WASHINGTON — Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye took a stand for tribal sovereignty and preservation of the Navajo way of life Jan. 9 when he urged Congress to strike down a bill that would slash 85 percent of the land from Bears Ears National Monument.
During a legislative hearing in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, Navajo leaders opposed H.R. 4532, introduced by Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah). Also known as the Curtis Bill, the resolution seeks to nullify former President Barack Obama’s December 2016 proclamation establishing Bears Ears as a 1.35 million-acre national monument in San Juan County, Utah. The bill cuts Bears Ears to a mere 200,000 acres and divides it into two smaller monuments: the Shash Jáa unit and the Indian Creek unit.
“Protection of these lands is not negotiable,” Begaye said. “The landscape, as originally designated, is essential to the Navajo people and to the Navajo way of life. Diminishing the size of the monument puts hundreds of archeological and cultural sites at risk, and threatens our ability to strengthen our people, practice our religion and pass our traditional practices on to the next generation.”
“The Curtis Bill is not tribal-friendly,” Begaye added.
The hearing comes a month after U.S. President Donald Trump issued a proclamation calling for an 85 percent reduction of the monument. It also follows a report issued by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and commissioned by the White House that found Bears Ears was not the “smallest area compatible” with the purpose of the national monument designation.
In his Dec. 4, 2017, proclamation, Trump called for exclusion of 1.15 million acres of land he determined was “unnecessary for the care and management of the objects to be protected within the monument.”
The Curtis Bill seeks to codify Trump’s proclamation and limit the authority of the Bears Ears Commission, a planning entity comprising of representatives from the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni. The commission, formed under Obama’s proclamation, is tasked with engaging with the Interior and Agriculture departments to determine management strategies for the national monument.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred (Mexican Water, To’likan, Tees Nos Pos, Aneth and Red Mesa) also attended Tuesday’s hearing. A member of the original Bears Ears Commission, Filfred spoke against the bill.
“The bill reorganizes management of Bears Ears in a way that will undermine the commission’s effectiveness,” Filfred said. “It would relegate the commission to a position with no real input into the future management of significant cultural and historical sites.”
The Navajo Nation, along with the other four tribes represented by the Bears Ears Commission, filed a lawsuit on Dec. 4, 2017—the same day Trump signed his proclamation. The lawsuit challenges Trump’s authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to reduce or rescind national monuments.