Several Native American leaders accused the Trump administration of favoritism Wednesday in its ongoing review of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and other public lands protected by the Antiquities Act.
Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, met Tuesday with Utah elected leaders opposed to the monument, and he has said he is planning a trip to southern Utah next week as part of his 45-day review of monuments that presidents have created in the last 20 years.
Tribal leaders supporting Bears Ears say they’ve attempted since January to arrange a meeting with Zinke so they can present their side. On Wednesday, they held a news conference in Washington to vent their frustration and urge Zinke to meet with them.
“The Trump administration says it will put America first,” said Robert Holden, deputy director for the National Congress of American Indians. “Today we urge the administration to meet with First Americans, who have been here since time immemorial.”
Carleton Bowekaty, co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and a Zuni Tribal Councilman, said the coalition had written Zinke in late January and requested a meeting but had not received a response.
“I don’t know why he met with the Utah delegation before meeting with any tribal leaders,” added Davis Filfred, a council delegate for Navajo Nation. The Navajo are one of five tribes that petitioned President Barack Obama to create the Bears Ears monument to protect rock carvings, burial grounds and other antiquities.
The Interior Department didn’t immediately respond for a request for comment. Zinke has reportedly said he will meet with tribal leaders when visiting Utah, but the intertribal coalition says it has yet to hear from his office.
A mixture of forests and red-rock canyons that hide cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, the Bears Ears monument was created out of 1.35 million acres of public land. Under its status as a monument, livestock grazing and other traditional uses can continue, but new mining claims and oil and gas development will be prohibited.
On April 26, Trump signed an executive order seeking an Interior Department review and possible reversal of monument designations, calling them a “massive federal land grab” that limits economic opportunities to nearby communities. Whether Trump can rescind a monument designation remains to be seen. It’s never been done before, and some legal scholars doubt it would survive a court challenge.
Leaders of the five tribes – the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian – started lobbying Obama in 2015 to protect Bears Ears, partly because of antiquities looting and vandalism. Some put aside decades of conflicts in order to campaign together.
Tribal leaders say they have long-standing ties to the area, some of which were severed when Native Americans were slaughtered and forced onto reservations during the 1800s.
“The Bears Ears landscape is the ancestral landscape of our people,” said Harold Cuthair, chairman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “It is our sacred place.”
In Utah, many elected leaders reject claims that tribes with reservations in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona have historic connections to Bears Ears. Politicians such as U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, have worked to publicize members of the Navajo tribe in southeast Utah that do not support the monument.
At a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, Bishop, the committee’s chair, invited panelists to voice their objections to Bears Ears and other monuments nationwide. During the session, he said “no local tribe in San Juan County, Utah, where the national monument is located, supported this designation.”
At Tuesday’s news conference, several tribal leaders rebutted Bishop’s claim, noting that the Ute Mountain Ute have tribal members in White Mesa, in San Juan County, who support the monument.
“Rob Bishop is a good storyteller,” said Shaun Chapoose, business committee chairman for the Ute Indian Tribe. “His twist of facts is the dilemma we face as tribes.”