An Indigenous Vision: The Bears Ears National Monument

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech for individuals and organizations to associate and speak in any way they wish without fear of government retaliation. But you wouldn't know that by listening to Mike Noel, a Republican representative from Kanab, Utah. Mr. Noel fears a conspiracy of sorts where conniving environmentalists are manipulating Native American tribal leaders into supporting a new national monument in Utah. He recently convinced colleagues on the Utah Constitutional Defense Council to ask the Utah Attorney General to investigate the coalition of groups advocating for the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Where most see a coalition of groups working toward a common goal, this Utah lawmaker sees something akin to racketeering.

To say that this is offensive on many fronts is an understatement.

The implication that tribal people cannot be leaders on national conservation initiatives, or that they are easily used as dupes by environmental groups, is offensive. The implication that tribal peoples whose ancestors have lived on these lands for several millennia would need non-native people to convince them of the importance these lands and the need to protect them is even more offensive.

"We speak for ourselves and our tribal members who have overwhelmingly called on us to make sure Bears Ears becomes a national monument," said Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council delegate. In fact, the proposal for the monument was developed by a grass-roots nonprofit known as Utah Dine Bikeyah and it has been endorsed by 24 nearby tribes.

When representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) brought together Native American tribal representatives, local and national environmental groups, ranchers, locally elected officials and others under the guise of their Public Lands Initiative, Mr. Noel did not claim that they were manipulating the Tribes even though many tribal participants eventually dropped out of the effort because they did not believe they were being taken seriously.

The proposed monument encompasses 1.9 million acres of public lands currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service and it would require President Obama to use his authorities under the Antiquities Act. In fact, this effort is the only Native American led campaign for a national monument in the 109 year history of the Antiquities Act.

The monument is a vast and diverse landscape of forests, river canyons and red rock country adjacent to, and immediately east of Canyonlands National Park. The area contains over 100,000 archeological and culturally significant sites. These lands continue to be important to the neighboring tribes who follow in their ancestor's footsteps in hunting deer, elk and wild turkeys and harvesting chokecherries and wood. Today tribal people still travel to the Bears Ears for ceremonies, to collect medicinal herbs for healing, to offer prayers and to maintain connections to the seasonal migrations their ancestors made along the Abajo Mountains.

While the federal government has special trust, accountability and treaty obligations to Indian tribes, the Bears Ears National Monument presents a truly unique opportunity. The Bears Ears Coalition is seeking co-management of the new monument where tribal people could demonstrate their enduring ties to the land and their sovereign power to help manage the public lands alongside the federal government.

"This is an indigenous vision that has inspired cross-disciplinary professionals to join on. We have non-Indians, we have all kinds of groups in the public and private sector" said Eric Descheenie, co-chair of the Bears Ears coalition. "We've never been given this opportunity to speak on behalf of our sacred sites on public lands," said Hopi Vice Chairman Alfred Lomahquahu. Perhaps this is what Mr. Noel fears most.