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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • 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...