Indigenous Advocates Call for Permanent Protection for the Owyhee

Author: Karly Foster |  Published: November 15, 2023 |  Category: Look Back

Representatives of four tribal communities traveled to Washington, D.C., with ONDA to advocate for permanent protection for Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands.

ONDA, tribal representatives, community groups and other conservation advocates are campaigning to protect more than one million acres of public land in southeastern Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands. Indigenous leaders from throughout this expansive region joined us in Washington, D.C., in October to encourage decision makers to permanently protect the landscape. Home to Bannock, Shoshone and Northern Paiute peoples since time immemorial, tribes continue to hold deep, ancestral reverence for the Owyhee.

The Owyhee Canyonlands advocacy team poses in front of the Capitol building. Left to right: Myron Smart (Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes), Ka’ila Farrell- Smith (Klamath, Modoc), Gary McKinney (Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley), Karly Foster (ONDA Campaign Manager), Wilson Wewa (Northern Paiute, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs), Ryan Houston (ONDA Executive Director). Photo: Will Fadley

The Owyhee Canyonlands remains essential to tribal members that depend on the landscape for sustenance and spiritual relationship. ONDA was pleased to join tribal elders, members and activists in the capital to meet with a multitude of officials in Washington, D.C. Empowered by a history of place, the tribal leaders spoke directly and from the heart to representatives and administrators about the immeasurable cultural, social and ecological importance of this sacred landscape and called for immediate conservation action.

The momentum to protect the Owyhee is undeniable. In addition to Senator Wyden’s legislative proposal that was built from years of collaborative conversations and calls on Congress to protect the region’s natural wonders, the Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument Campaign also requests President Biden to designate the Owyhee as the nation’s next national monument. Our week in Washington, D.C., moved both of these initiatives forward. From one meeting to the next, with the Department of the Interior, at the White House, and on Capitol Hill, one truth remained constant: the time to protect the Owyhee is now.

Our group of advocates kicked off our week with a briefing in the U.S. Senate offices, where we welcomed legislators and staff to learn from Indigenous leaders about the cultural and traditional resources in the Owyhee Canyonlands, and the need to protect this vital landscape.

Gary McKinney sharing a map of the Owyhee Canyonlands with staff for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Photo: Karly Foster

“We have held the Owyhee as sacred lands long before it was called, ‘Owyhee’… We need the protection of the Owyhee Canyonlands for the protection of our sacred sites and we are here to support that. Today, we can’t forget, so this is why I’m reminding those here in Washington [D.C.], that this protection of the Owyhee Canyonlands is [crucial] to the way that we want to preserve our lifestyles and teach them to our next seven generations. And to us, that is more important than anything…”  -Gary McKinney, Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley

An excited Myron Smart marvels at this landmark moment when Indigenous representatives advocated to the Biden administration to protect the Owyhee. Photo: Karly Foster

The team then met with congressional leaders from Oregon and other key western states, as well as staff on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Importantly, our group also visited with administrators at both the Department of the Interior and the Council on Environmental Quality who would be responsible for making the Owyhee Canyonlands a national monument.

At every meeting, tribal leaders shared moving, heartfelt anecdotes and reflections on the importance of the Owyhee Canyonlands. They made a strong case for protecting the Owyhee on behalf of the plants and animals, wildlands and waters, ancestors and future generations that will continue to love and depend on this landscape.

In between meetings, our group also viewed not one, but two works of art by advocate and professional artist, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, whose works are on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art. In the first photo pictured below, her piece “G’ EE’ LA” (2018), in an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art called “The Land Carries our Ancestors,” was influenced by petroglyphs found on Hart Mountain, in Oregon’s high desert, a place she has a strong connection to. In the fourth photo pictured below, the Owyhee advocacy team poses next to Ka’ila’s piece titled “Enrollment” (2014) on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the exhibit “Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea.”



Chad Brown on Fly Fishing

Chad Brown on Fly Fishing


John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

Restoration is hard slow work. It takes hold, or it doesn’t, in fits and starts. The immensity of the need can be discouraging, but we must carry on. I am so thankful ONDA carries on.


Julie Weikel on Wilderness

Julie Weikel on Wilderness

Our trip to Washington, D.C., is the latest chapter in our decades of advocacy where the ONDA community has championed the urgent need to protect the irreplaceable Owyhee Canyonlands.

Partnering and advocating alongside tribal leaders is a heartening and critical step in our enduring effort to ensure a healthy and vibrant Owyhee for all those who love this quintessential place.

To join our Protect the Owyhee campaign, go to