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Bears Ears National Monument, sacred to native tribes, faces a challenge to its status

Sunrise over Indian Creek at Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Bureau of Land Management

WASHINGTON (RNS) At the end of his second term, then-President Obama gratified a coalition of Western Native Americans by creating Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, 1.35 million acres of high desert punctuated by dramatic rock formations.

Now a tribal coalition, which considers many sites within Bears Ears sacred, fears the Trump administration will take the unprecedented step of stripping a national monument of its designation, and leave their ancestral lands vulnerable.

“Our religion is very much tied to the land,” said Carleton Bowekaty, a Zuni tribe councilman and co-chair of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The group’s lobbying made the monument the first ever to be created at the behest of sovereign tribes.

“For many of my people our day starts with prayer, and it’s not just prayer for themselves or their family; it’s for the entire world and therefore for the Earth. … If we don’t have a healthy land we won’t have a healthy people.”

In their fight to retain the monument — named for a particularly striking pair of buttes — the tribes enjoy the support of environmentalists, and religious environmentalists in particular.

Shantha Ready Alonso, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Creation Justice Ministries, said Native Americans shouldn’t have to fight so hard for protections of their religious places.

“As Christians, we never question ‘what if somebody might come and drill a hole in one of our cathedrals or claim domain over it or rip it down?’ We are confident that people would respect the history, the culture and the sacredness of a space like that,” she said.

“But these tribes, they’ve had to explain and prove time and time again that they’re worthy of protection. … We need to stand with them.”

In recent weeks, hundreds of Mormons — invoking their own history at Bears Ears, their past persecutions and their responsibility to protect Native American religious rights — signed a petition asking congressional leaders and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to preserve Bears Ears as a monument.

Cliffside paintings in Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa at Bears Ears National Monument. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

“Our LDS faith guides us to respect the beliefs and religious practices of other cultures, especially those closest to us,” reads the petition, signed mostly by Mormons from Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered.

But many Utah politicians counter that Bears Ears’ sacred sites can be protected without its national monument status. They call Obama’s designation in late December a “land grab” that robbed Utahans of control over a large swath of a state already rich in national parks and monuments.

Even as they work to overturn Obama’s action, they are mindful of the Native Americans’ religious claims to the land. Days after President Trump’s inauguration, the entire Utah congressional delegation issued a joint statement on Bears Ears that called for an executive action to rescind monument status. It began with an invocation of tribal rights.

“To them, Bears Ears is more than a recreation destination, it is sacred ground rich in cultural and historical significance,” the statement reads. “With its abundant natural resources — including wood to warm homes in the winter — many Native Americans depend on this land not only for spiritual nourishment, but also for their very survival.”

Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler. Photo courtesy of Utah State Senate

The Republican-dominated Utah state Legislature followed up with a resolution signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on Feb. 4, urging Trump to rescind Bears Ears.

Like their federal counterparts, Statehouse Republicans also take pains to acknowledge the tribes’ religious connections to Bears Ears.

“Nobody is saying that sacred burial grounds should be disturbed or you should put a McDonald’s drive-thru through them. That’s not the point,” said Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler, a Republican who represents counties near Salt Lake City. “The point is those other million-plus acres that aren’t sacred areas.”

And Weiler noted — as do many opponents of the monument —  that some Native Americans also consider its creation federal overreach.

No one should expect unanimity among native people, said Natasha Hale, a Navajo who works at the Grand Canyon Trust conservation group and advocates for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. “But the overwhelming majority support the monument,” she said.

The five tribes in the Inter-Tribal Coalition — the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni — don’t want to give up what monument status affords them.

Natasha Hale. Photo courtesy of Tim Peterson

Each of the five has a seat at the table on the commission that advises the federal managers of Bears Ears National Monument. The tribes had worked with Utah officials on a Public Lands Initiative that would have protected Bears Ears. But that state-centered endeavor never came to fruition, and offered them less of a role in the management of Bears Ears than monument status allows.

So they pushed for the monument and won.

“If you look historically at the interaction between Utah politicians and tribes, it’s not a great history,” said Hale. “I don’t think that they like that the tribes have had a political win over them.”

Environmentalists outside the tribes considered it a big win too: Monument status means more robust environmental protection of Bears Ears than the safeguards provided in the Utah Public Lands Initiative, which many conservationists considered woefully inadequate.

Utah Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz say the heart of the problem with Bears Ears lies with the Antiquities Act, a 111-year-old statute that allows the president to designate national parks and monuments, which can also be designated by Congress in a slower and more uncertain process.

No president should have such power to override local interests, its critics argue.

But the more pressing question for those on both sides of the Bears Ears debate is: Does a president have the power to undo a former president’s actions under the act? Can Trump reverse Obama?

Some legal scholars point out that the Antiquities Act provides no such revocation mechanism, and hold that it would take a congressional vote to overturn a monument designation. Given national parks and monuments’ general popularity with the public, garnering such support could prove difficult.

