Background on Bears Ears: Why is its future is so contentious?

Nina ThompsonUncategorized1 Comment

The unusual and beautiful land that now makes up Bears Ears National Monument has been central to various cultures for thousands of years. In the proclamation that made 1.3 million acres of this land into a National Monument, President Obama called it “one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States.” This striking landscape contains the remains of many different cultures and is sacred land to multiple Native peoples. Conquerors and settlers have also recognized the value of this land and have repeatedly sought to take control of it away from Native Americans. Because of this universally recognized value, the fights over Bears Ears have often stood as proxy for many other values and grievances. All sides seem to agree that this land should be protected, but cannot agree on why, how, or by whom.

The "Bears Ears" Buttes

The “Bears Ears” buttes

The fight over this land goes back centuries, while the fight to make it federally protected land dates to at least 1904. In that year, archeologist and preservation advocate Edgar L. Hewett identified the Bears Ears region, named for its distinctive twin buttes, as one four areas in the southwest most in need of preservation. He was appalled at the mass-scale stripping of antiquities from the area, saying “it will be a lasting reproach upon our government if it does not use its power to restrain it.” Hewett succeeded in getting federal protection for hundreds of threatened sites – he wrote the language of the Antiquities Act, passed in 1906. Soon thereafter, presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson protected three of the four sites Hewett deemed the most threatened, making national monuments of Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Bandelier. Bears Ears, however, did not make the cut.

Hewett was working to limit the damage done by “pot hunters,” amateur treasure seekers who would comb through the southwest for Native American artifacts to keep or sell. This business has been a part of life in the region for centuries and has its own complicated history. Ever since white settlers pushed west and claimed land, they have also claimed ownership of the ancient artifacts on that land. Museums often encouraged this attitude and sponsored extraction of these artifacts without any Native input or cooperation. Native peoples did not have access to the political capital necessary to push back on this industry. As a result, countless numbers of priceless heritage artifacts have been scattered across the world or sit in homes in communities such as Blanding, Utah – a town established in 1905 by Mormon settlers, and a place believed by some experts to have artifact collections that could stand against many of the worlds’ museums. This trade brought with it large-scale destruction. The artifacts were deemed more valuable than the places from which they came, so historical sites were destroyed or severely damaged in the hunt for objects of more direct monetary value. Shovels, picks, and backhoes marred the landscape. Recently, a saw was even used to carve a section of petroglyphs out of a rock formation. However, many white residents of Blanding and surrounding areas have fought against this narrative. They point to the museums funding this extraction and wonder why they, as individuals, are now to blame. Historically, white settlers have treated Native American artifacts with a “finders-keepers” code. Now, as more awareness is raised about this issue, and as Native tribes and activists gather resources to push back, some residents seem to feel unfairly attacked or blamed for a situation they insist is not their fault alone.

In 2009, a massive antiquities raid highlighted these tensions. Operation Cerberus, the work of two years and multiple federal agencies, resulted in a raid and 17 arrests in Blanding, UT. A paid informant, with access to hundreds of thousands of dollars, purchased antiquities to pass information back to authorities. At the end of this sting operation, the FBI descended on Blanding to make arrests and seize an estimated 40,000 objects. Non-native residents felt targeted for participating in this trade that had become normalized over generations, some accusing the FBI of entrapment and unnecessary aggression during the raid. Two suspects connected to the raid took their own lives, including a much-respected local doctor, which further inflamed tensions. On the other side, the Obama administration’s Justice Department framed this as a victory and a sign of their commitment to justice for Native American communities.

