26 March 2023
Those who appreciate the desert’s precious poetry smiled a little this week.
They set aside the latest assaults on the West’s arid lands to thank President Joe Biden for making official the designation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. It was a rare win for the Indigenous people who hold “Spirit Mountain” and the surrounding region sacred and also a victory for the rest of us.
It was an act of deep respect for those whose cultural heritage has long been treated as an afterthought. Rich with historical and anthropological context and praise for the natural wonders of the protected place, Biden’s Avi Kwa Ame proclamation ran more than 6,000 words.
Among its many gems: “For the Tribal Nations that trace their creation to Avi Kwa Ame, the power and significance of this place reside not just in the mountain itself, but radiate across the valleys and mountain ranges of the surrounding desert landscape containing the landmarks and spiritually important locations that are linked by oral traditions and beliefs. Tribal Nations have shared those traditions and beliefs across many generations through Salt Songs, Bird Songs, and other origin songs, which are central to Tribal members’ knowledge of the landscape, enabling them to navigate across the diverse terrain, find essential resources, and perform healing, funeral, and other rituals. These traditional and place-based songs connect Tribal members to their homelands, allowing for profound relationships with Avi Kwa Ame and its surroundings and providing healing and spiritual connections even if they are far from home.”
Long before there was a federal government, or a guy in a cowboy hat for that matter, Indigenous Yuman-speaking tribes traced their creation stories to the region defined by Avi Kwa Ame, which looks out upon the confluence of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The Mojave, Chemehuevi, Southern Paiute hold the area sacred, and it plays a significant role in the histories of nearly a dozen other tribal nations.
Avi Kwa Ame’s spiritual and historical importance goes back more than 100 centuries. By comparison, its official designation came in the blink of an eye. It was only decades in the making and the result of the dogged efforts of tribal leaders, legislators, Nevada’s congressional delegation, the Clark County Commission, conservation activists and representatives from the communities certain to benefit most from the increased interest in the protected area. The Avi Kwa Ame National Monument Establishment Act was authored by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV).
In short, a lot of Nevadans spent a lot of time getting this right.
Biden’s use of the Antiquities Act of 1906 gave a lot of people much to celebrate. First signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, the antiquities act was decades in the making and has been used nearly 300 times to protect significant cultural and natural resources on federal public lands.
With so much support, and the weight of law and history on its side, it wasn’t exactly a controversial call. Today, a lot of folks are cheering about it.
Despite all that, some people found a way to disagree with the decision to grant Avi Kwa Ame protected status. Those who look across the desert landscape and see only its potential for development or natural resource extraction are howling, but not like coyotes. Alas, somewhere in the distant desert, a corporate giant is sobbing over the loss of a potential score.
On the job just 11 weeks, Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo took the opportunity to decry the designation as an example of a “’Washington Knows Best’ policy” that “might win plaudits from unaccountable special interests,” but is a potential killer of jobs, affordable housing opportunities and infrastructure projects. He complained of being kept out of the loop by the administration. In a statement, Lombardo conjured images of arrogant Washington overreach and said the “federal confiscation of 506,814 acres of Nevada land is a historic mistake that will cost Nevadans for generations to come.”
Federal confiscation? Who writes Lombardo’s material, Cliven Bundy?
Lombardo’s remarks were immediately called out by his steady critics at the Las Vegas Sun, and the Biden administration pushed back hard against the flimsy assertion that the governor’s people hadn’t been clued in by the White House. In part: “(Department of Interior) staff traveled to Nevada for meetings with stakeholders and state leaders in addition to public meetings. Tribal consultations took place in both Nevada and Arizona. We worked diligently with Nevada government leaders including members of the federal delegation.”
Avi Kwa Ame was hardly a state secret.
If Lombardo failed to get the memo, he did receive an outpouring of positive press from conservative media outlets that highlighted his complaint and warned that the national monument threatened to lock up “mineral-rich land.”
After all that noise, it is instructive to know that this sacred space is not just a land of Joshua tree forests and native cultural heritage, but is also special for what is not there. As the president put it, “The Avi Kwa Ame area’s desert location and geography also allow for a soundscape that is among the most naturally quiet in the United States. Additionally, the area’s exceptional dark skies, rare in highly populated Clark County, have been noted for the excellent stargazing opportunities they offer and for benefits to migratory birds.”
It is a place beyond even the cacophony of modern politics.
At this rare time of good news for our endangered desert, it seems only appropriate to end with a poem. Richard Shelton was thinking of a different arid land, but spoke for many when he wrote “Requiem for Sonora” with its often-quoted lines, “but oh my desert/yours is the only death I cannot bear.”
Such words make desert hearts ache, but today I’ll end with a reminder from the same poem that the arid land we cherish remains our, “most silent sanctuary/more fragile than forests/more beautiful than water.”
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.