California Forum

Trump’s attack on national monuments threatens California sites, Native Americans’ culture

Mojave Trails National Monument is one of three monuments in California under review that hold deep value to native tribes.
Mojave Trails National Monument is one of three monuments in California under review that hold deep value to native tribes. California Bureau of Land Management

The protection and preservation of the cultural lands and sacred places of Native American people is of supreme importance to sovereign American Indian tribes.

Since 1906, a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt known as the Antiquities Act has allowed the president of the United States to designate national monuments to protect public lands that have cultural, historical and environmental significance.

From coast to coast, sites of deep importance to native people are under constant threat. Vandals, grave diggers and others who loot cultural sites, motorists who indiscriminately drive on and damage sacred sites, unfettered development and destruction of natural habitat all jeopardize the natural wonders treasured by Native Americans and all Americans.

The Antiquities Act has long served as one of the most effective conservation policy tools, as eight Republican presidents and eight Democratic presidents over the last century have utilized the law to designate national monuments and cultural and historical sites for all Americans to enjoy.

California’s desert lands hold deep value not just to native tribes but to countless residents throughout the Golden State. During his time in office, President Barack Obama designated Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains as national monuments, ensuring that these desert public lands will endure as a lasting connection between our ancestors and generations to come.

These national monuments represent a vast range of cultural and archaeological treasures, biological diversity and historical importance to the Native American tribes in the surrounding areas. These lands have been in use for centuries, sustaining Chemehuevi, Kawaiisu, Mohave, Serrano, Cahuilla, Southern Paiute and other Native American tribes.

These national monuments, and dozens more in California and across the nation, are now under attack by the administration of President Donald Trump. Last month, Trump signed an executive order requiring the U.S. Department of Interior to review and make recommendations to possibly modify or rescind prior monument designations. The executive order threatens more than 50 monuments established since 1996 under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

Subject to the review are not only the three California desert monuments with great tribal significance but also Berryessa Snow Mountain, San Gabriel Mountains, Carrizo Plain and Giant Sequoia national monuments.

No president has ever before attempted to revoke a national monument designation made by a predecessor. The 120-day review ordered by Trump – just 45 days in the case of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, whose designation was strongly supported by five native tribes in the area – could directly undermine the protections that previous presidents have put in place to safeguard public lands and historical sites. The review could drastically undermine the years of effort and community engagement that went into protecting these national monuments.

Public opinion polls show that all Americans care deeply for their national parks and public lands. America’s national monuments are based on well-documented facts about the cultural and natural resources placed under the monuments’ protection. In the case of many national monuments, Native American tribes have lived on these lands and have established sacred connections to the land for thousands of years.

Now is the time for tribal leaders throughout our state and nation to band together in support of our national monuments. We applaud those in Congress who have denounced Trump’s executive order, including California’s U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

National monuments link our history with the present and the future. They deserve full protection under the law, to preserve our legacy, our culture and our connection with the land.

Michael Madrigal is president of the Native American Land Conservancy and a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians. He can be contacted at