Friends of Friends: Archaeology Southwest

Editor’s Note: Friends of Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks are fortunate to be part of a network of grassroots organizations across the country. Friends of Friends is a series of blog posts from partner organizations that inspire and motivate our work. Together we are protecting, restoring and expanding our nation’s most iconic public lands. We also work with partners here in New Mexico to overcome obstacles we face as a state and a community.  Our collective efforts help preserve our history and culture, protect vital wildlife and ecology, educate and engage families and build strong vibrant communities, improving the quality of life for residents and visitors.  Our work is challenging and we face many obstacles. Yet we move forward knowing that our contributions shape the world around us and define it for future generations.

We hope you enjoy learning about these individuals and organizations and help support us all.

By Aaron Wright, PhD

Ancestral Pueblo masonry buildings within Bears Ears National Monument. Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.

Whether one knows these deserts and mountains as home, falls spellbound during a tour of its landscapes’ geological and cultural wonders, or admires said wonders through the frame of a camera lens, the iconic landscapes of the American Southwest touch the lives of many, and always have. Indeed, places such as the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Zion—among many others—are engrained in our nation’s identity.

This is due, in large part, to the foresight and conservation values of President Theodore Roosevelt, champion and signer of the 1906 Antiquities Act. This Act is one of the nation’s most effective and important tools for conserving myriad places of “historic and scientific interest.” It empowers the president to designate federal lands as national monuments, thus ensuring later generations can appreciate and experience such places into perpetuity.

Theodore Roosevelt (second from left) and companions at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior, National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection, Harpers Ferry Center.

The geological and cultural landscapes of the American Southwest were front and center as this cornerstone legislation was written. In the 1880s, rampant looting of world-renowned archaeological sites, especially among the colossal ruins of the Four Corners region, directed Congress’s attention at developing a means to permanently protect these imperiled landscapes. The Antiquities Act is the fruit of that vision and determination.

Of Theodore Roosevelt’s 18 uses of this awesome privilege, more than half honored and preserved places and landscapes in the American Southwest. With the two most recent designations—Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada and Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah—the relationship between the Antiquities Act and conservation of the Southwest’s “crowning jewels” remains strong.

Joshua trees amid the landscape of Gold Butte National Monument. Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.

Archaeology Southwest, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, shares the vision and hope that was enshrined in the Antiquities Act over a century ago. We practice Preservation Archaeology, and have done so for over three decades. Preservation Archaeology is a holistic, conservation-based approach to exploring the places of the past. By exploring what makes a place special, sharing this knowledge in innovative ways, and enacting flexible site protection strategies, we foster meaningful connections to the past while respectfully safeguarding its irreplaceable resources.

The cover of a special double issue of Archaeology Southwest Magazine dedicated to archaeological and natural wonders now protected within Bears Ears National Monument. Design by Kathleen Bader.

With our commitment to conservation and public engagement, Archaeology Southwest joins with partner organizations to establish, support, and defend national monuments—and the National Conservation Lands more broadly. In 2013, we allied with the Wilderness Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to address the adverse effects of recreational target shooting on sensitive areas within the Sonoran Desert National Monument (SDNM). This legal action has prompted a number of revisions to the SDNM Resource Management Plan, each aimed at better protecting the fragile cultural and natural resources (“monument objects”) for which the SDNM was established.

Archaeology Southwest has also been a strong advocate for new national monuments that serve to recognize and honor the Southwest’s many Native American communities. We joined with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, Utah Diné Bikéyah, Friends of Cedar Mesa, and many other organizations in urging President Obama to establish the Bears Ears National Monument. As the successful Bears Ears campaign has proven, grassroots efforts at the community level, coupled with the collective voice of a diverse body of citizens, can bring about real action at the highest levels of government.

Archaeology Southwest president and CEO Bill Doelle (left) attending a site visit with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (second from right) and others in 2016 to make the case for establishing Bears Ears National Monument. Photo courtesy of Josh Ewing, Friends of Cedar Mesa.

In southwestern Arizona, we press forward with a collaborative campaign to protect and celebrate the Great Bend of the Gila. Craggy mountains jut out of plains of hardened lava along this lower stretch of the Gila River. With its black canvas, this landscape is renowned for its world-class rock art and geoglyphs, but it is also contains a palimpsest of trails and wagon roads that speak to millennia of people’s movements across this lunar-like terrain. The Great Bend region is truly unique, but it is also quite fragile. The desert pavements and basalt cliffs that bear the marks of years long past lie exposed to nature’s forces and people’s neglect.

Archaeology Southwest has been exploring the Great Bend region for three decades. Having witnessed the rapid expansion of urban Phoenix over that same time frame, in 2009 we began to consider how this truly remarkable landscape could be preserved. Such action is needed to insure this cultural landscape remains intact and unfragmented so that people from all walks of life can continue to visit, experience, and draw inspiration and meaning from this crowning jewel of the southern Southwest.

Saguaro catci (Carnegiea gigantea) tower overhead in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.

In 2013, and again in 2016, Representative Raúl Grijalva introduced legislation to establish a 84,000-acre Great Bend of the Gila National Monument (GBGNM). In support of this effort, Archaeology Southwest published an overview of the proposed monument’s archaeological and historical significance. We then sought to understand how contemporary Native American communities connect with this landscape, and to amplify their voices in the broader discussion circulating about the national monument effort. We widely shared the final report, as well as the prior cultural resource study, with legislators, land managers, and the interested public. Both are available as free .pdf downloads on our website.

Members of the Tohono O’odham Nation and Gila River Indian Community visit the former Sil Murk village on May 14, 2013. In anticipation of flooding this village and much of the adjacent Gila Bend Indian Reservation with the pending Painted Rock Reservoir, in the early 1960s the Army Corp of Engineers relocated the residents of Sil Murk and several other O’odham villages to present-day San Lucy village. These ancestral villages, now on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, are a central part of the cultural landscape of the Great Bend of the Gila. Photo courtesy of Andy Laurenzi.

At least 13 contemporary Native American tribes in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, as well as Native communities in Sonora and Baja California, Mexico, have ancestral ties to the Great Bend of the Gila. Each has expressed concern over the protection of this ancestral landscape, and eight have formally endorsed the proposed GBGNM. Archaeology Southwest continues to work with these partners, as well as local communities around the Great Bend of the Gila, legislators, and other stakeholders.

Through the frame of Preservation Archaeology, we know that sharing the significance of these places of the past with a far larger audience—in tandem with amplifying the stories, concerns, and interests of descendant communities—is fundamental for achieving long-term protection of ancestral lands and cultural landscapes. This is not just the case in the American Southwest, but across and country and beyond.

About Aaron Wright, PhD

Dr. Aaron Wright is a Preservation Archaeologist at Archaeology Southwest. Aaron joined Archaeology Southwest’s staff as a Preservation Fellow in August 2006, and completed his PhD in anthropology at Washington State University in 2011. Aaron’s fellowship concerned the rock art at South Mountain Park in Phoenix, where he guided volunteers in archaeological survey methods and rock-art recording. Aaron used data obtained from these surveys to research Hohokam ritual behavior and landscape utilization. Today, he continues to document important rock art sites and their archaeological contexts across southern Arizona. He leads Archaeology Southwest’s efforts to establish the Great Bend of the Gila National Monument, and has worked extensively with many of the tribes who have cultural connections to that landscape.

Members of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe and the Ak Chin Indian Community, Aaron Wright and Bill Doelle of Archaeology Southwest, and Representative Raúl Grijalva (fifth from right) at a press conference on August 29, 2016 in support of the proposed Great Bend of the Gila National Monument. Photo courtesy of Elias Butler.

About Archaeology Southwest

Archaeology Southwest is a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that explores and protects the places of our past across the American Southwest and Mexican Northwest. For three decades, Archaeology Southwest has practiced a holistic, conservation-based approach known as Preservation Archaeology. By exploring what makes a place special, sharing this knowledge in innovative ways, and enacting flexible site protection strategies, we foster meaningful connections to the past and respectfully safeguard its irreplaceable resources.

Learn more at