Walking around the Old Woman Mountain Preserve, our Learning Landscapes students are always struck by how this preserve connects them to all parts of the desert. From their campsites on the northeastern side of the Old Woman Mountains, they gaze down the bajada to the Ward Valley. Faint imprints mark Native American trails that have been used for thousands of years, while more recent tracks mark the locations of Gen. George Patton’s Desert Training Center activities. Beyond the Ward Valley, the students’ eyes catch mountain ranges 40 miles away, in Arizona and Nevada.

Over the course of a weekend — including Nov. 4-5 — Learning Landscapes students see and experience the history of interconnectedness that characterizes the East Mojave Desert. These Native American youth walk on the trails that link ancient village sites to desert springs, and learn histories and skills from tribal elders. Students are offered the rare opportunity to spend quality time with elders as they cook native plants, listen to stories, and stargaze.

The Learning Landscapes program is unique because it does more than just pass cultural knowledge from one generation to the next; it fosters interaction with, and appreciation for, the entire landscape. Students learn not only about one mountain range and its history, but how the Old Woman Mountains are connected to the entire eastern Mojave Desert through rich networks of trails and stories. They learn about the landscapes and themselves. This program transforms the lives of these youth, many of who have never even been camping before.

Since 1998, the Native American Land Conservancy has worked to protect and preserve Native American sacred landscapes, including the Old Woman Mountains Preserve. Our biggest challenge has been to insist on comprehensive protection of sacred landscapes rather than the protection of individual sacred sites as standalone locations. Trails and histories connect sacred sites, and these connections make sacred sites valuable to tribes and the Native American Land Conservancy. While each site is important individually, they derive their sacred nature from their relationships to other sites — through physical and spiritual trails. To protect them, we can’t consider them as a collection of individual places, but rather a landscape of interconnections — just as the students in our Learning Landscapes programs learn to do.

The recent designation of the Mojave Trails National Monument has protected a broad area around our preserve. It ensures the continued protection of the Ward Valley and the trails that traverse it, and maintains the qualities and connections that continue to make the Old Woman Mountains such an important place for Native Americans. The Mojave Trails National Monument, like many other protected public lands, is not only a testament to our past. This monument both recognizes the history of the place and helps us build new connections; they allow us to learn from our students and our communities about what the future of the desert will be.

Julia Sizek is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and an associate scholar with the Native American Land Conservancy.

by Julia Sizek, guest, San Bernardino Sun

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