Who is the Public in Public Land? The Cartographic Erasure of Bears Ears as Indigenous Space and its Consequences for Contemporary Public Lands Issues

Authors: Tai Koester*,
Topics: Historical Geography, Indigenous Peoples
Keywords: public land, critical cartography, Indigenous peoples, American West, national monument, maps, colonialism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Council Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In late 2017, Bears Ears National Monument (BENM), the nation’s first Tribally initiated national monument, was significantly reduced in size by the Trump administration. Outdoor industry and environmental groups launched marketing campaigns that challenged the move. The clothing company Patagonia released a campaign marked by a slogan that read “The President Stole Your Land,” suggesting that the monument’s reduction had taken public land from all Americans. Although well meaning, this framing ignores the monument’s original intent—to protect the Tribal relationship to place—and the violent history of public lands creation. Both the administration’s move and Patagonia’s response suggests that public land is based on a notion of the public that excludes Indigenous people. To understand this exclusion, I enlist the help of maps. Maps convey certain spatial knowledges and privilege certain perspectives of space over others. This paper aims to show how maps abetted the dispossession of land from Indigenous people and reorganized space for the utility of a narrowly defined public that excludes Indigenous ways of knowing space. The framing of the monument’s reduction as a public lands issue by outdoor industry and environmental groups embraces a history of erasure and dispossession, and shifts the narrative away from Indigenous empowerment. Bears Ears, in its original form, figures as a challenge of inclusion from Tribes in public lands management, and the current battle to re-establish the original boundaries presents an opportunity for Americans to revisit our concept of public lands.

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