As a result of Operation Cerberus, 21 people were charged with crimes. None were convicted, instead reaching plea deals that included returning all looted artifacts (no one was convicted in a similar 1986 raid either). The Federal Bureau of Land Management continues to oversee the massive collection of seized antiquities. As of 2015, experts were still working just to catalogue these items, artifacts dating from as early as 6,000 BC and representing many of the region’s’ native cultures. These objects are reported to be astounding and unlike anything even experts have seen before, in part because there has not been much investment in legitimate archeological excavations in this region in some time. Many of the ancient objects are also remarkably well preserved, leading to concerns that the objects may have been buried – protected because they were part of graves. This desecration adds an additional layer of disrespect and insult towards both the death and their descendants. Like looters everywhere, the people who took these antiquities did not respect the traditions of those who left them. European settlers have desecrated Native American graves for centuries – one of the first things the Pilgrims did upon landing at Plymouth was to dig up and steal from a recent burial, an act of disrespect local Native Peoples were not quick to forgive. In recent years, however, there has been official recognition of these sins, including the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Though the passage of such laws does represent progress in the fight to protect culture and antiquities, looting continues in the southwest and elsewhere. At least six confirmed looting incidents occurred around Bears Ears in the first six months of 2016 alone. The objects seized through Operation Cerberus highlight what the world stands to lose if Bears Ears is not protected. These treasures were removed from all archeological contexts, hidden in houses and sheds, and treated as currency more than the invaluable cultural resources that they are. We cannot learn about our ancient pasts when the evidence of them is destroyed or hidden away.

Hewett wrote the Antiquities Act to prevent exactly this kind of looting, likely thinking of this specific landscape, a place that he deemed in need of protection. It is hard to conceive of protecting Bears Ears is an illegitimate use of that law. However, many lawmakers, especially Utah Republicans, feel that President Obama overstepped in acting unilaterally to protect 1.3 million acres that have been so historically contentious. Utah Congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop had been working on an alternative since 2013, the Public Lands Initiative bill. This bill, affecting about 18 million acres of land, set aside areas for federal protection while also designating areas for development and energy extraction. In addition, in a state where 65% of land is federally controlled, the PLI included a provision that the federal government would forever onward be unable to make new national monuments in 7 Utah counties. This bill was meant to address the general consensus that this land should be protected, but without the executive authority and rules associated with National Monument status. Utah lawmakers saw that they had to act in some way to protect this land so they attempted to design a solution that would mollify environmentalists and tribal representatives while also curtailing federal power and prioritizing potential industrial use of the area. Perhaps because of this attempt to pay service to all corners, the bill failed. It had no support from Congressional Democrats, and not even enough support from Chaffetz and Bishop’s own party (they are both Republicans) to make it to a general vote. The crafting of the bill had been turbulent too. The finished product was widely criticized by tribal leaders and environmental activists. Initially, Native American leaders worked with state lawmakers to try to build a solution. But they eventually left negotiations, saying that their contributions were not being listened to or respected. After exiting the negotiation around the PLI, tribal leaders then approached President Obama directly to push for monument status.

Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), the nonprofit organization that submitted the Bears Ears proposal to Obama, grew out of concern among Navajo, and then other, tribal groups over the future of Bears Ears. Founded in 2010, just one year after the massive 2009 antiquities raid, tribal leaders could plainly see that the federal government either would not or could not act to protect the cultural and historical heritage that is all over this land. In a detailed timeline of their efforts, UDB discusses their years of planning and research, detailed proposals, and attempts to work with state and local governments whose plans were years behind in development. They outline the shifting relationship between UDB and representatives of San Juan County (the county that contains Bears Ears) and the state of Utah, people who started as allies in the preservation process but shifted to an antagonistic position. UDB, and the people they sought to represent, did not feel as if those in local and state governments were taking their efforts seriously. They began to work with other tribes who had a claim to this area, work spurred in part by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman’s protest on motorized ATVs through a legally protected canyon regarded as the center of ancient Puebloan culture (for which he spent 10 days in jail). In 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition formed, composed of representatives from five tribes – Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah Ouray Ute, Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo. Historically, these tribes have often clashed over access to land and resources, but they rallied together to protect Bears Ears and the sacred landscapes it contains. This coalition developed and presented the Bears Ears National Monument Proposal to the Obama administration that year. President Obama heeded their call and acted to preserve Bears Ears.

