About half an hour northwest of Laughlin in Nevada’s pointy southern tip lies Avi Kwa Ame, the Yuman name for what English speakers call “Spirit Mountain.” Its jagged granite peaks, which reach nearly 6,000 feet high, stand out from the surrounding Newberry Mountains. What non-natives grasp as visually striking, native people understand as intrinsic to their existence. It’s the center of the origin story for several Yuman-speaking tribes of the lower Colorado River, such as the Chemehuevi, Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, and Yavapai. This is, in part, the impetus behind a new effort to have the mountain and some 380,000 surrounding acres designated the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
“There are some things that aren’t to be revealed, so I have to figure out how to convey what it means to us,” says Linda Otero, director of the Pipa Aha Macav Cultural Center in Mohave, California, and a member of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. As the Yuman band nearest Avi Kwa Ame, the Mojave are considered its caretakers. “There’s a spiritual connection that each one of us acknowledges and recognizes, so my story may be different than how someone else relates it. But … our origin, our beginnings, our teachings, what we need to do as people are given to us by way of connection with that mountain. The river represents who we are, people of the river. And the mountain is part of that.”
“Native people don’t look at boundaries the way we do,” says Alan O’Neill, an advisor to the National Parks Conservation Association and former superintendent of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. “The affiliated Yuman tribes used to travel up and down the Colorado River, and in their mythology, this is where they emerged from one dimension into the Earth dimension. So, it’s incredibly important to them. It’s not just a mountain, it’s the entire landscape. It’s a cultural landscape.”
This significance, in addition to the abundant ecological and recreational resources in the area, explain why proponents of the designation believe it needs protection. But why national monument status, particularly under a presidential administration that, if anything, has been hostile to the Antiquities Act? (Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump ordered his Interior Secretary to review a long list of national monuments — including Basin and Range and Gold Butte in Southern Nevada — with an eye toward scaling back or even eliminating them.)
Otero and O’Neill see it as the next logical step in a long process. In 1988, a council of Yuman elders, recognizing that their homeland was vulnerable to development, laid out a preservation plan. Otero is one of many in the current generation working to carry it out bit by bit, as opportunities — and likeminded partners, such as O’Neill — present themselves. In 1999, Spirit Mountain was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Three years later, the mountain and 33,500 surrounding acres in the southeastern corner of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area were named the Spirit Mountain Wilderness (which also overlaps the Paiute-Eldorado Valley Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC). But these successes were only pieces of the puzzle.
“It’s long been a thorn in the side of me and others that we needed to step up and protect it,” O’Neill says. “When we were fighting the Crescent Peak wind (turbine) project we learned of all this land with no protection on it. The reason it wasn’t included in the ACEC was, they saw the wind project on the horizon. With several hundred wind towers between 500 and 700 feet tall … It would have created an industrial island in the middle of these incredible ecological and cultural resources.”
The BLM killed that project in 2018. A year later, a Southern California coalition of tribes and environmentalists defeated the Cadiz project (perhaps temporarily), a plan to pump 16 billion gallons of groundwater per year from the Mojave Desert and pipe it to L.A. Anyone who cared about the area knew it was only a matter of time until the next proposed development cropped up.
Furthermore, a look at a Southwest U.S. map shows a stark difference between the Nevada and California sides of the area in question. The western side of the borderline is stacked with federally protected areas — the Mojave National Preserve, Castle Mountains National Monument, Dead Mountain Wilderness, and Mojave Trails National Monument. To the east of the line, it’s mostly open land up to the western edge of Lake Mead.
So, beginning in late 2018, O’Neill, Otero, and others began working together to identify the area they thought needed protection. They overlaid the Nature Conservancy’s Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment with a representation of what the Mojave and other tribes agreed were their sacred lands. As the two lined up, a boundary took shape.
The Avi Kwa Ame National Monument would sweep up the Southern McCullough and Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wildernesses and abut the Spirit Mountain Wilderness/Lake Mead — as well as those protected areas on the California side — to circumscribe the entire cultural and ecological landscape. This would have the benefit, O’Neill adds, of protecting interconnected habitat and migration corridors for the myriad wildlife living there, including Desert Tortoise, Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, and western chuckwalla.
O’Neill explained that protection of the same area proposed for Avi Kwa Ame National Monument was included in the latest Clark County public lands management plan. That plan fell into disfavor with many of the same conservation groups who support federal protection for the area in the national monument proposal. So, O’Neill, Otero, and their fellow believers decided the best approach was to carve out a separate idea that could be incorporated into a revised, more palatable, county lands management plan; or taken up as either a congressional bill or — if control of the White House changes parties — an executive order.
“We hope the issues of additional (public lands) disposal and sprawl can be addressed in the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act,” O’Neill says, “but if not, we wanted to get this standalone proposal out in the public eye to build awareness of the area and momentum towards its preservation.”
“We never forget these places,” Otero says. “It takes a lot of teaching. Those land managers and other jurisdictions that possess land that are part of us — sometimes it gets long and tiring explaining to them what it means. … From where we are, any direction in this valley, you can see the mountain prominently, and if you don’t see it, you feel it. It’s like the hub, the power source. It emanates power.”