands; each Block Break, students flock to Moab and Bears Ears, among countless other retreats.

Colorado College is situated on the ancestral lands of the Ute and Cheyenne peoples. When planning your next hiking or camping trip, the website is a great resource for learning whose ancestral land you will be visiting. Other tips for travelling on public lands, and existing in general are: research the original inhabitants of the land you’re on and remember that public lands only exist because of the forced removal of indigenous people; stop using the word “tribe” (unless you were born or adopted into one) — there are so many other words you can use to describe your community that aren’t appropriative; stop buying products from people and corporations who appropriate Native designs.

I, personally, would have never been exposed to this information if I had not taken classes in the Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies Department, such as my First-Year Experience: Power, Place and Protest in the West taught by Dwanna McKay and Amy Kohout. Next time you meet with your advisor, consider adding a REMS or Southwest Studies class to your schedule.

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