New York Times, Sunday Review, May 6, 2017
“Rising from the center of the southeastern Utah landscape and visible from every direction are twin buttes so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or ‘Bears Ears.’ For hundreds of generations, native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas … one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States.”
— Proclamation by President Barack Obama establishing Bears Ears National Monument, Dec. 28, 2016
After seven years of organizing, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition — made up of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni Nations — played a key role in securing the protection of 1.35 million acres surrounding Bears Ears from development and resource extraction just before President Obama left office.
But in our climate of political myopia, President Trump recently ordered the Interior Department to review the size and scope of national monuments larger than 100,000 acres created since 1996. He complained that these designations “unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control,” called them a “massive federal land grab” and directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review and reverse some of them.
There is a subtext here, as his order made clear. Monument designations, the document said, can “create barriers to achieving energy independence” and “otherwise curtail economic growth.” Among the likely beneficiaries of any reversals are the oil and gas industries, mining and logging interests and commercial development.
In issuing this order, President Trump — who has never visited Bears Ears — apparently chose to listen to the bellicose politicians of Utah and do the bidding of Senator Orrin Hatch and Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, who complain that Utahns were cut out of the process. Call that another alternative fact. The lawmakers claim it was an endgame move by the departing President Obama to create a “midnight monument.”
The truth is, the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument was a healing moment of historic importance. A unique agreement was reached between Indian tribes and the United States government for a collaborative approach to the management of Bears Ears. It was a clasp of hands across history. It was also about America looking into the deep future rather than into the narrow exhaust pipe of today. It was about drilling for hope and dignity, rather than fossil fuels.
But now Bears Ears could very well become another Standing Rock in both desecration and resistance — the latest example of a new colonialism, with the government bulldozing Indian sovereignty and privileging Big Oil. “If the Trump administration moves forward with their interests, they are taking us backward 100 years, rupturing trust once again between the federal government and Indian people,” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former councilwoman from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said.
No president has ever attempted to abolish a national monument, and it is unclear whether a president has the power to do it without Congress. And no president in the last half-century has reduced the size of a monument.
Bears Ears is a cradle of Native American history. Far from creating a “midnight monument” willed into existence at the slash of a presidential pen, the Obama designation provides these sacred lands with the protection that has long been in the prayers and dreams of tribal leaders.
“Bears Ears is all about Indian sovereignty,” said Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation.
The removal of one square inch from Bears Ears National Monument will be seen as an assault on the home ground of Native Americans in the American Southwest, a disrespect for their ceremonial lives and the traditional knowledge of their ancestors. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts are buried in the serpentine canyons and shifting pink sands of Cedar Mesa, hidden, until exposed by rain or wind or theft. The desecration of Indian graves has prompted F.B.I. raids and convictions.
But it’s not just about local desecration. So much of the American West these days is under threat of development and fossil fuel extraction. Our very sense of wildness and wilderness is at stake, from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico. “This is a war on our public lands,” said Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico. Our national parks and monuments and other public lands are breathing spaces for a society increasingly holding its breath.
“We are not just protecting these lands for our people, but all people,” Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo medicine person and spiritual leader, said.
As a Utahn, I have spent considerable time in the pinyon-juniper-laced mesas and sandstone canyons of Bears Ears. This is a landscape of immense stillness where ancient handprints left on red rock walls are a reminder of who came before us and who will follow.
If President Trump is successful in rescinding Bears Ears National Monument, it will be a breach of faith with our future and our past. Over 330 million visits were made to the national parks last year. One park or monument at risk means all are at risk. Pick yours: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Acadia. The federal Bureau of Land Management has proposed issuing oil and gas leases just outside Zion National Park, one of the nation’s most visited parks. Forty national parks are vulnerable to oil and gas extraction.
A portrait of Andrew Jackson has been newly hung in the Oval Office over Donald Trump’s shoulder. The portrait might remind our 45th president of how Jackson signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which lit the match to America’s criminal treatment of native people. The Trail of Tears is just part of Jackson’s legacy. His face still remains on the $20 bill — fitting perhaps, since so much of the battle over land is the battle over the dollar.
No amount of money is a substitute for beauty. No amount of political power can be matched by the power of the land and the indigenous people who live here. If we do not rise to the defense of these sacred lands, Bears Ears National Monument will be reduced to oil rigs and derricks, shining bright against an oiled sky of obliterated stars.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author, most recently, of “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.” She teaches at Dartmouth.