Thousands took part in a "Monumental Mistake" rally at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on December 2, 2017, in advance of President Donald Trump's appearance in the state. Photo by Marc Coles-Ritchie / Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

Secretary Zinke slams 'special interests' after tribes go to court to save Bears Ears

The leader of the Department of the Interior is lashing out against "special interests" as tribes fight to save the Bears Ears National Monument.

Secretary Ryan Zinke defended the dramatic downsizing of Bears Ears in a media call on Tuesday, a day after President Donald Trump announced the controversial changes in Utah. Important "objects" will continue to be protected under the much smaller designation, the Cabinet official insisted, even though a coalition of tribes claimed otherwise in a lawsuit.

"Sound public policy is not based on threats of lawsuit, it's doing what's right," Zinke said on the call.

Along those lines, Zinke said the president was "absolutely right" to request a review of certain national monuments. That resulted in a major dismantling of Bears Ears, whittling it to 228,784 acres, down from the 1.35 million acres that was set aside by former president Barack Obama under the Antiquities Act.

"Interior's position is that public lands are for public use and not special interests," Zinke said.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Secretary Ryan Zinke and Bears Ears National Monument

But the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is fighting back. Even before the president's plane returned to the White House in Washington, D.C., the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Zuni Tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court, describing Trump's proclamation as illegal.

"There is nothing in the Antiquities Act that authorizes the president to modify a national monument once it's been designated," Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said during a press conference after Trump's speech in Salt Lake City on Monday.

Leaders of the five tribes also said they weren't consulted about the changes. Though Zinke met with them during his visit to Bears Ears in May, he did not share his subsequent findings with them, or the public for that matter, despite repeated calls to work on a government-to-government basis.

"The president of our nation, the Secretary of the Interior, never came to the Navajo Nation," said Davis Filfred, who represents Navajo communities in Utah as an elected delegate to the Navajo Nation Council. Zinke's hour-long meeting in May took place in Salt Lake City.

Instead of learning about Bears Ears first hand, tribes found out by watching Trump's remarks from elsewhere at the Utah State Capitol, Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez said. Though a handful of Navajo citizens were invited on stage during the event, none were elected leaders of the tribe's government.

“What transpired today, it’s just hard for me to understand,” Nez said. “It’s just another slap in the face for our Native American brothers and sisters.”

TRIBAL LEADERS RESPOND TO PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ATTACK ON BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT. Press conference begins at minute 16:57 in the video. SHARE to #StandWithBearsEars!

Posted by Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition on Monday, December 4, 2017
Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition on Facebook: TRIBAL LEADERS RESPOND TO PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ATTACK ON BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT [Press conference starts at 16:57 into the video

Nez also pointed out that his tribe will mark the 150th anniversary of its treaty with the United States next year. The document was signed by Chief Manuelito, a legendary Navajo leader who was born in Bears Ears in 1818.

"We honor that agreement, that treaty that was put in place, and in the year that is supposed to be a celebration of resilience, we get some type of action like we saw today on national television," Nez said.

Shaun Chapoose, a council member from the Ute Tribe, called the dismantling of Bears Ears another dark chapter in the historical mistreatment of his people, who were forced out of their homelands in the area that includes Bears Ears. He blamed the state's Congressional delegation for pushing Trump to reduce the size of the monument.

Going to Bears Ears is like "almost as if you walked into a museum," said Chapoose, a former chairman of his tribe. "The only thing missing are the people."

"Have you ever asked yourself why?" Chapoose said. "Because of this -- being drove out."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: President Trump and Bears Ears National Monument

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has made no secret of his disdain for Bears Ears, once calling it a monument that "nobody" in Utah wanted. He praised Trump for taking action on Monday.

"The next steps will be to move beyond symbolic gestures of protection and create substantive protections and enforcement and codify in law a meaningful management role for local governments, tribes and other stakeholders,” Bishop said in a statement.

But with the president's legal authority in question due to the tribal lawsuit, as well as other litigation, Republicans in Utah introduced a bill on Tuesday that would appear to resolve any doubts. The Shash Jáa and Indian Creek National Monuments Act would designate the two areas specified in Trump's proclamation as monuments and authorize tribal co-management over certain areas within those areas.

"We get to what’s right by first listening to input from Utah’s tribal members and local citizens. My bill emphasizes those views," Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), who was sworn into office less than a month ago following a special election in his state, said in a press release. "It will protect archaeological treasures and sacred sites while, where appropriate, maintaining multiple use lands for recreation, hunting and grazing."

Video footage courtesy Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition: President Trump Dismantles Bears Ears National Monument

In his proclamation, Trump said Shash Jáa contains the "heart of the national monument: the iconic twin buttes known as the Bears Ears that tower 2,000 feet above the surrounding landscape and are considered sacred to the Native American tribes that call this area their ancestral home."

The name "Shash Jáa" comes from the two Navajo words for "bear" and "ears."

Trump's contested proclamation also includes a unit called Indian Creek. Together, the areas consist of 228,784 acres, according to the White House, far smaller than the 2016 designation.

"We have seen how this tragic federal overreach prevents many Native Americans from having their rightful voice over the sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions," Trump said in his speech in Salt Lake. He otherwise did not acknowledge tribes or Native peoples as he talked about "abuses" of the Antiquities Act.

"With the action I’m taking today, we will not only give back your voice over the use of this land, we will also restore your access and your enjoyment. Public lands will once again be for public use," Trump said. In addition to reducing Bears Ears by about 85 percent, he also cut down the acreage in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by about half.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition released photos and video footage of some of the areas excluded by Trump's new proclamation. The areas include ancestral villages, sacred sites, burial grounds, archaeological artifacts and geographical features in places like Abajo Canyon, Cedar Mesa and the Valley of The Gods.

"Trump’s decision to rescind protections and create new boundaries was made in secret — the public had no opportunity to review the plans or the decision-making process, and the Tribes were not consulted," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement. "Donald Trump’s ignorance and repeated disrespect for Native Americans diminish the office of the president of the United States."

The White House on YouTube: President Trump Gives Remarks at the Utah State Capitol

Trump's dismantling of Bears Ears came a week after he revived his "Pocahontas" slur during an event featuring Code Talkers from the Navajo Nation. The event marred what could have been a powerful way to close out Native American Heritage Month, tribal leaders, tribal citizens and members of Congress said.

“Old white men sitting in Washington don’t get to dictate what is and is not sacred to Native Americans,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a press release. “This is a return to the bad old days of rejecting tribal pleas for recognition and equal treatment."

The Bears Ears lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. The Navajo Nation Department of Justice, the Native American Rights Fund and the Fredericks Peebles & Morgan law firm are representing the tribes in the case.

One of the firm's named partners is Lance Morgan, who is an attorney and the chief executive officer of Ho-Chunk, Inc., the economic development corporation of the Winnebago Tribe. Indianz.Com is owned by a subsidiary of Ho-Chunk Inc., though Morgan does not participate in the operation of the subsidiary or the management of the website.

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