Ryan Zinke’s autocratic monument review leak confirmed fears shared by environmentalists and Native Americans: the current administration is attacking national monument designations that protect culturally and ecologically unique areas. Bears Ears national monument in Southeast Utah was a central point of concern in the Department of the Interior’s so-called review after Utah politicians pressured the federal government to shrink its boundaries to scrap it completely. But Bears Ears is part of a bigger issue. How we protect Bears Ears (or otherwise fail to do so) will directly reflect of our respect for Native peoples who have inhabited and fundamentally shaped these regions on timescales we can hardly imagine.
Some see Bears Ears as a “midnight monument”, designated by Obama at the tail end of his presidency to secure his legacy. But reacting negatively to the designation of Bears Ears as a protected monument strictly because of who designated it a National Monument and when they did it is asinine at best. Insisting that it’d be better preserved if it didn’t have attention as a monument or that Utah could better manage it are both historically misinformed and factually unsupported arguments, however well-intentioned some folk may be who make these arguments. And most importantly, it would be just plain ignorant to decontextualize the designation of Bears Ears and blind ourselves to what it represents in a larger history of U.S.-Amerindian relations is just plain ignorant.
When it comes down to it, this is a conversation about how we as Euro-American policymakers and co-inhabitants of the North American continent interact with the Native peoples and nations, and what level of deference we pay them. Federal public lands policy, ecological conservation, or the processes of land designation are all relevant, but they’re ultimately tangents.
Some white politicians, like Rob Bishop or Gary Herbert, don’t seem to care much at all how Native Americans wish or propose their sacred cultural homelands be treated. National public lands are seen by this new wave of pseudoconservationist conservatives as not only unproductive, but also (somehow) evil. Their distaste for public lands is often aimed towards The Antiquities Act, which allows the President to designate National Monuments. At the 2015 Western States Land Commissioners Conference in Moab, Rep. Rob Bishop went so far as to say “If anyone here likes the Antiquities Act the way it is written, die. I mean, get stupidity out of the gene pool. It is the most evil act ever invented.” In trying to seem like a big, tough cowboy, Bishop reveals his actual facility for responding to contradiction, which is more reminiscent of hormone-imbalanced preteen boys than it is a functioning adult human being, much less a legislator.
What loose-lipped bigots like Bishop may overlook in their poorly articulated, populistic references to eugenics is where the Bears Ears Monument designation actually originated. It wasn’t Obama’s idea. Since 2010, the Utah Diné Bikéyah and Navajo Nations have worked to protect Bears Ears through state or federal processes, but have been consistently rebutted by local white politicians and movements like the Tea Party movement in 2010. The Antiquities Act-based draft proposal created by the Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015 was not their “plan A” in protecting the sacred land: it was their last resort.
Again: The Bears Ears Monument boundaries weren’t arbitrarily drawn by some eastern liberal Washington political elite; then-President Obama didn’t dream them up or throw darts at a map. The boundaries for the monument were decided by the unprecedented Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a council formed by representatives from the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah Ouray Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes and Nations. This coalition was the first time Native tribes had called on the President to invoke the Antiquities Act, and the effort represents unprecedented unanimity, determination, and resolve among such diverse Tribes to govern their ancestral land. Their proposal would allow open and effective communication both among the tribes themselves and with the federal government.
Native tribes aren’t the only groups in support of protecting Bears Ears and other public lands. More than 2.5 million comments were submitted to the Department of the Interior in regard to national monument designations during a brief comment period last summer. Of those 2.5 million comments, 98% were in favor of existing monument designations; and 55% specifically mentioned Bears Ears. Only 1% were opposed or promoting shrinking or repealing the land designations. Even in Utah, 88% of comments were in favor the monuments, including Bears Ears.
So who exactly are Bishop, Herbert, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke representing when they push for reduced monuments, especially in Bears Ears? The American people? If so, they’ve settled on only representing 1-2%, maybe. And 2% is a liberal estimate. Are they working to represent federally recognized tribes who want to protect their sacred ancestral homelands? Clearly not. So who’s left?
It might be revelatory that in the 2015 general session of the Utah Legislature, some upper-middle class caucasian men fancied that the “best” use for some areas of Bears Ears was mining and energy development. If Bishop truly wanted to protect public lands through legislation, his Utah Public Lands Initiative proposal (UPLI) wouldn’t have promoted fossil fuel development in sacred, irreplaceable areas. See on this map just how much some Utah politicians would be willing to strip and scrape away from the fragile landscape just to please energy lobbyists: http://bearsearscoalition.org/threats-map/
How can we expected to trust duplicitous local politicians who pretend to represent our interests when they turn around and propose oil, gas and uranium leases and extraction? They harbor attitudes that treat these lands as a useable, profitable, and disposable commodity. If we let them, that’s just what they’ll do: use, profit, and dispose. They’re totally willing to critically endanger already sensitive plant and animal populations, and they have no issue fragmenting and cutting up the landscape. They’re totally willing to spite the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and ignore Native groups. They care more about party lines, appeasing corporate campaign donors, and making political statements than they do about preserving the land, obeying constituents, or respecting Native voices. Apparently, they can’t see their role in perpetuating the American historical trend trend of coercing Native peoples into unfair treaties, drawing arbitrary and ignorant reservation boundaries, ignoring treaty rights when land-grabbing becomes too tempting, and displacing or killing Native populations when they interfere with our expansionist ideology. It’s almost like they think we white Euroamericans were here first.
On the other hand, the current Bears Ears National Monument boundaries as they were drawn by The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and designated last year, respect ancient Indigenous use of the land, promote Indigenous representation and stewardship, protect irreplaceable sacred sites, native endangered flora and fauna, and allow the land to be treated and used in ways consistent with Native values and traditions.
Don’t listen to tough-talking political cowards like Gary Herbert or Rob Bishop if they try to insist that altering Bears Ears national monument is what Natives, voters, or conservationists want. They can talk big all they’d like surrounded by yes-men and energy lobbies, but I dare Rob Bishop and those like him to try and play tough and employ their “go die” rhetoric looking real leaders, like Ute Mountain Ute Councilwoman Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk in the eyes. I dare them to plant their feet in the arid soil at the edge of the Dark Canyon Wilderness, take a breath of the deep, wild air and say “this can go”. They’d be shaking in their newly bought, polished department store cowboy boots.
Instead, Listen to the people who have inhabited these areas for thousands of years. Pay deference to the indigenous policymakers who have managed and preserved them well enough that we would still consider it a wilderness. Respect the nations that call Bears Ears a sacred homeland- something we white immigrants don’t have and don’t understand. Honor Native voices. Protect Bears Ears.
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