Bears Ears marks the first time a National Monument has been declared based on a proposal by Native peoples. Obama further made his declaration historic by dictating that a Bears Ears Commission, containing representatives of each of these five tribes, would formally advise the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service on how to best manage Bears Ears. No other National Monument has had so much input from Native American tribes, and many Native leaders and activists have lauded this as a victory. Of course, people from the five tribes did disagree on the best route forward for Bears Ears – the federal government has broken many promises to Native people and has historically pushed tribes off of the Bears Ears land. Many Native residents were especially concerned about monument designation limiting their ability to continue traditional use of the land such as gathering food, herbal medicines, and firewood. Responding to this concern, Obama included in his declaration that management of the monument must maintain access for Native Americans to continue “traditional use” of the land, a designation to be set in accordance with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and through consultation with the Bears Ears Commission. Obama acted to preserve this land both as a place rich in history and as an active cultural resource. Native culture is embodied in this land and in the vital role it still plays in Native lives and traditions.

The ruins of Cedar Mesa Citadel, one of the many historic sites in Bears Ears National Monument

The ruins of Cedar Mesa Citadel, one of the many ancient sites in Bears Ears National Monument

In drafting his executive order, Obama made conscious efforts to address concerns expressed by UDB and other Native leaders. Those urging for repeal of Bears Ears monument status are working against the expressed wishes of the leadership of all five tribes. The Antiquities Act is often viewed as paternalistic towards Native Americans, speaking about them as purely historical people who only survive through artifacts, making laws to preserve their heritage without consulting or giving power to any extant Native American tribes or organizations. Though still giving official control solely to the federal government, Obama took steps to engage with the Native peoples whose ancestors lived on this land. Through these actions, the Bears Ears National Monument designation recognizes that, though the threatened antiquities have universal value, the best course for preservation can be found through respectful and intentional engagement with descendants.

For opponents of this act, the fight over Bears Ears was never really about Bears Ears. The issue of land rights is especially contentious in many western states where the federal government owns a majority of the land (65% in Utah). Throughout years of conversation over Bears Ears, Utahans have remained engaged and vocal in the government processes. This issue feels personal to many, perceived as a question of rights. The famous government standoff with armed protestors lead by Cliven Bundy just across the border in Nevada shows how high these tensions run. The argument between federal officials and Bundy dates back to at least 1993, but the government had backed down amid threats (several pipe bombs had even exploded in the Bureau of Land Management office during this time). They were hoping to avoid exactly the kind of standoff that happened in 2014 when the Bureau of Land Management finally moved to impound Bundy’s cattle. He had continued to graze these cows on federal land and, even after a court order and many warnings, refused to pay any fees. In response to this planned seizure, Bundy called for armed citizens to come and back his perceived claim to the land. Both sides pointed guns at the other, but fortunately, widespread violence did not occur. There was, however, a similarly inspired shooting in Las Vegas – two attendees of the standoff at Bundy’s ranch killed two police officers and a civilian. In June 2016, the Washington Post reported concern among federal officials that declaring Bears Ears a National Monument could again lead to standoffs and violence  and, though that violence has not yet happened, the fear does not appear to be entirely misplaced. This is, after all, the same land that the US government fought Native Americans and Mormon settlers to control, the place where Phil Lyman was arrested for leading an ATV protest through a protected canyon, where massive antiquities raids occurred in both 1986 and 2009, where Navajo leaders hid in the 19th century from forced relocation by federal hands – the stories and meaning of this land are innumerable and are immensely important to the people who claim them. These fights over federal versus local control of land, of Native American versus settler rights, are an integral part of the history of this region. This land and its future have been and will be contentious precisely because everyone recognizes its value.

Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument contains archaeological sites that span thousands of years of human habitation.

Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument, a landscape that contains evidence of thousands of years of human habitation.

