During a U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., local Native American tribes voiced unanimous opposition to a bill that replaces Bears Ears National Monument with two smaller ones.
Officials from Utah testified in support of the bill, including a San Juan County commissioner who is Navajo.
House Resolution 4532 – The Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act – provides additional protection to 228,784 acres of public lands in southeast Utah.
The act seeks to codify a proclamation by President Donald Trump on Dec. 4 that designated the two monuments to replace the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument created under former President Barack Obama in 2016.
Officials from the Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Northern Ute tribes all supported the original Bears Ears and testified against changes during the two-hour hearing.
They said dismantling Bears Ears was unlawful and reduces protection for thousands of cultural sites and artifacts.
They also objected to the bill’s revised tribal management council that drops three of the five tribes originally chosen to help manage Bear Ears.
Ute Mountain and Navajo members will be on the council, along with two San Juan County commissioners. But the tribe’s representatives will be chosen by the U.S. president.
“The bill claims it is the first tribally managed monument, but in fact, it will be managed by appointees by Trump and the Utah delegation,” said Navajo President Russell Begaye. “Tribal management in this bill is in name only. The bill stifles tribal voice.”
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk of Towaoc testified on behalf of the Ute Mountain tribe and said not allowing tribes to choose their representatives violates tribal sovereignty.
“It precludes us from designating a leader that has the knowledge and cultural expertise in protecting the land,” she said.
Clark Tenakhongua, vice chairman for the Hopi tribe, said Hopis were “dismayed” at Trump’s move to reduce protections of their ancestral lands where there are many Hopi cultural sites and buried Hisatsinom, their word for people of long ago.
“We worked for 10 years to protect the Bears Ears area,” he said. “To the Hopi, it is a spiritually occupied landscape, and to see it cut by 85 percent diminishes protections where we practice our religion and live our culture like our ancestors.”
Rebecca Benally, a San Juan County commissioner and Navajo, supports Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears. She testified that the smaller replacement monuments are “a balanced approach” that protects important cultural sites but also preserve public access for wood cutting and herb gathering depended on by local tribes.
Benally said that the federal public lands dropped from the original monument boundaries have adequate regulations, including restrictive wilderness study areas, to protect the environment and cultural sites. In addition, HR 4532 would create 10 new law enforcement positions to help patrol the land to prevent looting and vandalism.
Political maneuvering at a previous hearing on the topic triggered some backlash at Tuesday’s meeting. On Jan. 9, Suzette Morris, a Ute Mountain Ute, testified in favor of the reduced Bears Ears. But Ute Mountain leaders quickly denounced her testimony saying she was not authorized to speak on the tribe’s behalf, and that she was handpicked by the Utah delegation against the original Bears Ears.
Tony Small, representing the Northern Utes, said it was misleading for the committee to not secure testimony from tribal representatives that are chosen by official tribal governments.
“How would you like it if Russia or France went around the federal government to negotiate with private citizens?” he asked.
Lopez-Whiteskunk said letting Morris speak gave wrong impression that local tribes support the bill reducing Bears Ears, “and that is far from the truth.”
Benally responded that it was “disheartening” to hear so much criticism about Morris’ testimony.
“It’s degrading to say that someone who chooses to stand up and speak is meaningless unless they have a title behind their name,” she said.