The Bears Ears National Monument tracks 1.35 million acres across Utah’s vast and rocky landscape. It’s a sacred place for nearby tribal communities like the Navajo Nation or Hopi Tribe. Many originated on this land.
President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have been committed, however, to, at minimum, reducing the monument’s size and, at worst, removing its national designation altogether. On October 27, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said that the president told him he intends to shrink the monument by December, along with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Tribal nations have felt left out of this conversation, and they want to speak to the president himself. They say they haven’t had an opportunity to sit down with him, and they’ve been asking. But if Trump is determined to shrink their monument, that’s a decision they’re ready to fight.
Bears Ears hasn’t even celebrated a year of its designation. Former President Barack Obama established the area as a national monument in December 2016. This came after serious organizing led by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and the Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Native American nonprofit that formed in 2010 to help preserve Bears Ears. However, as Obama specified in his proclamation, this movement to protect the land through federal recognition has been around for at least 80 years, and it doesn’t include just Native people. It includes local conservationists and government representatives, too.
“The tribes are trying to protect that land not only for Native American culture and heritage and to the ties that we have, but for all Americans,” Cassandra Begay, tribal liaison for environmental rights organization PANDOS who had an intense interaction with Zinke in May, told Earther. “They’re trying to protect these public lands for all future generations, for the human race.”
For Navajo Diné member Jonah Yellowman, who serves as the spiritual adviser to the Utah Diné Bikéyah, Bears Ears is home. It’s where his clan’s ancestral roots stem from—his “history story,” as he put it to Earther. This is true for most other Native American members of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe—all partners within the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
Members of Yellowman’s nation frequent the desert country of Bears Ears to find herbs, like sage and tobacco, for ceremonies. The Navajo people also use sand and rocks found here for their artwork.
“For my people, my elders, they have these songs,” Yellowman said. “They have these prayers; they have these rituals, all kinds of ceremonies that originated from that area. We’ve been chased off that land ever since.”
Indeed, colonizers and settlers chased the Navajo Nation, along with the rest of U.S. Native American tribes, off their land in the 1800s. The Navajo call this “The Long Walk.” Forced to leave behind their beautiful home near Bears Ears, the Navajo journeyed more than 300 miles on foot to be held captive by the United States Cavalry. Many died on this trek.
The U.S. military allowed them to return to their ancestral lands four years later, but keeping their cultural resources safe has proven difficult. More than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites dot the area, according to the Utah Diné Bikéyah. They’ve faced significant risk from looting, Ethel Branch, attorney general for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, told Earther.
Now, this flip-flopping in the Trump administration is putting the site’s historic and cultural resources at risk again, Branch said. She visited Bears Ears last weekend and still hasn’t seen a sign signaling its national monument designation. She saw no new material in the visitor’s center, either.
“When I visited the monument and spoke with staff members there, they spoke as though the monument was up in the air, not real,” Branch said.
Concerns extend beyond the cultural artifacts, though. Opening the monument can lead to further exploitation of the land in the form of oil, gas, and mineral extraction. It definitely holds the potential, as the Center for American Progress has outlined.
“Bears Ears has been targeted because it holds resource potential that the oil & gas industry wants to access,” said Native American Rights Fund staff attorney Natalie Landreth, in an online statement. “Opening the monument to development will threaten cultural and natural resources that can never be replaced.”
Tribal leaders are ready for whatever the president chooses to do—especially if they view his next move as illegal. “We would certainly defend the monument in its current legal and valid status, and that might include the filing of a lawsuit, if necessary,” Attorney General Branch said.
Other tribal leaders are on the same page. Shaun Chapoose, who serves on the Ute Indian Tribe’s Business Committee, has been working under the assumption that Trump will shrink the monument. Trump’s comments last week weren’t news for him. What has bugged him, however, is the lack of tribal consultation the administration has sought even amid requests from tribal leaders to meet with them. In the last two months, tribes have written Trump several letters on the matter and have received no response.
Zinke met with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition for an hour in May, but they were hoping for more. The Department of the Interior was adamant in an email to Earther that it’s had multiple conversations with tribal leaders throughout the monument review process that launched in April. This process is looking at all monument designations since 1999 that are at least 100,000 acres in size.
Executive Director of Utah Diné Bikéyah Gavin Noyes told Earther that he knows at least 10 local tribal chapters and organizations with which Secretary Zinke denied a meeting. “He never allowed any Native Americans who supported [the Bears Ears National Monument] to meet with him on the local level,” Noyes said.
Tribes have a message for Trump, and that’s to keep Bears Ears protected. But if Trump wants to go ahead and shrink it or remove its designation altogether, tribal advocates aren’t afraid. They’re as ready as ever, said Caboose of the Ute Indian Tribe.
“When it’s all said and done, we’re going to spend a lot of money, make a lot of statements, make a lot of enemies, and it didn’t need to come to that,” he said. “But if it does, the Ute Tribe, we’re ready to fight. We’re not afraid of the fight. If anything, we know how to fight.”