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Bears Ears National Monument Is the Next Standing Rock

Posted on May 26, 2017

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

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There may not be a pipeline at stake, but if Donald Trump has his way, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah could be stripped of its federal protections and become the next front in the battle between indigenous rights and oil profits.

The breathtakingly beautiful landscape, occupying 1.3 million acres, is sacred to five Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Hopi, who set aside their differences and pushed the government for years to protect the land from myriad threats. Their efforts paid off: Just weeks before the end of his tenure, President Barack Obama designated the area as a national monument under the Antiquities Act.

Bears Ears is rich with indigenous history, housing countless ancient pueblos, petroglyphs, rock paintings and precious archeological sites where tribal communities conduct ceremonies even today.


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But Obama’s designation of Bears Ears as a national monument was roundly denounced by Utah’s legislators, who have pushed for oil wells to be drilled in the area. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called Obama’s action “the height of executive hubris” in a Washington Post editorial titled “It’s time to undo the federal land grab of Bears Ears.” Hatch lauded Trump, saying he had “never seen a president so committed to reining in the federal government and so eager to address the problems caused by these overbearing monument designations.”

The day after Hatch’s editorial was published, Trump signed an executive order to “review” all national monument designations since 1990, echoing the Utah senator’s exact words in calling Antiquities Act protections “a massive federal land grab.” Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to make final recommendations on many monuments within 120 days of his executive order. But he singled out Bears Ears, demanding a decision in just 45 days, which were up Friday.

Trump promised to keep federal land protections in place during his campaign but changed his tune when Utah’s Republican contingent threw its support behind him. That apparent quid pro quo has been well documented. As Mary Ellen Tustin at the Center for American Progress wrote, “President Trump’s embrace of the Utah delegation and its pet cause is especially interesting given that most of the delegation’s members were vocal in their opposition to him during the presidential primary.”

No president has ever reversed a previous administration’s national monument designation, and it is unclear whether Trump has the authority to do so. Still, the anticipated decision by Zinke to reverse Bears Ears’ protection is a dangerous step, especially if Trump’s reversal of Obama’s decision to block the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, N.D., is any indication.

When Zinke visited Bears Ears in preparation for his review, he was confronted by Cassandra Begay, a young Native American activist who demanded to know why he had not met with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Zinke had spent only an hour speaking with tribal leaders during his “listening tour,” and the majority of his time was taken up by meetings and tours with state officials pushing for development of the land. In a video that has since gone viral, Zinke is seen wagging his finger in Begay’s face, telling her to “be nice.”

Begay told me in an interview after the incident: “I was really worried about [Zinke] spending the majority of the time with people who are against the monument, because he had been denying meeting requests from the sovereign nations.” Begay speculated that Zinke might have responded to her the way he did because “he was under a lot of pressure to arrive at a conclusion that was already predetermined.”

Ultimately, this fight is not about states’ rights versus federal rights to protect lands, as the Utah Republicans are claiming. This is a continuation of the project of settler colonialism of a land inhabited by indigenous communities. It is a battle between wealthy industrial interests and preservationists, between fossil fuel extraction and planetary health, between those who seek to use and ravage and those who seek to protect and nurture. “As Native American people, we have been struggling for a very long time, and fighting for what is rightfully ours,” Begay said.

Begay, who grew up on a reservation and went to a boarding school, was active in Standing Rock last year when the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline played out. She sees the struggles over Bears Ears and Standing Rock as part of a slew of ongoing legal battles Indian tribes are still fighting over treaty rights to their lands.

“These systems of oppression were meant to erase me and my identity and my ancestors,” she said. But to her, actions like pushing Obama to designate Bears Ears as a national monument “is a way for us as Native American people to reclaim our power, to protect and preserve our cultural heritage, our ancestors, our histories, our spiritual and religious ways of life and how we connect with and identify with those lands.”

Now Trump wants to upend the years of hard work that tribal leaders and activists put into protecting Bears Ears, in the same way that he intends to destroy other regulations meant to protect public resources.

Trump and his Republican buddies are soaked in oil, gas and coal money, and with control of so many federal and state-level legislative bodies, they are working swiftly to carry out their destructive agenda, regardless of the immediate or long-term consequences.

“It seems like there is a huge disconnect in their relationship with Mother Earth,” said Begay, “in the name of greed, in the name of money, and their special interests.” By referring to the protection of national monument designation as a “federal land grab,” what Trump and Hatch really mean is that any land that lies outside the clutches of corporate and dirty fuel interests has been grabbed away from them.

As we pass Zinke’s deadline to review Bears Ears’ designation as a national monument, there is virtually no chance that he will make a recommendation in favor of indigenous rights to the land. But given Trump’s unprecedented desire to overturn past presidential designations, his legal authority is shaky, and it is likely that this battle may shape up as a long war. Whether that war plays out in the courts or on the ground remains to be seen.

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