Along with orders by the Trump administration that can jeopardize the future of at least two dozen national monuments, a small reprieve has been given to those who are fighting to preserve nature: the Native American Heritage Commission has officially recognized the San Gabriel Mountains as sacred land.
The mountains, which were designated as a national monument by President Barack Obama in 2014 and one of the monuments currently under review, are intertwined with the origin story and history of the Kizh tribe. Also known as Gabrieleños after the San Gabriel Mission was built by the Spanish, part of their expansive territory that is being honored includes the San Gabriel Mountains, and burial sites can be expected in the area, according to the application submitted to the NAHC.
“This is very welcomed news,” said Gary Stickel, who is tribal archeologist to the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians/Kizh Nation. “We’re going to use that to help [protect the land].”
Stickel has a PhD from UCLA and taught there before retiring. The status was granted in March, but the NAHC didn’t notify the tribe until about three weeks ago.
The biggest sacred find in the mountains was the presence of To-tah́ yo-o-ēt, or Big Rock, a boulder with pictographs painted on the sides and a ridged hole on top in what is believed to be the shape of a cogstone or sunstone in honor of the sun deity, Tamit. The pictographs include zig-zag lines that represent the mountains and rows of dashes that could represent the pine trees that the ancient Kizh believed were their living ancestors, as well as handprints. The boulder is believed to have been used for ceremonies.
Although the mountains are now officially recognized as sacred on top of being a national monument, it doesn’t really grant any additional protections, Stickel said.
On April 26, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in which Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will review monuments that are over 100,000 acres, including after expansion, or designations or expansions that are determined by Zinke to have been made without “adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders,” according to the executive order.
The executive order also states that designations should “appropriately balance the protection of landmarks, structures, and objects against the appropriate use of federal lands and the effects on surrounding lands and communities.”
Six of the monuments under review are in California, including the San Gabriel Mountains, and they’re in danger of losing the protections the status has granted them.
“It’s giving us some argument, but still, us as a state-recognized tribe, we have very few rights on our side to protect our resources,” said Christina Swindall-Martinez, secretary for the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians/Kizh Nation. “Sometimes, no matter how much we fight, developers and governments win.”