Congressman John Curtis discusses Bears Ears bill in public forum

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Congressman John Curtis, UVU professor Scott Williams and Virgil Johnson of the Utah Tribal Leaders Association address the Bears Ears public forum Jan. 23 at the Orem Library. (Savannah Hopkinson)

Congressman John Curtis and Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation councilman Virgil Johnson addressed their positions concerning the Bears Ears National Monument in a public forum on Tuesday. Curtis’ H.R. 4532 bill would create a tribally co-managed monument, but modify the boundaries of Bears Ears.

The purpose of H.R. 4532 is “to create the first Tribally managed national monument,” according to the bill’s text.

Curtis and Johnson took turns answering pre-screened questions during the event organized by the Utah Valley Earth Forum. The questions addressed topics regarding the use of public lands, the Antiquities Act and the bill’s effects on natives and non-natives.

Utah Valley University professor Scott Williams moderated the discussion at the Orem Public Library. He opened the discussion requesting respectful and civil discourse.  

“Hearing other viewpoints is useless if you’re not open to all sides,” Williams said.

Johnson attended the forum as a representative of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, a group led by five tribes local to San Juan County where Bears Ears is located. He used his allotted time for opening remarks to offer a Native American prayer of respect, asking all in attendance to stand in joining him.

Johnson followed the prayer by saying he does not speak for all Native Americans, yet many tribal leaders do not approve of the proposed bill.

Congressman John Curtis addresses a question regarding his proposed bill H.R. 4532 at the Bears Ears forum. The bill would make Bears Ears the first tribally managed national monument. (Savannah Hopkinson)

Curtis opened with comments on the widespread frustration with presidential designations of national monuments.

“It’s a promise to protect but it puts no real meat on the bones,” Curtis said. “It doesn’t say how we’re going to do that in many cases and it brings forth no resources to do that.”

He promoted his bill by emphasizing increased law enforcement presence within the modified Bears Ears boundaries to avoid mining and looting. The bill also organizes an archaeological protection unit to assist law enforcement in understanding what areas to protect. These added protections wouldn’t be possible without H.R. 4532, according to Curtis.

Throughout the forum, Johnson claimed there has not been an open dialogue and there was no consultation with the Native American community in the bill’s creation. He expressed frustration with President Trump’s designation to reduce the size of the national monuments despite the 1906 Antiquities Act and former President Obama’s call to establish Bears Ears.

Virgil Johnson shakes hands with Utah residents at the Bears Ears public forum. Johnson said he is frustrated with President Trump’s designation to reduce the size of national monuments. (Savannah Hopkinson)

“This land, from north to south, east to west, belongs to Native Americans and they were forced off their land,” Johnson said. “We’ve had promises upon promises throughout the history of Native Americans that have been broken. Treaties have been made that have never been kept. This is no different.”

Both speakers agreed special deference and restitution should be made to Native Americans by the American government, yet Curtis admitted he is not sure what such reparations would look like.

Curtis’ closing remarks included a challenge for Utahns to read the H.R. 4532 bill and an invitation to contact him with their thoughts. Curtis said he has received over 15,000 emails in the last several weeks and has committed to personally reading every one of them.

Curtis emphasized his willingness to mold the bill as it is merely at the beginning of the legislative process. He welcomed his availability to communicate with those within the Native American community and beyond.

Johnson concluded by pleading with Curtis over the importance of the native lands, not just to Native Americans but to non-natives as well.  

“I would hope, as a congressman, that you could see the significance of what that bill will do as far as damage to the psyche and the beliefs of the Native Americans,” Johnson said. “To downsize it and to leave out the other areas I think is disrespectful. I know the people who came here tonight – they also want to have the use of that land.”

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