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National Monuments Help Preserve Native Cultures

Designating Bears Ears a national monument and allowing for a Native American advisory board is an example of the federal land management process working.
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The recent executive order to review national monuments has left many questioning the fate of Bears Ears National Monument, and 26 other national monuments. It is good to remember that the President lacks the authority to alter the designation of Bears Ears. However, with a Republican controlled Congress it is likely that he could change the delegation of authority. Abolishing or diminishing Bears Ears would be in keeping with the President’s long standing animosity towards Indian tribes. His choices for the Interior Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs have made statements that support termination of Indian tribes or threaten tribal sovereignty and tribal land.

To many Native people, the land is the home of the natural and the supernatural. In order to respect the beliefs and diversity of Indian country, both must be accounted for when making land management decisions. Prior to the 1970s, the federal government paid little attention to Native beliefs and practices, in fact they actively discouraged them. However, legislation has since attempted to secure some sense of respect for Native religious practices.


At the end of 2016, the Obama Administration opened the door for further understanding of Native American cultural practices. By designating Bears Ears National Monument and allowing for a Native American advisory board, the Obama Administration hoped to give Native people a voice in federal land management. The designation of Bears Ears as a national monument was the culmination of a years-long lobbying effort from five tribes in the Bears Ears region: the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Navajo Nation. In the proclamation, President Obama stated that Bears Ears is “profoundly sacred” to the tribes of the region, and that “the area’s cultural importance to Native American tribes continues to this day.”

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Without the protection that national monuments provide, the nation runs the risk of replaying the recent events of the Dakota Access protests. The Native American worldview—and its resulting federal land management conflicts—were on display at Standing Rock, where hundreds of tribes came together to block the construction of an oil pipeline. Standing Rock made clear, that sometimes federal management is the best option.

Bears Ears is an example of the process working correctly. Five tribes working together identified a historic landmark of tremendous historic and scientific interest. This area also has tremendous cultural importance to numerous tribes within the region. To claim that there was insufficient opportunity for community feedback is to imply that community feedback is less relevant, less significant, or less valuable when it comes from tribes and tribal members. Why shouldn’t the feelings of the first Americans be given equal weight and respect to those of ranchers, miners, and others who want to continue using our public lands for their exclusive use? A government of the people and by the people means all the people, not just settlers and the wealthy, but also the poorest Americans.

Many Americans know how Indian lands were stolen during westward expansion by corrupt politicians. Eventually more than half of Indian land was taken out of the control of tribes. Native people are loath to discuss publicly why a particular parcel of land is important because to do so invites desecration of the site. Identification of a site brings in scavengers seeking to loot sacred objects for sale to collectors, misuse and desecration from fetishists and new agers, or defiling from those who lack respect for other cultures. It speaks volumes that five tribes, some of whom were traditional enemies, worked collectively for the proclamation of Bears Ears as a national monument. They had the full support of Indian country behind them as evidenced by the resolution of the National Congress of American Indians. As a national monument Bears Ears will remain open and available to all Americans to visit for generations to come, instead of only being available for a few special interest groups to use and exploit for their short term gain.

Todd Leahy has a PhD in American Indian History, and is an environmental attorney. He works for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, where he brings a wide range of knowledge about land use and conservation. He previously taught graduate-level students focusing on land and resource rights, ownership, and use. He put his law degree to use while working for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Richard Frias is an attorney practicing in New Mexico and the founding partner of Frias Indian Law and Policy, LLC. He previously worked as Chief Counsel to the Governor at the Pueblo of Pojoaque and as Legislative Director for the National Indian Gaming Association.