Tribe presses its fight for sacred lands and monuments after Bears Ears

Mark Trahant

The last decade has been a roller coaster ride, as hard-won protections that were memorialized have evaporated

Sherry Treppa

Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake

It is no exaggeration to say that when it comes to protecting sacred land and national monuments, we are facing the biggest threat in a generation. The last decade has been a roller coaster ride, as hard-won protections that were memorialized in recent years have evaporated, seemingly overnight.

After years of negotiations, we were proud to work closely with former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in the decision to designate Berryessa Snow Mountain a national monument in 2015. But it’s anyone's guess what will happen next.

Some observers believe that we just wait it out until the current administration leaves office under the assumption that the next one will make native land preservation a high priority. But the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake tribe has never shied away from a tough challenge, and we are not going to passively wait around and hope for a miracle. In solidarity with our Native American brothers and sisters, as well as everyone else who cares about the protection of sacred land, we are fighting back on multiple fronts.

Perhaps Bears Ears is the most well publicized symbol of the current efforts to strip away protections for indigenous land. After a years-long battle led by tribal leaders, in late 2016, President Obama proclaimed 1,351,849 acres of land in what is now Utah would be designated Bears Ears National Monument, using his presidential authority under the Antiquities Act. This decision protected the monument from the extraction of oil, gas, uranium and other resources, while ensuring tribal input on a range of actions related to this sacred land.

But less than one year later, many of those protections vanished. The current administration announced it would reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, a decision that could lead to thousands of acres being handed over to profiteers unconcerned about the land, its history or its symbolic value. We stand with the Hopi, Zuni, Ute and Navajo Nations and others challenging this decision, but this fight is not even close to over. In fact, it’s just one front in the broader battle to ensure the right of indigenous people to govern our land.

Bears Ears might be the most widely publicized example, but the federal government has also reduced the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 45 percent. It recommended allowing uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. It approved the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline despite widespread opposition by the public over concerns that these projects would pollute the environment and contaminate drinking water in addition to destroying hallowed Native American lands.

We are concerned that an erosion of the Snow Mountain protections could be next.

There’s no question that we are in the midst of a comprehensive attack on our nation’s public lands and sacred historical sites. While the outcome of these misguided decisions may be abstract to some, for Native American tribal nations, it means for-profit corporations are being given a free pass to loot sacrosanct cultural and archaeological sites. It means that the lands where tribal nations survived, prayed and hunted for thousands of years are now becoming oil and gas drilling stations. And it means that the lands where ancestors were buried and where spiritual ceremonies currently take place will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

More than anything, this fight is about respect. Like Snow Mountain, Bears Ears became a national monument at the request of tribal nations and is governed by a group of tribal members. Ripping away the protections that come with national monument designation sends a terrible message to tribal nations and to Native Americans all over the country. That message is: the promises of the federal government are worthless.

We have come a long way from the dark days of the past. But the actions coming out of Washington illustrate how much more work we have left to do. Destroying, looting and drilling our heritage will not be tolerated. Let’s stand to make sure the sacred cultural sites in Bears Ears and lands across the country continue to represent a symbol of hope that guides us to a peaceful future governed by mutual respect.

Sherry Treppa is Chairperson for the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, a federally recognized Indian Nation located in Upper Lake, California.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
David Hollenshead
David Hollenshead

"President Obama proclaimed 1,351,849 acres of land in what is now Utah would be designated Bears Ears National Monument" This situation would given each nation a chance to work for the National Park System, and thus have a good chance to educate white peoples minds.