The Bears Ears Buttes in Utah. Photo: Tim Peterson

Trump administration restricts tribal involvement at Bears Ears

The Trump administration continues to dismantle the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah despite objections from tribes about decisions being made without their input.

The monument, home to ancestral villages, burial grounds and sacred sites, was drastically reduced by President Donald Trump last December. Tribes aren't happy about that action and are fighting in court to protect their aboriginal homelands from looting, development and other threats.

But even as that battle remains in litigation, the Trump administration is moving quickly to develop management plans for the new units that were created by presidential proclamation last year. The public is being asked to comment about the "future" of Bears Ears amid unresolved questions about the monument's much smaller boundaries.

And that future is increasingly looking like one without Indian Country's full involvement. The Department of the Interior is creating a new advisory committee that will not include representation from all of the five tribes that worked for the monument's creation.

Instead, the Trump administration is reserving just two slots on the committee for "tribal interests," according to a notice published in the Federal Register on Thursday. Notably, "tribal governments" -- whose sovereignty is supposed to be mean something, according to Secretary Ryan Zinke -- aren't mentioned anywhere at all.

Supporters of the Bears Ears National Monument try to send a message to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, in blue shirt, during a May 2017 visit to Utah. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

The affront has tribes calling foul.

"On behalf of the Bear Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, we do not support the composition and construction of the proposed Bears Ears Monument Advisory Committee," Carleton Bowekaty, the co-chairman of the coalition, told Indianz.Com.

"In short, it does not meet the established requirements of the federal trust relationship and the attendant dynamic of the government-to-government relationship," said Bowekaty, a council member from the Pueblo of Zuni, one of the five tribes behind the monument's creation.

Sovereignty certainly meant something when then-president Barack Obama originally established the monument in December 2016. His proclamation recognized the role of the five tribes -- besides Zuni, the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe -- in making management decisions at the 1.35 million-acre monument.

All five tribes should still have a say in the monument's future, Bowekaty said, but that's not reflected in the new committee.

He said "all of these tribes are recognized domestic sovereigns and as such, all should be represented by their respective tribal leadership. As this proposed advisory committee does not adhere to the most basic elements of the government-to-government relationship it cannot be supported by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition."

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

The Utah Diné Bikéyah, a grassroots organization based on the Navajo Nation, agreed with that assessment. The original Bears Ears Commission allowed tribes to pick their own representatives. With the new commission, that power rests in the hands of officials in faraway Washington, D.C.

"This advisory committee should include representatives of all five tribes and these representatives must be nominated by, and come through the sovereign tribal nations that hold ties to the Bears Ears region," the group said in a statement to Indianz.Com.

Unlike the managing body envisioned by Obama's proclamation, the new committee reflects a whole different set of interests. For example, it calls for two representatives of "developed outdoor recreation, off-highway vehicle users," even though tribes and environmental groups have documented damage to sacred sites and archaeological resources by off-road vehicles.

And then there is the call for one "elected official from San Juan County" in Utah. Even though Native Americans make up a majority of the county's population, they have been repeatedly and systematically denied a voice in their own government, a federal judge determined in a closely-watched voting rights lawsuit.

Those elected officials from San Juan County in fact exhibited "race-based motives" in keeping Native residents from being adequately represented, the judge said.

‪Secretary Ryan Zinke discusses his recommendation to revise the Bears Ears National Monument at the National Congress of American Indians midyear conference in Connecticut. He is asking Congress to authorize tribal co-management of a portion of the monument in Utah, claiming neither the Department of the Interior nor President Donald Trump have the power to do that. Session held at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation. June 13, 2017. #NCAIMY17‬

Posted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Secretary Ryan Zinke on Bears Ears: 'I talked to the tribes before, I talked to the tribes after'

The racially-biased political structure contributed to the county's official stance against Bears Ears. It was highlighted when Trump invited the three members of the county commission -- two of them non-Natives -- to the monument dismantling announcement last year, an event incidentally that took place hundreds of miles from Bears Ears.

But the Navajo Nation's voting rights lawsuit is leading to change. An anti-Bears Ears commissioner has already been ousted in a Democratic primary and is being replaced by Kenneth Maryboy, a Navajo citizen who supports the original monument designation.

Additionally, a second Native candidate has been ordered back on the ballot following unsuccessful -- and possibly illegal -- efforts by county officials to disqualify him from the race.

That candidate is Willie Grayeyes, who happens to serve as chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah. He will be on the ballot unless the county somehow gets its way with an appeal pending before a higher court.

Still, the Trump administration is maneuvering to ignore the results of the November election. Nominations for the Bears Ears National Monument Advisory Committee are due October 1 -- so Secretary Zinke could name its members before the majority Native population in San Juan County has its say.

Or he could take a suggestion from the organization Grayeyes leads and ensure that Native Americans are adequately represented on the advisory committee.

"Additionally, given that the population of San Juan County is 53% Native American, we would like to see Native representation throughout this committee’s membership," Utah Diné Bikéyah told Indianz.Com. "This should include Native American ranchers, recreationists, sportsmen, and scientists."

"After all, Bears Ears National Monument’s intent is to protect Native American objects and heritage on these lands and will need the voices of Native American peoples, who know the land and resources of this essential cultural landscape,” the group said.

The litigation over the boundaries of Bears Ears is being fought by the all five tribes of the Bears Ears Coalition. Environmental and conservation groups are also questioning whether President Trump has the legal authority to reduce the size of the monument.

In dismantling Bears Ears, Trump created two different and much smaller units -- one named Shash Jaá and the other Indian Creek. Together they comprise about 228,00 acres, making them much smaller than the 1.35 million acres in the original proclamation.

Utah Diné Bikéyah Board Chairman Willie Grayeyes, left, is seen riding horses at Bears Ears with Malcolm Lehi, then-council member from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Photo: UDB

Shash Jaá takes its name from placing the Navajo word for "bear" before the Navajo word for "ears." While the individual words themselves are correct, putting them together in that manner does not make sense grammatically, according to speakers of the Dine language.

The name of the unit itself was a surprise to the tribe. And it was included in a controversial Republican-sponsored bill to ratify Trump's decisions without the tribe's input.

"The Navajo Nation was never consulted," President Russell Begaye said at a hearing in Washington in February. Using his people's language without consent is misleading, because it implies some sort of approval, he added.

In addition to nominations for the Bears Ears Monument Advisory Committee closing in about a month, tribes are facing another deadline. Comments on the new management plans for Shash Jaá and Indian Creek are due November 15.

“We recognize that local communities and the public at large care deeply about the future of Bears Ears National Monument," said Ed Roberson, the director of the Utah State Office for the Bureau of Land Management. "We invite the public to review and comment on the proposed plans, and to consider how they would like to see this remarkable landscape managed now and for future generations.”\

Federal Register Notice
Notice of Establishment and Call for Nominations for the Bears Ears National Monument Advisory Committee (August 30, 2018)

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