America's history: Interior department tries to better tell history of all Americans

The Takeaway

Canyon de Chelly, within the Navajo Nation in Arizona, pictured in 1904, is one of the small number of national parks or national landmarks that recognize the cultural or historical contributions of minority groups, in this case Native Americans, to U.S.

There are thousands of national landmarks in the United States. But less than 3 percent of them are dedicated to members of minority groups, such as Latinos and women.

Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior and a former U.S. Senator from Colorado, believes more monuments should be created to honor the nation's diversity of heroes. He said the Interior Department is and can be instrumental in being the custodian of America's history.

Surprisingly, Congress agrees with him.

The Interior Department oversees all of the National Parks, the wildlife refuges and even monitors and regulates oil and natural gas drilling on public lands — both onshore and off.

"Our mission, in essence, is to be the custodian of America's natural resources and also to be the custodian of America's history," Salazar said. "It's in being the custodian of America's history that we do things like the celebration of the Civil War and the maintenance of forts in many places that are significant."

But Salazar says America's history has not been fully told.

"Just in the last year, for example, one of the things President Obama and I have done is to move forward and make sure the history of Japanese internment camps is one that is told," Salazar said.

He also cited recent efforts to address the history of African-Americans, including the preservation of Fort Monroe as a national monument to where slavery began and ended, and the opening of a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall.

"We're moving forward with an African-American museum on the national mall as well," he said. "We need to make sure that in fulfilling the mission of the Department of Interior to be the custodian of America's history that we are speaking to an inclusive of America, where the history and contribution of women and minorities groups is also told."

Salazar said just 3 percent of the nation's landmarks commemorate the historical role of women, African-Americans and Native Americans in America's development.

The department is also trying to better document the history of Latinos in the United States, he said.

"Truth of the matter is, people look at their history and their heritage — a person's self-esteem and their connection to this country comes from that," Salazar said. "If you're a young, Latino going to school, most of that history has not been told either by our National Park System or by our educational system."

Salazar, who is Latino, said he was taught when he was in school that his family had come across on the Mayflower. He said he knew from his home that it wasn't the case — that his family had helped settle the city of Santa Fe, N.M.

"We were part of Spain and Mexico for 200 years in the southwestern part of the country before we were part of the United States," he said. "It's important for all people in the United States to know their heritage and their history."

As an example of the sort of landmark that had gone unrecognized, he cites the place where César Chávez fasted for 30 days in the 1960s, in protest of the treatment of migrant farm workers. Chávez went on the found the National Farm Workers Association, which continues to fight for the rights of farm employees. The Interior Department recently made that site of his fast a national landmark.

"If we are successful, and continue to work on our program there, at some point in time it'll probably be one of the national parks," he said. "It's important that people know that all communities of this country have contributed to making this country what it is."

And finally, it seems, many politicians are coming around to agreement. With the César Chávez initiative, for example, Republican Sen. John McCain has championed the Democratic administration's efforts in the Senate.

"I think there is a sense in our country that we need to celebrate its diversity, and that has not always been the case," Salazar said. "There are some who feel more passionately about it than others, but I do think it's the kind of effort that is going to continue because we're becoming even more diverse as a nation."

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