'We'll see the battle lines': Trump faced by Native American alliance over Bears Ears

The president is expected to announce the shrinking of two national monuments on a visit to Utah but native tribes are uniting to oppose a ‘monumental mistake’

On Monday, Donald Trump will visit Salt Lake City. He is expected to formally announce plans to substantially shrink two Utah national monuments: Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears.

A review of national monuments was conducted by the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, who recommended changes to 10 such areas. In seeking to open up more land for development and extractive industries, Trump has the support of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation.

Orrin Hatch, the senator who invited Trump to Utah, said in a video statement the “outcome” the president will announce “strikes an excellent balance where everybody wins”.

Thousands of demonstrators, however, gathered at the state capitol on Saturday in a show of solidarity with Native American tribes that say the move against Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is nothing less than a “monumental mistake”.

A coalition of five Utah tribes with ties to the land – the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe, Hopi and the Pueblo of Zuni – has vowed to oppose any shrinkage of the national monument. Before the formation of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, in 2015, the tribes had never come together. Their leaders say legal action is likely if Trump announces a reduction.

Shaun Chapoose, councilman of the Ute Indian Tribe business committee, said this was a significant moment for Native Americans. Many citizens mobilized around tribes opposing the Dakota Access pipeline and alliances were forged around Bears Ears. Despite reverses suffered by the Dakota Access protesters, he said, he sees a reawakening of hope.

“Indian country is coming out of its sleep,” Chapoose said. “It’s given an opportunity for us to voice concerns, and it’s made it OK for tribes to talk amongst themselves, like they used to do a long time ago.

“At one time, there was this big network of communication going on between tribes. After the reservations system, they got isolated from surrounding neighbors. Bears Ears has brought that back where it didn’t exist. It’s brought Indian Country back together.”

Chapoose said that in backing extractive industry over preservation and Native American communities, the Trump administration had drawn a line in the sand.

“It’s another slap in the face in the overall relationship between the federal government and the tribes, and local people,” he said.

A supporter of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments dances with a headdress during a rally on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
A supporter of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments dances with a headdress during a rally on Saturday in Salt Lake City. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

Chapoose said the issue had led locally to a polarization between supporters of the monument and people who want the freedom to use the land for mining, logging and riding off-road vehicles.

“It’s turned us back into cowboys and Indians again,” he said. “The tension is higher than it started but it hasn’t reached a plateau. That’s going to happen Monday. Then we’ll see the battle lines.”

Davis Filfred, the son of a medicine man and a Navajo Nation council delegate, said he did not want to see Bears Ears become like his tribe’s land, which he said had been contaminated by fossil fuel development. Coalmining in the Four Corners area, he said, offers a cautionary tale.

“There is no reclamation, they scarred the whole Mother Earth,” Filfred said. “The way I see it, they’re going to bulldoze Bears Ears, and there will be nothing there. We’ll tell the next generation, ‘You see that ash pit over there, that’s where Bears Ears was. Now it’s a uranium mine.’

“Money cannot replace what we have in terms of wilderness area. It’s habitat to many species, plants and medicinal and ceremonial herbs. You can’t wipe all those away.”

Filfred said his Navajo people would continue to hold ceremonies on the land. “More than 150 years ago, the federal government removed our ancestors from Bears Ears at gunpoint and sent them on the Long Walk, but we came back,” he said, in press release issued by the Native American Rights Fund.

“The president’s proposal is an attack on tribes and will be remembered as equally disgraceful but once again we will be back,” said Filfred, a military veteran who served in the Gulf. “We know how to persist, we know how to fight and we will fight to defend Bears Ears.”

‘Somebody listened’

Bears Ears was designated by Barack Obama days before he left office, as the first national monument to be requested by native tribes. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe was in the waiting room at the doctor’s office when she took the call from the federal government. When she thinks of that moment, she cries.

“After all of our hard work and time, somebody listened,” she said. “As Native Americans, we are accustomed to being put aside, on the back-burner, being a check mark on someone’s list. No real change is ever achieved, and yet it was being achieved. I was extremely happy, I was crying, but I knew no matter who was in office after that, we would have to defend that monument.”

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Lopez-Whiteskunk was one of the founding co-chairs of the coalition that seeks to defend Bears Ears.

“We are very distinct, sovereign tribes,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said, adding that some tribes were historic enemies and some were not accustomed to women being in the circle of leaders.

“When we came together in this unprecedented fashion, we healed our relationships so we could pursue a common goal. At the end of the day, what we held in common was that our identities are tied to the land. A part of a culture is recorded on the land – written on the walls of the canyon.”

It is estimated that Bears Ears holds more than 100,000 Native American cultural and archaeological sites, including petroglyphs, pottery, tools and ancestral Pueblo dwellings. Sacred sites have been threatened by looting and vandalism. The hope was that national monument status would preserve and protect the land from desecration as well as potential development by the energy industry.

“If some oil rig comes out to explore and eventually develop, they have just ripped out the page of my heritage textbook,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said. “You take that away, you take our language.”

Native Americans are caretakers of the land not just for tribes but for all American citizens, she said.

“There’s not that many wide-open spaces in our country with the large demand to develop,” she said. “That’s probably one of our biggest threats right now as a country.”

Lopez-Whiteskunk said she was not surprised by the turn of events under Trump, but still found it disheartening.

“I spent a large part in service to my people invested in this,” she said. “It hurts. It’s like watching someone trying to undo a wonderful deed that you’ve done – not just for Native Americans, but for all US citizens – what we worked so hard on to be targeted for destruction.”

No matter what happens on Monday, she said, or in the future, it will not diminish the historic achievement of having Bears Ears declared a national monument.

“So many times, our history gets told, monumental decisions get decided for us, but we took it into our hands,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said. “History will tell that story, and we were the owners of that destiny. Nobody will ever take that away.”

  • This article was amended on 4 December 2017 to correct Shaun Chapoose’s title.


Andrea Smardon

The GuardianTramp

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