Designating History: President Obama’s Legacy and the Power of the Antiquities Act


by Laurel Angell

It started with Port Chicago, César Chávez and the Buffalo Soldiers. It marched on with names like Pullman and Belmont-Paul, in places such as Honouliuli, and with landscapes known to the locals as Organ Mountains and Rio Grande del Norte. Missing pages of history, silenced voices, and stories left untold are now integrated into our collective memory, embodied in our public lands and monuments. The Antiquities Act of 1906, in rather mechanical terms is meant to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures… that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States. Signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in response to increased looting of artifacts in places like Chaco Canyon, NM, it gives the President direct authority to set aside public lands for “the protection of objects of historic and scientific interest.” Thanks to a President with an eye on the possibility of history and an understanding of his own place in it, President Obama will step down on January 20, 2017, having invoked the Antiquities Act more than any other President to create and expand 34 monuments (two more than Franklin D. Roosevelt), and protect more of our lands and waters than any of his predecessors — more than 265 million acres. Pointedly though, he deliberately deployed the Antiquities Act to “recognize key advances in the fight for a more inclusive American societyby creating 25 national parks, monuments and preserves that have cultural relevance to marginalized groups.

The National Park Service (NPS), with its system of parks, historic sites and monuments, is tasked with curating and interpreting our nation’s natural and cultural heritage. But too often in the agency’s first century, it failed to include the voices of the disenfranchised, those brushed aside by “progress” or those merely forgotten because their stories posed inconvenient truth to the popular myths of a simplified, patriotic, national narrative. The people, as historian James E. Crisp in his book, Sleuthing the Alamo suggests, had powerful stories to tell, but were not powerful.

By the time of the 2016 designation of Stonewall National Monument, in New York – the site that marks the turning point for the LGBTQ rights movement, and the first monument dedicated to that struggle it seemed clear that President Obama was committed to ensuring that the National Park Serviceon the eve of the agency’s Centennial – was poised to enter its next 100 years with a new charge: to finally foreground a more nuanced, complex and authentic story of our nation. Obama used his pulpit to give silenced, cultural ghosts, a voice. Using the Antiquities Act, the President resolved to deploy this executive authority and the charge of being the first POC-in-Chief to ensure his legacy includes a system of national parks, monuments and public lands that “are fully reflective of the nation’s diverse history and culture.”

And he did not let the waning days of his Presidency slow him down from making history. Two weeks ago, came news of the designation of Bears Ears, in Utah, and Gold Butte in Nevada, as national monuments – both sacred to local tribes, and designated to protect native sites in the true spirit of the Antiquities Act. The Bears Ears Proclamation contained provisions for management with the tribes. This marks significant evolution given the volatile past of American conservation, tainted by a federal government that suppressed Native American peoples and their culture in the name of “preservation” of western landscapes for the enjoyment of a primarily Anglo crowd.

 Last week, in a final surge of designations under the Antiquities Act, more voices, once hushed, emerged to inform the Park Service’s expanding archive. This time the President announced he would protect sites critical to the story of Reconstruction, such as Penn School, where newly-freed slaves worked to establish a school of their own as Jim Crow laws took their insidious hold; as well as sites in Alabama, where a bomb tore through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing African American children, and at Kelly Ingram Park, where Bull Connor turned hoses and dogs on young, peaceful protesters; and finally, where racially integrated activists, who called themselves the Freedom Riders, boarded a Greyhound bus to protest segregation, only to be firebombed minutes later on their tumultuous and treacherous ride for equality. Of note, up until this moment there was not a single site dedicated to the story of Reconstruction in the National Park System.

Fittingly, these all were announced in the week leading up to the Martin Luther King holiday, and ironically, as Civil Rights hero and icon John Lewis came under Twitter attack by a President-elect who seems intent on denying our messy but vital history, bullying the very people who stood for our better angels during our most challenging hours.

In these designations, President Obama gave voice to the Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite; Latino farmworkers in their fight for better working conditions in California; Japanese Americans placed in internment camps in Hawaii; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rioters at New York City’s Stonewall Inn. He highlighted a stop along the Underground Railroad in Maryland; ancestral Pueblo sites in Colorado and Utah; and a school in South Carolina, where freed slaves first sought to reclaim lives brutalized by slavery and civil war. He made history and place relevant for groups that are not used to seeing and hearing their own faces reflected in the annals of the complicated experiment known as the United States.

In early 2016, more than 30 civil rights, environmental justice, conservation and community organizations came together to form the Next 100 Coalition. Their most urgent endeavor was to build upon this President’s charge, and ask the first African American President to direct federal land management agencies to be more inclusive in the sites protected, stories told, communities engaged, and people hired as stewards of our remarkable system of national parks, forests, monuments and other national public lands. After the burst of monument declarations last week, the President – perhaps in an effort to put an exclamation point on his effort and send a message to his successorissued an unprecedented edict to promote diversity and inclusivity in our nation’s system of public lands and waters. In a Presidential Memorandum on January 12, he directed the federal agencies to “ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to experience and enjoy our public lands and waters, that all segments of the population have the chance to engage in decisions about how our lands and waters are managed, and that our Federal workforce — not just the sites it manages — is drawn from the rich range of the diversity in our Nation.”

Glenn Nelson, a member of the Next 100 and writer of the blog Trail Posse states, “The memorandum and designations set in place a blueprint for a new normal that accommodates, fosters and celebrates the ways that different groups connect with federal public lands.”

We are about to inaugurate our 45th President. It is likely the Antiquities Act will come under attack in this next Administration, amidst cries by some in Congress that it represents an overreach of executive power. Perhaps. But in the face of feckless inaction by our Congress, how do we go about preserving our past for our future? How do we tell our stories, the good and the ugly, the heroic and cowardly, the inspiring and the hopeful? How do we tell of the struggles to be a more inclusive nation – and learn from the travesties of the past? Why is a law that has helped us preserve and protect our heritage since Teddy Roosevelt first used it to protect the Grand Canyon, under attack? What are the critics really afraid of when we excavate the past?

These questions should be particularly critical to historians. The Antiquities Act is a powerful tool for history. The project of history asks questions. Whose story? Whose nation? Whose history? It strives to constantly broaden the cannon. This Act helps us preserve those narratives. As a country, we should be vigilant against efforts to roll back authority to protect our heritage, our stories, our voices. That is the relevance of our studies, our research and our words. Now more than ever.

Laurel Angell is a history Ph.D. student researching national parks.


2 thoughts on “Designating History: President Obama’s Legacy and the Power of the Antiquities Act

  1. The Angell blog essay makes me more proud to be an American who wants the whole world to visit these new sites without fear of persecution and guaranteed the same human rights under the constitutional protections enabled by the inclusive democracy that was conceived with liberty and freedom for ALL!

    Liked by 1 person

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