A coalition of Tribal Nations presented a proposal to the Obama Administration for a 1.9 million area National Monument in southern Utah.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (comprising the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni Tribes) came into being July 2015 with the aim of preserving the Bears Ears region, which includes its titular Bears Ears buttes as well as over 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites. The region has a history of vandalism and raiding, and faces pressures for oil, gas, and potash extraction.
In a press conference at the National Press Club, embedded above, the tribes made their case for the proposal as a balm for historic discord. “It’s not just for us to get healed,” said Willie Grayeyes, chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that developed and built grassroots support for the proposal among tribal members. “It’s for our adversaries to be healed too. We can come out dancing together.”
The current projected Bears Ears region shares borders and/or overlaps with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Canyon Lands National Park, White Mesa Reservation, and the Navajo Nation. It is also located just west of Ute Mountain Reservation and Mesa Verde National Park and just south of Arches National Park.
Under the proposal, the federal government would retain ownership of the land, but it would be jointly administered by tribes and agency officials as Bears Ears National Monument. In addition, members of the public and stakeholders would be able to comment and contribute to the development of plans and policies.
Before presenting their proposal to the Obama Administration, the Coalition circulated copies to Utah Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, who have been working on a Public Lands Initiative. The Coalition has documented their involvement in trying to get Bears Ears included in this initiative.
“This proposal originates from the heart of Indian Country,” said Eric Descheenie, Co-Chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and adviser to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, in a press release. “By protecting these sacred ancestral lands we can take a very important step towards healing.”
This destruction of our sacred sites—including the gravesites of our ancestors—deeply wounds us,” said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Councilwoman to the Ute Mountain Ute, in the same press release. “Bears Ears should have been protected long ago. It has been central to our creation and migration stories since time immemorial.”
What makes the Coalition’s proposal unique is that it calls for President Obama to invoke the Antiquities Act, enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and used to designate National Monuments such as Devils Tower and the Grand Canyon (which later became a National Park under President Woodrow Wilson).
“The Antiquities Act was written to protect Native American artifacts on public lands,” said Alfred Lomahquahu, Vice Chairman to the Hopi Nation, in the same press release as Descheenie and Lopez-Whiteskunk. “But this is the first time tribes have ever come together to call on the President to use the Antiquities Act.”
The act is sometimes seen as controversial, as it places considerable power in the executive office to designate and enact monuments. Later legislation has placed limits on the president’s power—for instance, as of 1950, the executive office requires congressional consent to create or enlarge monuments in Wyoming; and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act requires Congressional consent for use of the Antiquities Act in Alaska if withdrawals exceed 5000 acres.
Note, however, that none of those limits apply to monuments created in Utah.