Tribes Seek Meetings With Interior Over Bears Ears

Tribal leaders allege they've been ignored in their attempts to discuss Bears Ears National Monument with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earned points with tribes when he declared that tribal “sovereignty should mean something.” But federally recognized tribes seeking to engage with him about keeping President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears as a national monument have been met, they say, with silence.

As Zinke prepares to travel to Salt Lake City on May 7 and tour the 1.35 million–acre region on May 8, he may still have to convince the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition that he plans to engage in meaningful consultation over the region’s monument status. On April 26, President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring Zinke to conduct a review of national monuments of more than 100,000 acres designated since January 1, 1996, under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Zinke has met with the San Juan County Commission, which is seeking withdrawal of the national monument designation for Bears Ears made by Obama in December, but the Interior Secretary has not responded to the coalition’s numerous requests to meet, the tribal leaders said at a May 3 press conference.

“We need to make this work,” said Zuni councilman Carlton Bowekaty to reporters gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC. “Even among ourselves we’ve had our differences, but we’ve gotten beyond them for a common cause. We can do that with the federal government.”

He and other speakers voiced their concerns about being excluded from government-to-government consultation on land they have historically held as sacred, and expressed their willingness to work with all stakeholders to find a solution to the impasse. Bowekaty noted that the coalition’s efforts were for the “betterment of ... humanity,” not just the tribes.

“We need to find a common language,” Bowekaty said, to educate the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service about the cultural underpinnings of the Coalition’s position. LoRenzo Bates, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, concurred.

“This is more than about protecting artifacts,” Bates said. “We’re protecting our sovereignty.”

Bates said it is the responsibility of the Trump administration and Zinke to “meet with us, nation to nation.” The Obama administration documented and released information from the years of consultation they had held prior to issuing the proclamation on Bears Ears, and the tribes said they expect no less from Trump.

The Bears Ears issues have their roots in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 Antiquities Act, which gave U.S. presidents the power to create national monuments from public land in order to protect unique natural, cultural or scientific sites. President Barack Obama made the 1.35 million–acre Bears Ears such a site in December 2016. Trump has called the ability for presidents to set aside lands in this way an “egregious abuse of federal power.”

The standoff pits two worldviews against each other. On one side are tribes that have inhabited this land and held it sacred for millennia. On the other are politicians seeking to open up all land in the purported name of energy independence and economic growth.

Tribes are not trying to block either of those goals, but they are as cognizant of the importance of Bears Ears culturally and spiritually as the American public is of the hallowedness of Arlington National Cemetery. Davis Filfred, Navajo Nation Council Delegate, recalled the reverence with which General Norman Schwarzkopf had held Iraqi antiquities and sacred sites when choosing targets during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.

“He preserved them,” Filfred reflected, implying that the same respect should be applied to sacred sites such as Bears Ears.

Moreover, Bears Ears “is not the only national monument at stake,” Filfred reminded reporters. This is just the first of many fights, he said, and the Coalition is reaching out to all tribes to join them on resolving Bears Ears to establish a process for dealing with the other monuments potentially affected.

Zinke is required to consult with American Indian tribes before any decision is made on Bears Ears or any other federal sites, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman Harold Cuthair.

“This is a sacred place,” he said. “Our ancestors rest there. Our history, culture, and practices should be protected and untouched. We gather firewood, hunt, get our medicines and plants there. We do the Bear Dance there out of respect for its power.”

Putting off discussion seemed counterproductive to him if successful management of Bears Ears was the desired end result. Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), wondered how the Trump administration could make America great without putting Americans—especially Native Americans—first.

“Now is the time to change the pattern” of a hundred broken treaties, Holden lamented, but added that instead “we’re facing the same problems as in 1906!”

Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee Chairman Shaun Chapoose expressed alarm over Trump’s Executive Order. He called out the Trump administration for threatening the trust and the treaty relationship between tribes.

“We’re supposed to engage in a process, but it’s not happening. Zinke’s words are empty,” Chapoose said, noting that tribal leaders have made themselves available to the Interior Secretary continually, in spite of the high price of coming to Washington DC from remote western tribal territory.

“We demand that he honor his word,” Chapoose said. “We didn’t say that we want to control [the outcome], we want to work with them. We have the knowledge and expertise. First Americans want to help you become the Great America you want to be, but we’ve been left out of the conversation.”

He concluded with a callout to Zinke to either engage with them now, or be prepared meet them next week on their home ground, or failing that, in court sometime soon.

“Zinke, if you’re listening, open the door to discussion!” Chapoose said. “We’re right here!”

Later that afternoon, Interior released photos of an apparently impromptu meeting between Zinke and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray. But no details were supplied about what transpired.

“Today Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke met with leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray,” Interior said in a brief statement. “The Tribal leaders and the Secretary discussed several issues including energy development, the nature of sovereignty, public lands, and the Bears Ears National Monument. The meeting was the first of many conversations. The Secretary and the Tribal leaders committed to maintaining an ongoing open and positive dialogue.”