Tribes call for new national monument on sacred lands in Utah

Cedar Mesa was home to the ancestors of today's Pueblo tribes. Photo by Don Romnes

More than two dozen tribes are calling on President Barack Obama to designate a new national monument to protect 1.9 million acres of sacred and historic land in Utah.

New designations are controversial among Republicans but tribal leaders hope that strong support from Indian Country will help make the case for the Bears Ears National Monument. They will also settle for the creation of a conservation area in the southeastern portion of the state.

“We’ve never been given the opportunity to speak on behalf of our sacred sites on public lands,” said Alfred Lomahquahu, the vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe of Arizona. “This landscape has been called home by so many Native American cultures over several millennia, so it is the right approach to protect the Bears Ears landscape as a coalition of tribal nations.”

Lomahquahu and the Hopi Tribe belong to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition that's pushing for the new designation. Supporters of the effort come from Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas and include the Navajo Nation, the Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Hualapai Tribe and all 20 Pueblo governments.

Leaders from the Cochiti, Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute and Zuni tribes meet in Utah. Photo from Bears Ears Coalition

“Think back hundreds of years and imagine these lands occupied and being used to collect herbs, wood, and other resources that remain important to tribes today,” said Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates. “The tribes here today are united and we ask the Obama administration to move this initiative forward.”

In a sign of the importance of the effort, more than 300 tribal leaders and representatives met in Utah last month to exchange traditional food, song and dances at Bears Ears. They discussed how to protect an area that is still used for ceremonies, gathering and hunting.

“We belong to the land. We don’t own it, but we are here as caretakers," said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a council member for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado. "This is where our Native cultures and customs come from. Native people know best how to protect public lands in the face of the many new challenges before us.”

Campers destroyed a 19th-century Navajo hogan by using the structure as firewood. Photo from Bears Ears Coalition

Bears Ears borders the Navajo Nation on the south and the White Mesa Ute Reservation, a satellite community of Lopez-Whiteskunk's tribe, on the east. The land is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

According to the coalition, the area is home to more than 100,000 archaeological sites that have been targeted for looting and grave-robbing for more than a century. Between May 2014 and April 2015, more than a dozen looting cases were reported at Bears Ears.

Motorized vehicles and human traffic also pose threats. On one occasion, campers burned down a 19th-century hogan that was once home to a Navajo family by using the structure as firewood.

Despite the dangers, the BLM only employs one full-time officer to patrol the land, according to the coalition. Other federal and state agencies dedicate law enforcement resources to the site but those officers also work in other areas of San Juan County in Utah.

Utah Dine Bikeyah Board Chairman Willie Grayeyes, left, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe council member Malcolm Lehi ride horses at Bears Ears in Utah. Photo from UDB / Facebook

The proposed monument or conservation area takes its name from the Bears Ears Buttes, a prominent feature of the landscape. Manuelito, a Navajo leader who led his people through a forced march in New Mexico and later signed a treaty with the United States, was born near there in 1818.

Tribes have been at the table for a number of monument designations since the start of the Obama administration. The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe of Nevada welcomed the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument last December. Eloisa Oropeza, the chairwoman of the Manchester Band of Pomo Indians, was at the White House in March 2014 for the expansion of the California Coastal National Monument.

Republicans haven't been happy though. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) , the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues, has repeatedly introduced bills to limit the use of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

He also criticized Obama for designating the Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada last month. When asked about the presence of tribal artifacts at the site, he told Greenwire: "Ah, bull crap. That's not an antiquity."

“We are united in moving this forward, but I also recognize that there will be opposition,” observed Speaker Bates at the tribal gathering in Utah last month. “In order to get where we want to be, we need to remain unified and understand that it’s not going to be easy.”

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