A Personal Perspective on the Kw'tsán National Monument

by Jordan Joaquin, President of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe

As the sun rises over the vast deserts of Imperial County, California, its golden rays illuminate a landscape that holds the very essence of my people. For centuries, the Quechan people have walked these lands, our feet tracing the paths of our ancestors, our hearts beating in rhythm with the desert winds.

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This land is not just our home; it is a living, breathing part of who we are. It carries our history, our stories, and our spirits. These lands also continue to be a vital part of our community today – not only for the cultural significance, but also for the great ecological value they hold.

To the Quechan people, the land is more than just a physical space – it is a living part of us. As original stewards of this land, we have asked President Biden to help us protect this sacred landscape by designating it as Kw'tsán National Monument.

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Our proposed Kw'tsán National Monument would cover over 380,000 acres, incorporating key landmarks including Avikwalal (Pilot Knob), Palo Verde Peak, and the Indian Pass Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). It would also include Singer Geoglyphs (ACEC), Buzzards Peak, and Picacho Peak Wilderness areas. These are not just geographical features – they are cultural spaces that hold our history and the spirits of our ancestors.

Our Sacred Connection

Others may see the land as mere soil and rocks, but we see it in our DNA. We come from the air, the water, the land. This connection is who we are, and protecting these lands is crucial to preserving our past and safeguarding our future.

The area we are working to protect includes sacred sites, petroglyphs, and trails that are integral to our cultural heritage. These sites are places where our ancestors walked, where they left their marks, and where their spirits still reside.

Protecting these lands means allowing us to continue our cultural practices, ceremonies, and traditions in our ancestral homeland. It means ensuring that our children and grandchildren can walk the same trails and feel the same connection to the land that we do.

Preserving Our Cultural and Ecological Heritage

The Kw'tsán National Monument is a reclamation of our identity that would help us protect our culture, heritage, traditions, and our language. The trails encompassed within this area connect us back to the spirit world. For our Tribe, it’s important for us to show future generations who we are and to see our footprints in the desert.

Ecologically, the region is home to diverse plants and wildlife, contributing to the rich biodiversity of the California desert. The desert flora includes cacti, yucca, and creosote bushes, which have adapted to survive in the harsh environment and are vital to the ecosystem.

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This vegetation provides habitat and food for many species, including desert tortoises, jackrabbits, and various birds. The monument would help protect these plants and animals from the threats of habitat destruction and environmental degradation.

The unique desert ecology supports a delicate balance of life that has evolved over millennia. The diverse wildlife, from the smallest insects to the majestic bighorn sheep, plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of this ecosystem. Kw'tsán National Monument would help these species continue to thrive. It would also protect the ability of our elders to collect herbs and plants used for traditional ceremonies and for healing.

Challenges and Opportunities

This proposal has garnered significant support from other Tribes, elected officials, conservation groups, businesses, and people across the local community and nationally. However, there are challenges ahead, particularly from those interested in mining our homelands and the places our local community goes to recreate.

On March 21, 2024, we celebrated a significant win when the Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to deny the Oro Cruz exploration gold mining project in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains. This area, which holds immense cultural and historical importance, was under threat from exploratory drilling operations. The decision was a testament to the power of persistent advocacy from our Tribal government, our citizens, and our allied land protection groups. We presented science-based evidence highlighting the destruction this project would cause, and the Board recognized the cultural and environmental devastation that would ensue.

Councilman Jonathan Koteen articulated our collective relief and gratitude: “Like many Tribal Nations throughout this country, we consistently find ourselves having to defend the integrity of our homelands, our spirituality, and the deep cultural roots we have in this area. We are thankful to the experts who supported our claims and for the many voices that remained steadfast in helping us advocate for a place that, to this day, provides us the opportunity to practice who we are.”

Mining will not only damage cultural sites, it will scar the land and potentially poison our water. Mining will impact the ability to recreate in these areas and disrupt the habitat wildlife depend on for survival. Mining on these lands must be rejected, and one of the best ways to prevent unchecked development is through national monument designation.

The Path Forward

We are calling on the Biden Administration to put an end to the constant threats these lands face. We urge him to use the Antiquities Act to designate this monument and to establish an inter-governmental stewardship agreement to better manage these lands into the future. This agreement would ensure that Quechan values, knowledge, and expertise are integral to the monument's management plan. It would allow us to continue our cultural activities, ceremonies, and gatherings within the protected area.

Today we stand on the precipice of great change and time is not on our side. To realize the Kw'tsán National Monument, we need sustained advocacy and public support to ensure President Biden helps us protect these sacred lands in the remaining months of his term. The Kw'tsán National Monument represents a pivotal opportunity to honor and protect a landscape that is vital to both our cultural identity, ecological health, and the local community’s resilience. Anaymatt kutt uu ook kavah show’k (protect our culture).

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All the photos are of lands within the proposed Kw'tsán National Monument.

They were taken by Bob Wick and are used courtesy of the campaign to Protect Kw'tsán National Monument.

Jordan D. Joaquin was born and raised on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe. He served two terms as a council member and in December 2018 he was elected as Tribal President, a position which he still holds. In March of 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed President Joaquin to a seat on the Colorado River Board of California. President Joaquin believes in building strong partnerships with local, state, and federal agencies essential in achieving goals for all tribes and surrounding communities.