But even if Trump has the power to reverse Bears Ears with the stroke of a pen, it’s not clear that he would.

Chaffetz told Utah reporters after meeting with Trump last month that Bears Ears was the first topic he raised. He said Trump was “sympathetic” but in “receiving mode” and offered no commitments on the subject.

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

25 Comments

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  • If the land is that important to the Amerind tribes, then let them buy it at fair market value. Isn’t arguing that the land should be protected at taxpayer expense because it is religiously significant a violation of the Establishment Clause, as currently understood?

  • If the land is that important to the Amerind tribes, then let them buy it….

    Have you studied American history?

  • You mean how all the Amerind tribes controlled exactly as much territory as the number and skill of their warriors permitted, and no more? And no less, for that matter.

    Whoever owned this land in the past, it certainly isn’t owned by Amerinds now — otherwise, Obama wouldn’t have been able to make it a national park.

  • I should say it probably wouldn’t carry much weight with Conservatives. The courts would likely be more favorable.

  • You also realize that there are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, with different cultures, societies, government structures, locations, and beliefs. And that Native governments have had and continue to have complex political structures much U.S. and international governments. I agree with Agni Ashwin, I suggest you brush up on your American history. I suggest the PBS We Shall Remain series for a on overview of the complexity of tribes and their history in the U.S.

  • The Bears Ears National Monument was protected because of the hundreds of thousands of cultural, natural, and scientific resources in the region, under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Many of those sites are also sacred to tribes. Cultural resource law in the United States prohibits any violation of the Establishment Clause, and rightly so.

    Furthermore, you realize that there are five sovereign Native American governments with cultural and historic ties to Bears Ears, rather than one entity. If the BENM land was not already Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management public lands, it would remain essentially impossible to purchase jointly under both federal law and tribal law. If they had the money to begin with…

  • Certainly, there are other reasons people want to hinder southeastern Utah economic development. But this article is making a big deal about the AMERINDS’ objections, based on their religion.

    So to be clear, do you believe that the Federal government declaring a national park to be maintained at taxpayer expense in order to protect Amerind sacred sites is not a violation of the Establishment Clause?

  • Under the present state of juridical action in the U.S. you make an extremely interesting point.

  • What does that have to do with whether the federal government should be maintaining and protecting their sacred sights at taxpayer expense?

  • “The Bears Ears National Monument was protected because of the hundreds of thousands of cultural, natural, and scientific resources in the region, under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Many of those sites are also sacred to tribes.”

    Actually, the antiquities were already (better) protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 prior to December 28, 2016. When it comes to the rich cultural resources here, monument designation is actually nothing more than a rebranding exercise, which will have the obvious if indirect effect in this case of publicizing the existence of places and things which relatively few knew about, and radically increasing the visitation and degradation of those resources.

  • I suggest you read my previous comment again. And “Amerind” is not how we refer to Native peoples in the United States.

  • Except that a monument designation triggers a new management plan. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the text of ARPA, but as an archaeologist I am. ARPA protects against criminal looting of archaeological resources. It does not provide protection in the form of a proactive management plan. ARPA also does not provide any protections for natural or otherwise scientific resources.

  • I’m replying to this comment “You mean how all the Amerind tribes controlled exactly as much territory as the number and skill of their warriors permitted, and no more? And no less, for that matter”.

  • Meh. You can’t seriously think looters care how much ink is spilled on management plans. I mean, there already was a cultural resource management plan, as required by FLPMA, which was written by the same agencies that will write the new one. Monument status and new management plans certainly haven’t ended looting at Canyons of the Ancients. More generally, vandalism and under-funding is rampant across the national park and monument system. The supposed wonders of monument status reflects reductive, superficial thinking.

  • Opposition to monument status has nothing to do with resenting a “win” by NA tribes. It has to do with, among other things, professional environmentalists using the Antiquities Act to bypass legislative compromise in favor of executive fiat. The referenced draft PLI legislation was substantially the same as the final proclamation in terms of both conservation and indigenous management participation. The reality is that this is almost entirely a symbolic war over rural western US culture and the democratic process relative to land use decisions, fought by professional environmentalists and Utah-elected Republicans and their proxies. Indigenous considerations are primarily (and predictably) being invoked in opportunistic and instrumental fashion by both sides (and, more justifiably, by the tribes themselves).

    Additional context: the Bear Ears designation was the result of a calculated shift by professional environmentalists away from a north/SUWA-facing Greater Canyonlands NM to a south/tribal-facing BENM, and it’s just the latest episode in a decades-long attempt to achieve the 9.5 million acre Red Rock Wilderness Act by any means. First with Grand Staircase-Escalante NM and now Bears Ears. It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that professional greens figure if they can get a NM of 1-2 million acres designated in Utah canyon country by every Democratic POTUS, then work toward the long term turning of the screw on remaining multiple use management in those NMs, they’ll eventually get there. That strikes even reasonable people as a cynical strategy, highly contemptuous of both democratic norms and the generational occupants of the region. But the way they’ve used (legitimate) tribal grievances and considerations to redwash their agenda and create a false debate frame when it comes to BENM is shameful. Truly a new low.

