Utah bill tramples on tribal sovereignty at Bears Ears
Last month, President Trump issued a proclamation claiming to drastically reduce, and otherwise weaken, the Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. Our tribes, along with the other tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, immediately sued the president, arguing that the proclamation was void because his actions were beyond the president’s authority. The Utah delegation seems to understand that our lawsuit against President Trump has the weight of the law on its side, and thus stands a high likelihood of success. That would leave President Obama’s visionary proclamation creating the Bears Ears National Monument fully intact.
Hence the introduction by Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) of the Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act, which would dismantle the Obama monument. If passed, the Curtis bill would leave just 15 percent of the land in monument status and would eviscerate the important collaborative government-to-government management role for tribes recognized and honored in the Obama proclamation.
Had Congressman Curtis asked for our input, we would have drawn on the exhaustive research we conducted in advocating for the Obama monument, as well as the experience and knowledge our substantial and successful tribal natural resource agencies possess, especially with respect to our treasured traditional knowledge and cultural values. These tribal assets, when combined with western knowledge, offer the promise of enhanced land and resource management to the benefit of all.
If the congressman had approached us as tribal sovereigns, we would have sought to bring our traditional knowledge into decision-making on a sovereign-to-sovereign basis with the federal government. In other words, we would have proposed something much like the management regime established in the Obama proclamation that would include a Bears Ears Commission made up of representatives formally appointed pursuant to tribal law from our five Indian nations that would work alongside the federal agencies as partners in ensuring that management decisions reflect, enhance, and protect our traditional knowledge and our historic, religious, and cultural patrimony. This collaborative management approach facilitated by a strong government-to-government working relationship between our nations and the federal government would have honored our sovereignty at Bears Ears.
Instead, what Representative Curtis has proposed is to install a barrier between our governments and the federal government in the management of monument lands and resources. Instead of working directly with federal agencies, the commission will work through a seven-member council appointed by the president and composed of two San Juan County commissioners, four tribal members from Utah (not tribal representatives duly appointed by our tribal governments, many of which have formal government headquarters outside of Utah), and one federal agency official. We have no doubt this president would hand pick a rubberstamp commission to pander to the development-oriented Utah delegation.
The inclusion of two members from the San Juan County Commission is deeply troubling. Discrimination against Indians has been long-standing in San Juan County. Navajo people have sued San Juan County seven times for discrimination and won every time. A federal judge has recently ruled that the county violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally racially gerrymandering the voting districts for the county commission to create two safe seats for non-Native American candidates. The judge has just announced the reformed district boundaries that provide for two majority Native American districts, with one being a swing district.
All of our coalition tribes have had difficult experiences with Utah public officials. When we talk with tribal leaders across Indian country, we learn that tribes commonly acknowledge Utah as a most difficult place for Native people. San Juan County in particular reeks of anti-Indian behavior and sentiments.
Carleton Bowekaty and Shaun Chapoose are co-chairs of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.