Opposition to Bears Ears National Monument did not end with Obama’s executive order in December 2016. It seems, instead, to have intensified. In establishing Bears Ears, Obama did take steps to consider a variety of concerns, including provisions that would allow for continued grazing access and leaving some areas of ongoing industrial value out of the national monument boundaries. However, these concessions did little to mollify opponents. The Trump administration clearly opposes this declaration and acted quickly against it. On April 26, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order bringing National Monuments designated since 1996 (and over 100,000 acres in size) under review. This order specifically states that Bears Ears should be reviewed first, drawing a clear line between Trump’s actions and the ongoing, vocal opposition to Obama’s executive order.

As of June 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has issued a preliminary opinion that Bears Ears National Monument should be scaled back. He took a listening tour through Utah to hear opinions of those on the ground, though tribal leaders and members of Utah Diné Bikeyah claim that Zinke has met with them briefly (or not at all) and has largely disregarded their contributions. The Antiquities Act asserts that any National Monument should be the smallest area possible to adequately protect the resources under threat. Zinke argues that Bears Ears does not follow this provision, that the majority of the area it covers is valuable as a beautiful landscape but not as a repository of cultural heritage and meaning. In response, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition released a statement that argued “The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected. You cannot reduce the size without harming the whole.  Bears Ears is too precious a place, and our cultures and values too dignified and worthy, to backtrack on the promises made in the Presidential Proclamation [on December 28, 2016].” Native American and environmental activist groups have threatened to sue the Trump Administration should they enact Zinke’s recommendation or otherwise work to reverse the monument status of Bears Ears. It is also unclear if Trump has any power over Bears Ears – legal precedent suggests that the only way to shrink or reverse a national monument would be through congressional action. The president likely does not have the legal authority to undo the standing executive order. However, no such direct challenge has been tried before, so the legality of it is not totally clear.

For now, Bears Ears remains protected. The Bears Ears Commission continues to work with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to manage the 1.3 million acres included in the monuments boundaries, determined to do so until there is a concrete and legally binding change to Bears Ears’ boundary or status. Private companies have expressed their support of Bears Ears, Patagonia (the outdoor gear company) even producing a virtual reality experience to help others understand the value of this land. It remains unclear if the Trump administration will act to shrink Bears Ears or how they might otherwise shape its future. The designation of this area as a National Monument hopefully means that attention and resources will be directed towards preservation and protection of antiquities, but it is unclear how much money or how many personnel will be devoted to that effort.

Newspaper Rock, a place of significance marked by petroglyph art over many generations

Newspaper Rock, a place of significance marked by petroglyph art over many generations

If you want to act to protect Bears Ears, Utah Diné Bikéyah recommends that you raise awareness where you live and contact your representatives. Any resolution to shrink Bears Ears will likely have to pass through Congress, so voice your support of this monument to your Congresspeople and Senators. UTB has a script available. Follow the Bears Ears Coalition and UTB on social media to stay up to date on the latest news and actions. And if you want to support the larger fight against antiquities trafficking, consider donating or volunteering with SAFE!

Native American leaders remain committed to preserving Bears Ears, a place of immeasurable religious, cultural, and historical significance. Whatever unfolds here, the value of this land can never be reasonably questioned. The debates over this land will undoubtedly continue, highlighting longstanding grievances and divisions in American society. As these arguments and actions continue to evolve, organizations like SAFE can step in to remind people the value of what we stand to lose. This region has been a center of human activity for millennia – the antiquities and archeological remains of Bears Ears have a lot left to teach us.

Ancient handprints at Cedar Mesa Grand Gulch in Bears Ears National Monument

Ancient handprints at Cedar Mesa Grand Gulch in Bears Ears National Monument

All pictures are from the Bureau of Land Management’s Bears Ears Album

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Nina Thompson

One Comment on ““Background on Bears Ears: Why is its future is so contentious?”

  1. Charles

    The land looks very beautiful. I didn’t see any place more dense than this one. The first image is absolutely striking. Gorgeous!

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