Op-Ed: Shrinking Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument would be one more broken promise to Native Americans

An aerial view of Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument, taken on May 8, reveals the vast landscape of the 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah.
(Francisco Kjolseth / Associated Press)

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke plans to advise President Trump to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument to a scatter of isolated sites. The secretary’s recommendation, announced last week, is one more act of disrespect and arrogance in a story that began in 1492.

In December, President Obama proclaimed the Bears Ears monument, adding new protections for cultural resources on 1.35 million acres of public land in San Juan County, Utah, while preserving traditional uses for both Indians and ranchers. Native nations — especially the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and two Ute tribes that make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — led the campaign for the creation of the monument on what for them is ancestral, sacred land.

The Bears Ears proclamation was historic, creating an innovative tribal commission to help manage the monument. The new preserve grants “traditional ecological knowledge amassed by the Native Americans” the status of “a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come.”


At the core of that understanding of the land is a sense of wholeness, of interconnection. As the Inter-Tribal Coalition said in response to Zinke’s announcement, “The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected.”

When Zinke came to Utah in May on a ‘listening tour,’ he spent just one hour with the leaders of the Inter-Tribal Coalition.

When Zinke came to Utah in May on a “listening tour,” he spent just one hour with the leaders of the Inter-Tribal Coalition and several days with politicians ferociously intent on undoing Obama’s legacy. One of them, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, dismissed seven years of grass-roots work by Indian people, in Indian country, who gathered the data necessary to propose significant protection for Bears Ears.

The tribes, the GOP senator said, were “manipulated” by the “far left.” “The Indians,” he said, “they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do…. Just take my word for it.”

Indian people have good reason not to take Hatch — or any white person — at his word. Like every Native Nation, the tribes of the Bears Ears coalition have endured centuries of white people trampling on promises.

In 1864, the U.S. Army burned Navajo homes, fields and orchards, forcing families off their land. A few Navajo escaped this “Long Walk,” retreating to the fringes of Navajo Country around Navajo Mountain and the Bears Ears Buttes in southern Utah. That’s one reason they hold the area in such regard.

The Ute people ranged throughout the Rocky Mountains, from present-day Denver to Salt Lake City and south to the Bears Ears. They’ve lost all but the driest corners of this homeland.

In 1868, the U.S. government granted Colorado Utes the western third of that state. Then gold was discovered in the San Juan Mountains. By 1882, northern Ute bands were forced to move to the Utah desert. Congress promised the southern Utes 3 million acres in Utah’s San Juan County and, again, never delivered.


As scholar Floyd O’Neill says of the 20th century Utes, “The Indians continued to be the dispossessed in all areas of life: property, education, and employment.”

The Pueblo members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the Hopi and the Zuni, have been fighting for land around their villages since the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1540.

Utah officials who oppose Bears Ears conveniently ignore the fact that these Native nations survive. When county commissioners speak against the monument and for “the people of San Juan County,” they mean white people. When they rail against “large out-of-state groups and Washington … bureaucrats,” they fail to acknowledge that the Bears Ears proposal came from the tribes.

And when County Commissioner Bruce Adams calls his Mormon ancestors the first settlers in the southern Utah wilderness, he neglects the Native people who have lived in these canyons for more than 12,000 years. Indeed, San Juan County was more densely populated in Ancestral Puebloan times than it is today, when half its residents are still Navajo or Ute Mountain Ute.

Many reasons exist to cherish and sustain Bears Ears National Monument. Until the monument designation, this was the most important unprotected archaeological district in North America. It’s an untapped treasure of recreational, paleontological and ecologic resources, and conservation biologists have clearly established the importance of preserving it as a large landscape rather than isolated parcels.


But the most important reason to decry Zinke’s shortsighted capitulation to Utah’s anti-public-lands politicians is that diminishing the monument would break yet another government commitment to the Native nations.

The American people, Congress and the president should insist that Bears Ears remains the monument envisioned by Navajo leader Willie Grayeyes, a place for Native people “to be respected, to be heard and to be understood.”

Stephen Trimble is the editor of “Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands” and author of “The People: Indians of the American Southwest.”

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