Ute Mountain Utes blast member’s testimony against Bears Ears

Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 5:48 PM
Regina Lopez Whiteskunk has been chosen by the Ute Mountain tribe to testify against a bill that modifies Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council has rejected congressional testimony made by a tribal member supporting a bill to replace Bears Ears National Monument with two smaller monuments.

Suzette Morris spoke in favor of House Resolution 4532 in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources on Jan. 9. She is a Ute Mountain tribal member from the White Mesa reservation community in southeastern Utah.

The bill attempts to codify President Donald Trump’s Dec. 4 proclamation replacing the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument with the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments, totaling 202,000 acres. It also creates a modified Tribal Management Council to help manage the monuments.

But the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which lobbied for Bears Ears as part of a five-tribe coalition, said Friday that Morris’ views did not represent the tribe’s position and her testimony was unauthorized. The tribe opposes the legislation and is part of a lawsuit challenging Trump’s modification of Bears Ears.

“She said she was speaking on behalf of White Mesa and the tribe, but that was not the case because she is not an elected official and did not have official authorization,” said Leland Begay, associate general council for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

The tribe authorized Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk to testify for the tribe at a congressional hearing Jan. 30. Lopez-Whiteskunk lobbied on behalf of the tribe for the original monument. She is a former council member and education director at the Ute Museum.

In a Jan. 10 letter to Chairman Rob Bishop of the House Committee on Natural Resources, the tribal council said having Morris testify was an inappropriate political ploy:

“The handpicking of an unelected tribal member that serves the agenda of anti-monument special interest groups to speak on behalf of White Mesa is a blatant violation of the sovereign-to-sovereign relationship shared between the federal government and Indian nations.”

The letter further states the Ute Mountain Council is the appropriate entity to decide who speaks on behalf of the tribe, and that the committee should honor the tribe’s laws governing official representation:

“We ask that the House Committee on Natural Resources refrain from the shameful practice of using individual tribal members that conveniently serves the narrative of special interest groups or the Utah congressional delegation, and not the official views of elected leaders from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.”

In her testimony, Morris said that the majority of White Mesa residents do not support the Bears Ears National Monument and accused the tribe of supporting it in secret. She is the vice president of Stewards of San Juan County, a land planning group.

“It is the people who live closest to the land that understand the land best and should have a voice in how the lands are managed,” she said. “Our voices have been silenced by special interest groups funded by Hollywood actors, San Fransisco boardrooms and by tribes who do not live anywhere near Bears Ears.”

Recent protests in White Mesa against the nearby Energy Fuels uranium mill have shown support for Bears Ears National Monument because it prevents new uranium mines that would use mill. The monument reduction opens the door to additional mining.

Because of their ancestral ties to the land, a five-tribe coalition was formed to guide management of the original Bears Ears National Monument. The Navajo, Ute Mountain, Zuni, Hopi and Northern Ute tribes appointed representatives to the coalition.

But under the modified monument, the Tribal Management Council would be made up of Navajo, Ute Mountain, two San Juan County commissioner representatives and a federal representative. Zuni, Hopi and Northern Utes are dropped.

Begay said the Utes object to HR 4532 because members of the Tribal Management Council would be chosen by the U.S. government, not the individual tribes.

“That takes away our sovereign ability to choose our own leaders,” he said.

They and environmental groups have filed lawsuits to nullify Trump unprecedented changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments.

The Navajo Nation is represented by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. The Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes are represented by the Native American Rights Fund. The Ute Indian Tribe of Northern Utah is represented by Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP.

Natalie Landreth, an attorney for Native American Rights Fund representing the Ute Mountain tribe, said their lawsuit is in the beginning stages.

It was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., but Landreth said the U.S. has requested that the venue be moved to a Utah federal court, a motion which is being challenged.

“Our view is that the president does not have the authority to change a monument, and that each step take to implement the changes to Bears Ears is illegal and void,” she said.

Monuments are proclaimed by presidents under the Antiquities Act. In his action to significantly reduce Bears Ears and divide it into two smaller monuments, Trump cited language in the act that says “monuments must be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects of historic or scientific interest to be protected.”