FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The April 26 announcement of President Donald Trump to review existing monument designations, especially Bears Ears National Monument, drew quick opposition from tribes in the Southwest.
On Dec. 28, President Barack Obama designated the Bears Ears National Monument, citing its cultural importance to Native people and marking the first time tribes would have a say in managing a federal monument.
Bears Ears consists of about 1.35 million acres in Utah. It lies between Canyonlands National Park and the San Juan River and is named for its twin buttes that resemble a bear raising its head above the horizon.
Obama said in his proclamation that the preservation of Bears Ears will preserve its cultural, prehistoric and historic legacy and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources, ensuring that those resources remain for the benefit of all Americans. According to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a partnership between the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni, the area is a cultural landscape rich in antiquities, with hundreds of thousands of archaeological and cultural sites that are sacred to dozens of tribes.
Careton Bowekaty, Zuni councilman and co-chair for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said it is extremely troubling that after years of effort to protect ancestral Native lands, Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke plan to give a cursory look at Bears Ears National Monument.
“For the first time in history, five sovereign Nations came together to advocate for Bears Ears National Monumnet in order to protect this landscape that carries deep meaning for our people,” Bowekaty said. “This so-called ‘review’ creates a process to attack the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, and all public lands that are cherished by the American people.”
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred (Mexican Water, Aneth, Teecnospos, Tółikan, Red Mesa), who serves as a commissioner on the Bears Ears Tribal Commission, said the action by Trump threatens the status of the monument designation supported by numerous tribes in the Southwest.
“We are asking the Trump administration and Secretary Ryan Zinke to respect the position of the tribes, including the Navajo Nation, by upholding the national monument designation of Bears Ears and we ask that they consult with us and address the concerns of the Bears Ears Tribal Commission as this issue moves forward,” Filfred said.
Filfred said the Antiquities Act clearly provides the authority for U.S. presidents to designate areas as national monuments. However, the Act does not provide for a president to reverse or undo a designation.
The Western Caucus, which says it is committed to protecting private property rights, strengthening local control, fostering economic growth, preserving multiple-use of public land and increasing energy independence, said that Obama’s designation was a land-grab. (However, the land in question is public land administered through the federal government, not private property, which would be administered through the state.)
“Over the years, the original intent of the Antiquities Act has morphed well beyond the original intent of the Act, which was to preserve the ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,’” said Western Caucus Chairman Paul Gosar (AZ-04). “These land grabs occur with no input from Congress or the local communities most impacted by the designations.”
Navajo Nation Council members have supported the Bears Ears National Monument through several resolutions, including the most recent resolution passed in January, which supports Obama’s proclamation establishing the Bears Ears National Monument and opposes any congressional action that seeks to reverse the designation that created the national monument.
“This is not only the Navajo Nation that supports the Bears Ears National Monument, but it is a coalition of tribes that have come together to protect our homelands and we want leadership at the federal level to meet with us to discuss the Executive Order,” said Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates (Nenahnezad, Newcomb, San Juan, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tse’Daa’Kaan, Upper Fruitland).
“We do not want our efforts to be diminished by the federal government. The status of the Bears Ears National Monument must remain intact for the benefit of the tribes and the state of Utah,” Filfred said.
The Navajo Nation has reached out to Zinke to meet and discuss its concerns and to demonstrate its overwhelming support of the Bears Ears National Monument designation.
Zinke’s two-part review will first be directed toward the Bears Ears National Monument. The secretary has been directed to report back to the president on suggested legislative or executive action within 120 days.
For decades, tribal nations have fought to protect the cultural and spiritual significance that is encompassed within the area of the Bears Ears.
“Tribal nations have always advocated for a voice in the management of the area because of its great cultural and historical value,” Begaye said. “Inherent in the Bears Ears National Monument designation lies tribal responsibility in guiding management of the area. It affords us the right to protect and preserve the sanctity of the land from which we harvest traditional medicines, and that we hold in reverence as the birthplace of our ancestors.”
Begaye emphasized that Bears Ears National Monument designation is a victory on behalf of tribal nations and not for any particular presidential administration.
“This has been a collective effort for tribal nations which has gone back into many presidential administrations,” he said. “It was only after heavy consultation from tribal nations that the Obama administration moved on the designation. This designation supports tribal sovereignty. We are asking President Trump and Secretary Zinke, in their review of the designations, to uphold tribal sovereignty as mandated through our treaties with the federal government.”
Monument management of Bears Ears is to be guided in part by a Bears Ears Commission made up of commissioners from five tribes whose members continue to use the Monument for cultural and religious purposes presently.
Vice President Jonathan Nez said that the Navajo Nation has stood in solidarity with tribes who supported the Bears Ears National Monument.
“We have stood together to preserve this sacred area that has protected our people since time immemorial,” Nez said. “We will continue to work together to fight for the protection of Bears Ears. This iconic landmark protected our Navajo ancestors from the incursion of property theft and forced removal by the Spaniards and Americans. It is our time to protect these lands that shielded our tribes from genocide.”