Indigenous Voices: Walking in Beauty on our Public Lands

Hilary Tompkins & Angelo Baca
|November 24, 2020

The Navajo–or Diné–have a life philosophy which loosely translated in English means “walk in beauty.” But like most translations, much is lost in other languages.

This short phrase refers to the life-long goal of attaining harmony within the universe on an existential level; of achieving human existence in balance with space, time, wildlife, nature, science, the seasons, the four directions, and so on; in a way that flows without disruption. Navajo rug weavers symbolically express these themes in their rugs by always including one open line in the pattern to allow for movement out of the tight weave.

Today’s turbulent and perilous times would benefit from a dose of Navajo tradition and philosophy. The country is battling a deadly virus, the rule of law is under threat, the environment is suffering from climate change, and the scourge of racial injustice remains unabated. Sadly, our tribal communities suffer from a confluence of these adverse forces, as are other communities of color.


Centuries of subjugation, extreme poverty, and a lack of running water have created the perfect storm for the virus to take hold on the Navajo reservation and beyond. The Navajo Nation has suffered the highest per capita rate of infection in the country, with 14,612 positive cases and 626 deaths. Our people are resilient and will get through this tough time, but we are tired of shouldering these dire statistics.

In the face of hardship, there exists a new opportunity for healing and restoring balance to the universe. One place where healing can occur is on our public lands.

President-elect Biden won the election on a clean energy platform that would stop the expansion of fossil fuel development on public lands, restore the designation of national monuments such as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, and return a stewardship lens to the Interior Department’s management of our public lands. The health of the land is tied to the health of people and holistic healing means restoring land conservation.

Native Americans are a key part of ensuring the success of this vision. We can provide important traditional knowledge about the affected landscapes that have been passed down generation after generation. We possess vast amounts of land that are ideally situated for solar and wind energy development. Also, our traditional knowledge and western science can be useful for improved land management practices.

Some tribes have also been subject to federal policies that created a financial dependency on fossil fuel development. Part of restoring order will be ensuring a more just transition to clean energy and a conservation mission providing jobs to tribal members who were employed in the energy sector on the reservation.

“Walking in beauty” is not driven by a unitary objective but is achieved when multiple objectives are in balance in a complicated and dynamic world. We invite you to walk with us now, a path never more complicated and historically difficult to move forward on, but beautiful nonetheless if we can do it together.

Our public lands were once aboriginal lands. Before these lands were “public” they were, are, and always will be Indigenous homelands. Nothing could be more American than for our first Americans to help restore order to America’s lands through a philosophy of stewardship and protection for generations to come.



About the authors

Hilary Tompkins is a Board Member of the Conservation Lands Foundation, the former Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and a member of the Navajo Nation.

Angelo Baca is a Board Member of the Conservation Lands Foundation, the Cultural Resources Coordinator for the Indigenous-led non-profit, Utah Diné Bikéyah, and a member of the Diné and Hopi tribal nations.

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