Tribes vow fight in effort to protect Bears Ears National Monument

A controversial national monument is turning out to be a major test for the new leader of the Department of the Interior, who has repeatedly vowed to respect tribal sovereignty.

Secretary Ryan Zinke is heading to Utah next week to learn more about the Bears Ears National Monument. But the tribes that were instrumental in its creation say he has ignored their repeated calls for a meeting.

“It's not like he can't find us,” Chairman Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Tribe said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

In fact, dozens of tribal leaders are in the nation's capital this week for the National Tribal Energy Summit. Chapoose was there as Zinke delivered the keynote on Tuesday but so far there's only been silence from the new secretary when it comes to Bears Ears.

“I'm not going to request, I'm going to demand that he honor his obligation to us, the tribal leaders,” Chapoose said.

The Utes are part of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, whose efforts convinced former president Barack Obama to establish the 1.35-million acre monument. The designation protects ancestral villages, sacred place and countless archaeological sites in southeastern Utah.

But as tribal leaders wait for Zinke to engage them on a government-to-government basis, non-Indian politicians who oppose the monument have been treated differently. They've already been granted meetings with the secretary and some were even present when President Donald Trump signed an executive order that set in motion the unprecedented review of Bears Ears.

“Secretary Zinke is the secretary for all tribal nations, not counties and states, but he met with the Utah delegation and San Juan County officials and has yet to meet with us,” said Davis Filfred, who represents Navajo Nation communities in Utah as a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council.

Trump's executive order gives Zinke 45 days to talk to tribes, states and other affected stakeholders in Utah about the monument. He is expected to be in the state for at least two days next week as part of the process.

But just what happens after Zinke makes his recommendations is a big unknown. The department has already cautioned that Trump's order, on its own, does not affect the designation of the monument.

And while the Antiquities Act authorizes a president to create national monuments out of federal lands, the century-old law does not appear to grant Trump the power to rescind one. Tribal leaders indicated they are willing to consider litigation at some point in the future but they are hoping it doesn't get that far.

“We've reached out as individual tribes and we have not received a response, that does not mean we will not continue working [toward] a meeting with Secretary Zinke,” said Carleton Bowekaty, a council member for Pueblo of Zuni. “It's essential if we want to make this work. We need to make this work because this is the future for our people.”

When Obama established the new monument in December, his proclamation also created the Bears Ears Commission. Through the body, the Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Hopi Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe are supposed to be at the table regarding management of the area.

The tribes believe the creation of the commission represents an evolution of the government-to-government relationship. Instead of being consulted about decisions that are already in motion, they want to collaborate with federal agencies about the best way to present their histories, knowledge and culture.

“This is not just one tribe that supports Bears Ears, it is a coalition of five tribes that have come together to protect our homelands,” said Speaker LoRenzo Bates of the Navajo Nation Council. “We stand here together today united with one voice to tell leadership at the federal level to recognize and to honor our position as sovereign nations.”

Bears Ears gets its name from two mesas, or buttes, the resemble the ears of a bear, heeded as one of the most powerful animals by various tribes. The area is home to numerous ancestral villages and tribal citizens continue to visit the region for ceremonies and for hunting, gathering and other activities.

Chief Manuelito, one of the most significant leaders of the Navajo Nation, was born near the mesas in 1818. He later signed the historic 1868 treaty with the United States after his people were forced to march hundreds of miles to a military fort in neighboring New Mexico.

Decades of looting of sacred and archaeological sites prompted tribes to seek greater protections for Bears Ears. They are also worried about motorized vehicles and human traffic -- campers once burned down a 19th-century hogan that was home to a Navajo family by using the structure as firewood.

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