A monumental blow to tribes

Trump’s decision to shrink Bears Ears reopens wounds that Obama sought to heal.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

This week brought a heavy blow to several tribal communities, and no doubt many more conservationists, in the West, as President Donald Trump declared he intends to shrink two national monuments in Utah. Both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments are set to be significantly reduced. The reduction of Bears Ears in particular, which will lose more than one million acres under Trump’s proposal, was a sizable step back for the relationship between the federal government and tribes.

First, it’s important to understand that the deal to establish Bears Ears as a monument was made between several tribes and the Obama administration, and it was an unprecedented union between the federal government and tribes trying to protect sacred lands. “The process that the federal government has historically followed is prescribing what’s in the best interest of native people,” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member, told Inside Energy. “We wanted to be a big player at the table seeking solutions.”

Petroglyphs at Cedar Mesa Grand Gulch are not within the shrunken boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.

Five tribes — Navajo Nation, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah and Ouray Ute — created a coalition and lobbied the Obama administration, which designated 1.35 million acres for the monument. In his proclamation designating Bears Ears last year, which discusses in detail how “the region is unsurpassed in wonders,” Obama noted that protecting such a wide swath of land would insure the safety of more than 100,000 objects of archaeological significance. Those artifacts may now be in danger. Also in danger is the Obama administration’s effort to improve tribes’ relationship with the landscape of southern Utah, which was home to many Indigenous people and remains culturally significant to their descendants.

Obama’s designation put unprecedented management in the hands of the tribes, seating them with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service — but giving the tribes the most say in the process. The designation was endorsed by hundreds of researchers, 25 tribal governments, and the National Congress of American Indians. Mark Maryboy, who represented the conservation group Utah Diné Bikéyah, told High Country News at the time the proposal represented “a big healing process for Native Americans.” Trump’s decision, on the other hand, opens old wounds, by taking away protections from vast swaths of landscape.

Obama created Bears Ears under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that presidents have used throughout the 20th and 21st century to better protect significant American landscapes. (Grand Canyon, Teton and Olympic national parks all started as national monuments.) While no one disputes the president has the authority to establish national monuments, legal experts are now asking if the president has the authority to reduce or revoke them. In a lawsuit filed this week, the Navajo Nation argues only Congress has that power. In part, the complaint reads: “Bears Ears has been home to Native peoples since time immemorial, and is still cherished by Native peoples for its cultural, spiritual, and archaeological importance. Bears Ears contains hundreds of thousands of objects of historic and scientific importance, many traditional cultural properties, and many sacred sites.”

“If you look at the text of the proclamation itself, it is explicit that objects that are protected in the Obama proclamation are no longer protected,” said Justin Pidot, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. “It says that President Trump has decided some of those objects aren’t unique and they’re important and they’re not significant. … that is not President Trump’s decision to make.”

The state of the monument will be determined by these suits, which will take a long time to wend through the courts. If the Trump administration prevails, it would likely mean that future U.S. presidents will make large-scale monument designations — knowing they can be easily overturned. That could have major implications for places of cultural and scientific value to tribes, with more and more landscapes denigrated in service of resource exploitation — the hobgoblin of American history.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!