Public lands are dispossessed lands: Tai Kondo Koester, Joseph Bryan, ‘The cartographic dispossession of Bears Ears: Confronting settler colonialism in contemporary struggles over “public land”’, Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2021


Abstract: This paper relates the cartographic construction of public lands by topographic surveys of the Colorado Plateau in the 19th Century to contemporary debates over the management of public lands. We focus our attention on the Bears Ears National Monument that was established by President Barack Obama via Executive Order in 2016, only to be significantly reduced in size by President Donald Trump one year later. Debates over the Monument hinged on competing notions of the public interest, where the public was conceived as a singular entity in ways that marginalized the leading role played by the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute, and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in securing designation of the Monument. These debates featured competing claims of “federal overreach” and theft that glossed over the Tribes’ role in creating the Monument, let alone how the land became public in the first place. This paper considers the role that surveys by the US Army Corps of Topographic Engineers, John Wesley Powell, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, and others played in papering over the theft of Indigenous lands. Their cartographic depictions of the region underpin current debates over management of public lands. They also shape the terrain on which the five tribes in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition have worked to protect the area through designation of the Bears Ears National Monument. Framing struggles over Bears Ears as a public lands issue embraces a history of erasure and dispossession and shifts focus from returning land to tribal control.

%d bloggers like this: