RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today in Las Vegas, tribal leaders will join Nevada's senior senator, Harry Reid, in releasing their latest report tracking the widespread vandalism of ancient cultural artifacts on a piece of federal land there. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports the tribes are pressuring the Obama administration to permanently protect the area known as Gold Butte, a place they consider sacred.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When rancher Cliven Bundy claimed his family of Mormon pioneers had ancestral rights to the land in Gold Butte, Nev., Vernon Lee scoffed.
VERNON LEE: As a native and as the tribe that actually had that land, you know, granted by the federal government back in the 1800s, he really doesn't got a right at all. If anybody's got a right, it would be the Moapa Band of Paiutes.
SIEGLER: Lee, a former tribal councilman, is sitting on a lawn chair in the shade of his mobile home on the Moapa River Reservation. An air conditioner hanging from a side window hums. He swats away flies as he recalls how the tribes' land once included all of Gold Butte but was later shrunk tenfold by the U.S. government. Today, the reservation is just this small sliver of desert north of Cliven Bundy's place and adjacent to a coal-fired power plant.
LEE: To be quite candid, I wish they would give it all back. But realistically, that probably won't happen.
SIEGLER: So the Southern Paiute tribes in Nevada are proposing another plan. Now that Bundy and his militia of followers are in jail, awaiting a federal conspiracy trial, they sense a small window of opportunity before President Obama leaves office. They want him to designate Gold Butte as a national monument.
LEE: We want to protect the lands. We want to protect the animals. And we want our sacred sites protected. And right now, the best thing we can think of is to go on this side of this creation of a monument to get those protections.
SIEGLER: Now such a designation would be a bittersweet end to an especially rough few years for the tribes. After the armed standoff on the Bundy ranch, the federal government stopped managing Gold Butte entirely, due to safety concerns. Until recently, it was lawless. Bundy's cows are still trespassing. Kenny Anderson is cultural director for the Las Vegas Paiute tribe.
KENNY ANDERSON: We were out there a while back with a bunch of elders. There was a lot of cattle roaming this area, stomping on stuff. There was petroglyphs that they were walking on. There was cow patties everywhere, and I'm just, like, dang - what the heck?
SIEGLER: It's not just the cows that Anderson is concerned about. He shows me a thick stack of documents detailing evidence of people shooting bullets at petroglyphs and theft of ancient pottery and arrowheads. There are photos of off-road vehicle tracks cutting across plants his people have gathered for centuries.
ANDERSON: I don't know if it's because of they weren't told about things like this, or maybe they weren't concerned with what history is. It's a mystery.
SIEGLER: But the irony here is that the Bundy standoff may end up helping the tribes' cause. There's a lot more public attention being paid to these historical lands than in recent memory - and not just here in Nevada either.
There's a plan to transfer ownership of the National Bison Range to tribes in Montana. In Utah, five tribes that want to create a massive, jointly managed national monument have the ear of the Obama administration. National monument designations that bypass Congress are hugely controversial. Western historian Patty Limerick says it's not uncommon for a president to wait until the very last minute.
PATTY LIMERICK: Bill Clinton, I guess - and his secretary of interior, Bruce Babbitt - they had quite a realistic recognition that the Democrats were not going to be carrying Utah in the 1990s. And so they would go ahead with national monuments whether or not the people of Utah thought that was a cool idea or not.
SIEGLER: Now in Nevada, in a presidential election year, the politics are even more sensitive.
LEE: (Unintelligible) Just go in - over the left.
SIEGLER: And you'll meet a lot of tribal activists, like Vernon Lee, who are still pretty pessimistic.
LEE: I can't help but think we're just playing political football. I don't think anybody wants to move and do anything for Indian country because it's not a popular thing to do, and it's all about the votes.
SIEGLER: Lee says, in Indian country, justice is slow to come, if it comes at all. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.