Bears Ears; or, The Problem of Antiquties

Posted by on Dec 6, 2017
Bears Ears; or, The Problem of Antiquties

My news feed, for the last several mornings, has continually reminded me of the upcoming “shrinking” of Bears Ears National Monument. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration will reduce the size of the park protected by upwards of 85 percent. Citing Federal overreach and the stifling of industrial growth, conservative groups consider the reduction Bears Ears’ a win. Environmentalists, alongside native nations, consider the reduction the first step towards the destruction of historical and sacred sites. In case you were wondering how one legally decimates a national park, Trump will use the American Antiquities Act (1906). While this Act normally creates and sets aside land, it does (presumably) gives the power to President of the United States create and diminish—with one hand the Act gives, the other it takes. Several groups have already promised to sue the Trump administration over the choice; however, I am interested in the language and function of the Act itself. While it may be one of the few legal recourses in protecting Bears Ears, the Antiquities Act exposes a problem in how the government makes these decisions.

The American Antiquities Act of 1906 declares that the President, “in his discretion” can proclaim: “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United states to be national monuments.” The Act, unsurprisingly, upholds a teleological notion of history– “prehistoric” spaces should have “ruins” and posses “objects of antiquity” and these now dead spaces are useful. Reading the Antiquities Act, once quickly realizes this is not about conservation but collection. These spaces and monuments are collections from something in our past and perhaps even before our “history” started. Unfortunately, these requirements to be an Antiquity might be at odds at total odds with environmentalism

Even Barack Obama’s proclamation declaring Bears Ears as a national monument reads as an environmental writing primer describing the landscape in literary styles ranging from the pastoral to the romantic to the sublime. (I’m rather tempted to assign to my students to critique alongside Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Jackson Turner). Obama cites the “deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountaintops” and the region’s history where Native Americas served as stewards of the land. Indeed, “the star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon.” Bears Ears value, then, according to the political, rests in its ability to operate as a window into something in our past—but only the good parts where Native Americans cared for the land, a land that soared into sublime heights.

Unfortunately, I think I’m suggesting one of the few political tools in place to protect larger areas of land from overdevelopment and drilling not only stops short of preventing this but also actually invites the possibility for development. The resource logic of the Antiquities Act paves the way for development (the same ideological logic working in the assumptions of the pastoral and sublime at work in Obama’s declaration. As much as Bears Ears can be a resource for our notion of history or a utility for science, Bears Ears can be just as much a physical resource for development.. And oddly enough, once the petrol complex finishes with the area, it be a ruin and as such perhaps qualify even more for the Antiquities Act to catalogue away.

This tension between, on the one hand, the political and its adherence to a capitalist structure and on the other, environmentalism and an ethics towards a commons reminds me of Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849. Dillon argues with the closing of the commons in England and the absence of the commons in the Anglo-Americas, the early American theatre operated as a symbolic commons. In the case of Bears Ears, there is an interesting way in which these monuments are the performance of but not the reality of a commons. Looking back in recent memory, Standing Rock and other protests have been immensely important spaces for performances of resistance. But these natural theatres, Bears Ears and the Dakotas, are not the ends in themselves—only spaces in which to organize the performative commons. We have a history of burning down theatres in America and the cinders only enkindle further communal work.