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Congress Must Act: Make the ‘Great Bend of the Gila’ a National Monument

Tribal representatives were on hand to share the findings of a new report about one of the Southwest’s richest ethnographical areas.

Representatives from 13 tribes with ancestral and trust lands in Arizona, California and New Mexico joined Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Archaeology Southwest officials and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona August 29 to share the findings of a new report about one of the Southwest’s richest ethnographical areas. They also called for a renewal of the effort to establish a national monument along the Great Bend of the Gila River to preserve 84,000 acres along the river containing a wealth of history and cultural patrimony. The proposal notes that the bend includes many world-class rock art sites, including Sears Point and Painted Rocks, as well as the arrangements of stones and gouged lines known as geoglyphs.

The region, where the Gila River arcs southwest before making its final run to the Gulf of Mexico, is also important to non-Native historians and anthropologists, as artifacts related to the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail, the Overland Butterfield Overland Stage and the Mormon Battalion are in the same area. A stagecoach stop along the Overland route was also the site of the most westernmost Civil War skirmish, now nearly forgotten in the shadow of the more-well-known Battle of Picacho Peak.

Archaeology Southwest’s August 2016 report, The Great Bend of the Gila: Contemporary Native American Connections to an Ancestral Landscape, details the cultural and historical ties of the tribes to the Great Bend of the Gila. The study, conducted by the nonprofit cultural heritage preservation organization, also noted that tribes should be “engage[d] more consistently, effectively and respectfully in the area’s management and in the interpretation of its cultural resources.”

Courtesy Andy Laurenzi

An enduring geoglyph at Quail Point.

“Protecting these cultural, historical and natural resources is one of Congress’ most important duties,” Grijalva, the ranking Democrat serving on the House Natural Resources Committee, said at the ITCA event. “These sacred landscapes shouldn’t be politicized or vandalized – they should be conserved for the benefit of the American people. This site is one of the best candidates in the country for stronger federal protection, as this study shows, and I’m going to continue working with my colleagues in Washington to make that protection a reality. A great number of people of different backgrounds have come together to protect and promote this land. We’re not going to let that work go to waste.”

Tohono O’odham Vice Chairman Verlon Jose also stresses that more protection is needed for these irreplaceable artifacts. “These petroglyphs, artifacts and other evidence left along the river reaffirms that O’odham, Quechan, Hopi and many other tribes that lived together have been here since time immemorial,” says Jose. One of the nation’s noncontiguous trust land parcels borders the proposed monument, just northwest of Gila Bend. “This is the evidence of teachings that have been taught for hundreds and even thousands of years. If you are connected to the land and culture, you understand what they are telling us. But, you won’t find these teachings in a classroom-you need to go out there and experience the area.”

In June, Grijalva introduced H.R. 5556, which would establish the monument, which would be called the Grand Bend of the Gila National Monument. A previous bill introduced during the last congressional session failed to gain traction.

At least one group in Arizona, though, opposes the monument. Tom Jenney, Arizona state director of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit organization that advocates for limited government, reduced taxes, free enterprise and school choice, said in an emailed statement, “Protection of our natural resources and sustainable economic growth are most likely to be achieved under a system of well-specified, well-protected, and transferrable private property rights in natural resources.” Jenney also notes that his group is not in favor of the federal government taking any more than the 28 percent of Arizona land they already own, or, “to exert more control over existing federal lands.” However, Bill Doelle, president and CEO of Archaeology Southwest said at the news conference that the monument will be created from existing federal lands currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Jose says that creating the monument should be considered an essential part of preserving American history. “The powers that be don’t always understand the significance of these areas,” he says.” If they can enact legislation to protect their history, like Victorian homes, why can’t they protect our history?”

Because none of the proposed monument is on tribal lands, Jose says, “We have to work with other peoples to preserve these lands,” including Archaeology Southwest and other partners, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

”This place must be preserved not only for my tribe, or the tribes who have connections here, it must be preserved for all tribes and for the nation as a whole.”