Singers and veterans take part in a celebration for the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah on January 7, 2016. Photo by Tim Peterson

Tribes celebrate designation of national monument at Bears Ears

Tribal leaders and supporters gathered in strong numbers over the weekend to celebrate the new Bears Ears National Monument.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition successfully lobbied President Barack Obama to protect 1.35 million acres of sacred lands, burial grounds, archaeological sites and other important places in Utah. The historic December 28 designation gives the five founding members of the coalition a seat at the table when it comes to managing the monument.

“This is what we all did,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said on Saturday. “This is what working together is all about. We are a powerful voice.”

The Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Zuni Pueblo will continue to work together as part of the Bears Ears Commission. Obama ordered the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture to "meaningfully engage" with the tribes to ensure their histories and knowledge are incorporated into future decision-making.

"This national monument is the right solution at the right time, and we are pleased that the president has taken this step to ensure Bears Ears will remain in as pristine a condition as possible for generations to come,” Shaun Chapoose, the chairman of the Ute Tribe, said in a press release last month.

Chairman Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Tribe addresses a celebration for the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah on January 7, 2016. Photo by Tim Peterson

But as tribal leaders heralded their achievement, they recognized the challenges they face going forward. Politicians in Utah, mainly Republicans, oppose the designation and GOP lawmakers in Washington, D.C., already introduced legislation that would make it harder for any president to set aside public lands for new monuments.

"The president’s recent designation of Bears Ears National Monument goes well beyond the original intent of the Antiquities Act, which was intended to give presidents only limited authority to designate special landmarks, such as a unique natural arch or the site of old cliff dwellings," asserted Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the 26 Republican co-sponsors of S.33, the Improved National Monument Designation Process Act.

Over in the House, Republicans are trying to make it easier for public lands to be transferred to states and even to tribes. A set of rules adopted on the first day of the 115th Congress declare that such conveyances won't cost the federal government anything, regardless of the value of the property or any mineral resources located below the surface.

"Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people," Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a press release.

At the same time, Republican president-elect Donald Trump has signaled a break with his party on the issue. He opposes the transfer of public lands and so does Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana), his nominee for Secretary of the Interior.

But the incoming administration's views aren't likely to stop efforts to remove public lands from federal control. During the last session of Congress, at least three tribes in California alone and six more in Nevada benefited from such transfers.

“The narrative has to shift. Please recognize that indigenous people carry a different body of knowledge," said Eric Descheenie, a member of the Navajo Nation and a former co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

"Let’s embrace that difference, support one another, and champion the new narrative,” said Descheenie, who a new member of the Arizona State House of Representatives.

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