Today President Biden signed the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument into law, which protects over 500,000 acres of land in Southern Nevada. The National Monument is named after and extends protections around the adjacent mountain – called Avi Kwa Ame in the Mojave language and Spirit Mountain in English. Beyond the protections that the national monument designation grants to plants and wildlife, the mountain and the lands around it are a site of great cultural significance: they are the creation site for the Fort Mojave, Cocopah, Quechan and other regional tribes. For the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, the soul originates at Avi Kwa Ame and eventually reaches the end of its journey 40 miles south down the Colorado River. The mountain and surrounding landscape is also sacred to other tribes in southwest that regularly traveled through the area.
Today’s national monument designation extends preservation work already done in the area. One of these is the long fight against a low-level nuclear waste landfill once proposed to be built in Ward Valley, part of the Mojave Desert just south of the new national monument. The Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, Quechan and Colorado River Indian Tribes and their allies in the anti-nuclear, anti-toxics and environmental justice movements successfully fought off the construction of this landfill between the late 1980s and the early 2000s. The landfill threatened the endangered desert tortoise, had the potential to contaminate the Colorado River (which supplies drinking water to millions), and would have desecrated the landscape over which the Mojave soul travels. The fight was long, and involved community organizing, lawsuits, spiritual practices, international solidarity work and direct action. Perhaps the most dramatic of these tactics was a 113-day occupation of the federally owned land where the landfill was to be built.
The people who won the Ward Valley battle have hosted annual ceremonies to commemorate the land occupation that was part of their winning strategy, practice cultural rites, and pass on the story of their victory to the next generation. Their 25th anniversary ceremonies last month brought people from near and far together, and was a wonderful opportunity to publicly launch the Ward Valley Archive, which hosts over 1300 (and counting!) digitized campaign documents from privately held activists files. The Fort Mojave Tribe also printed an abbreviated campaign timeline for display, and distributed the digitized archival files to leaders from the other four core tribes involved in the campaign.
When we accomplish great things, it’s common to say that we “stand on the shoulder’s of giants.” Today’s creation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument stands on the shoulders of tireless activists like those who dedicated their lives to protecting the land at Ward Valley, and in doing so arduously built public understanding for Native American life and claims to the land.
For more on the Ward Valley campaign, see the links page at the Ward Valley Archive, and listen to this interview with former Fort Mojave Tribal Chair Nora McDowell here.