    People should really become more fully informed before popping off on this based on nothing more than the PR spin coming from GCT, SUWA, Patagonia or the ITC. I recommend reading Jim Stiles’s coverage at Canyon Country Zephyr.

  • I’ll agree, my statement was off-topic. It has nothing to do with the Federal government using taxpayer resources to preserve Amerind sacred sites.

  • You didn’t answer my question. Do you believe that the Federal government declaring a national park to be maintained at taxpayer expense in order to protect Amerind sacred sites is not a violation of the Establishment Clause?

    And “Amerind” is less cumbersome than “American Indian,” and I refuse to use “Native American.” My family has lived on this continent for over three centuries, we are native Americans.

  • The federal government did NOT declare a national park to protect Native American sacred sites. Bears Ears is 1. not a national park and 2. the antiquities act was not enacted in any way to protect sacred sites. The antiquities act was created in response to rampant looting and desecration of archaeological resources in the Southwest, which are of scientific importance. Simply acknowledging that Native people, as well as the LDS church, have spiritual ties to the landscape is not a violation of the establishment clause. If you are interested in learning more about issues involving Native Americans and the first amendment and the establishment clause I suggest looking into AIRFA and Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, as well as the Devil’s Tower story. If you believe that taxpayer dollars should not go towards America’s public lands (which are for all Americans), that is a different conversation entirely.

    I have no argument for you over your choice to name a particular group of people for personal reasons. I will however say that my family has also lived here for more than three hundred years, both Native American and non-Native American ancestors. I take no offense to the term Native American. The United Nations provides some definition to the term Indigenous, which you may find interesting. For clarity, American Indian is the legal term in the United States.

  • The first three paragraphs of the article:

    “At the end of his second term, then-President Obama gratified a coalition of Western Native Americans by creating Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, 1.35 million acres of high desert punctuated by dramatic rock formations.

    “Now a tribal coalition, which considers many sites within Bears Ears sacred, fears the Trump administration will take the unprecedented step of stripping a national monument of its designation, and leave their ancestral lands vulnerable.

    ” ‘Our religion is very much tied to the land,’ said Carleton Bowekaty, a Zuni tribe councilman and co-chair of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The group’s lobbying made the monument the first ever to be created at the behest of sovereign tribes.”

    The take-away points of these paragraphs: 1) The monument was “created at the behest of sovereign tribes.” 2) The coalition wanted the monument status because of the sacred nature of many sites within the monument. 3) They fear having the status taken away because it will put those sacred sites at risk.

    So let me ask yet again, do you consider creating a national monument to be maintained at taxpayer expense in order to protects sacred sites to be a violation of the Establishment Clause?

    And I have no problem with “American Indian,” other than that it is cumbersome. “Amerind” means the same thing and isn’t cumbersome.

  • The concerns of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition are in many ways spiritually based, but archaeological resources for Native Americans are inextricable from their religious beliefs.

    The monument was indeed created from a request by five sovereign Native American tribes, to use the antiquities act to protect cultural and natural resources. The sticking point here is what we mean by cultural, archaeological, religious, and spiritual. I disagree with the characterization of the monument by Religion Science News, but of course that is their story angle. That does not change the simple fact that the monument designation itself was not based upon religious preference. While the law recognizes cultural and archaeological sites (cliff dwellings, ceramics, historic structures etc.), the Inter-Tribal Coalition feels that those items have both scientific (a qualifier under the antiquities act), and religious value.

    I would argue that other national monuments or parks also hold religious significance for many, but were not established upon those grounds. The excellent part of having public lands in the U.S. is that the public may interpret or attach meaning in the way they see fit. In regard to parks and monuments, I feel that having empathy for and acknowledgement of the religious beliefs of others is important, but does not immediately lead to a violation of the establishment clause. As an Atheist and religious studies scholar I agree that the establishment of any religion, particularly if financed by the federal government, would be anti-American. I think our argument boils down to law and policy analysis rather than a difference in American values.

  • I can’t really disagree with anything you said, I’m merely pointing out that to the extent that this article is accurate — that the monument was created to protect Amerind sacred sites and should be maintained at taxpayer expense in order to continue to do so — it runs afoul of the Establishment Clause. A religious site can also have historical or environmental significance, and arguments can be made on those grounds while leaving any religious motivations out of it. But if those religious motivations are the primary motivator, it’s better to turn the maintenance of that land over to those for whom it is religiously significant and keep the federal government and taxpayer money out of it.

  • I absolutely agree with your assessment. Thanks for a respectful and interesting conversation!

  • It does make for a nice (and unusual) change of pace, doesn’t it? Happy to oblige, it’s been fun.

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