Downsized national monuments threaten Native American history, opponents say

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The House on Fire ruins is one of the 100,000 archeological sites located at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. (Erin Tapahe)

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Whether it’s construction of a proposed oil pipeline across Native American lands or the federal government’s recent decision to downsize national monuments in the West, many people who have lived in these areas for decades say their voices aren’t being heard.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is drafting an Environmental Impact Statement and Monumental Management plan for the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The BLM is accepting comments from the public to express concerns and suggestions for the management of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante. 

The comments for the management of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante opened Aug. 17, but ended for both monuments in November.

According to U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management website, BLM Utah State Director Ed Roberson invites the public to review the proposed plans and encourages the public to think about future generations.

The Bears Ears was created into a national monument by President Obama in 2016 for the protection and preservation of cultural, historic and maintenance of diversity for natural and scientific resources.

Mike Taylor, director of the BYU American Indian studies minor, said Bears Ears is important to him because it is an opportunity to stand up for what cannot protect itself.

The area of Bears Ears is considered sacred by five Native American tribes: Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Ute Mountain and Zuni. The tribes created a group called the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015. They have gained the support of over 30 Native American tribes for the protection of Bears Ears.

Joye Braun, Indigenous Environmental Network community organizer, has dealt with Native American issues across America. “It took us fighting tooth and nail to get any kind of protection under the Obama administration with regards to Bears Ears,” she said. 

In 2017, shortly before he left office, President Obama designated 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah as Bears Ears National Monument. The monument’s size was reduced by 85 percent by President Trump, who also downsized Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by 50 percent.

Farina King, assistant professor of history at Northeastern State University and a BYU alumna, said Bears Ears is important because it is a place of knowledge and the Navajo people have a deep connection to the land. 

According to Utah Diné Bikayah, Bears Ears is one of America’s most significant unprotected cultural sites because it is home to approximately 100,000 indigenous archaeological sites.

King likens Bears Ears to an archive or library for its teachings. “That’s where our knowledge and histories are embedded in that landscape,” he said.

In her studies as a historian, King said she has learned that those who colonized what became the United States saw the land as needing development instead of seeing the lifestyle of Native American people and their connection with the land.

“The land is still seen as something that needs to be developed, especially now with modern technologies, for energy and the benefit of what some people can make money off of,” King said.

According to Taylor, the reduction of Bears Ears is more than reducing the amount of protected land. The move also reduces the amount of respect indigenous and minority voices have.

“For me personally, it’s a spiritual relationship, even though I have no indigenous connection to that land, but it’s still my accountability as a human being to protect the earth,” Taylor said. 

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