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For Native Americans, new national monument a rare victory

Values and ideals

Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument represented victory in a growing effort to protect tribes’ lands – efforts many say have also led them to reconnect with their spiritual traditions.

This July 14, 2016, file photo, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell looks from Dead Horse Point, near Moab, Utah, during a tour to meet with proponents and opponents to the "Bears Ears" monument proposal. President Barack Obama designated two national monuments Wednesday, Dec. 28, at sites in Utah and Nevada that have become key flashpoints over use of public land in the U.S. West.
Rick Bowmer/AP/File | Caption

When President Obama issued two controversial proclamations on Wednesday, establishing new national monuments in swaths of scenic land in Utah and Nevada, his words were in many ways infused with a deep sensitivity to the spiritual traditions of the area’s Native American tribes.

Indeed, at the start of his proclamation protecting 1.35 million acres of land in the Four Corners region of southeastern Utah, Mr. Obama noted the many native words for the distinctive twin buttes that dominate the landscape: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe – or “Bears Ears,” in English. The region is, he said, “profoundly sacred” to the Ute, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes.

“The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon,” Obama said. “Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.”

Many Republican lawmakers – including most Utah politicians, who have for years supported a mix of development with partial protections – saw the president’s latest executive action as both sentimental and outrageous, “a slap in the face to the people of Utah,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He had been working to draft a federal land-use bill for the now protected area.

But for many Native Americans, the president’s move on Wednesday represented the latest public victory in a growing effort to protect their traditional sacred lands – a struggle many say has also led them to reconnect with their traditions of spirituality.

“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” said Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, to reporters on Wednesday. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”

Earlier this month, too, the Obama administration gave protesters, led by the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes, a reprieve in their effort to halt the final stretch of the 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which was slated to cross sacred sites near Cannon Ball, N.D., and a Missouri River reservoir, where some local tribes get their drinking water.

For tribes, a spiritual resurgence

As the Monitor reported in November, many Native American “water protectors” saw their activism as much more than an effort to stop this stretch of the pipeline. From earlier protests to the Keystone XL pipeline and the Idle No More movement over the past decade, many described their protests as part of a resurgence of their collective spiritual traditions, a resurgence that “may be turning Native Americans into a leading force in the domestic movement on climate change."

This resurgence of native faith traditions, indigenous people say, dates to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Prior to that, many native practices and rituals had been prohibited.

“It’s really important to remember that it was only 1978 that we as indigenous people had the legal right to even pray in our way,” Joye Braun, one of the protest organizers, told the Monitor. “Everything we do is in prayer here, and prayer is an essential part of revitalization of our cultures and our languages.”

The president’s proclamation creating the Bears Ears National Monument on Wednesday also established the first ever inter-tribal commission to provide “tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge” to help guide the federal agencies that manage the land. The area contains an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings that are more than 3,500 years old.

“The monument is so important to me because these are our ancestral lands, our aboriginal lands,” Malcolm Lehi, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, told the Associated Press. “There are sacred sites and stories of our lives.”

For rural residents, a land grab

Many rural residents, ranchers, and Republican lawmakers, however, see it as another federal overreach, a land grab that could unnecessarily thwart the development of energy sources and other commercial uses of the land.

“President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicizes a long-simmering conflict,” said Representative Chaffetz, in a statement, vowing to work with the incoming Trump administration to undo Obama’s actions. “After years of painstaking negotiations with a diverse coalition, Utah had a comprehensive bipartisan solution on the table that would have protected the Bears Ears and provided a balanced solution. Instead, the president's midnight proclamation ... disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise.”

The new Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, also proclaimed on Wednesday, has been a site of conflict for more than a decade. The now-protected land lies near the site where rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014, after illegally grazing his cattle on federal land and incurring more than $1 million in fees and penalties.

Armed antigovernment protesters, led by his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of wrongdoing in October after occupying a federal wildlife sanctuary in Oregon last winter.

Wednesday was the 29th time Obama invoked executive power to establish a national monument – just one fewer than four-term President Franklin Roosevelt. Obama has protected more land than any other president, designating more than 550 million acres of federal land and waters as national monuments.

“Communities have depended on the resources of the region for hundreds of generations,” Obama said of the Bears Ears region in his proclamation, noting its ecological importance. “[The] Navajo refer to such places as ‘Nahodishgish,’ or places to be left alone.”