Clash over Bears Ears tests years of progress on Native spirituality

To Native Americans, Bears Ears National Monument is more than a national park, it is holy ground connecting them to their ancestors and the spiritual realm.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Native American tribes are banding together in defense of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah (shown in this June 22, 2016 photo) after President Trump ordered the Interior Department to consider revoking the region's monument designation earlier this week.

Davis Filfred wishes President Trump would take a page from General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf's playbook, in thinking about Bears Ears National Monument.

When Mr. Filfred served as Marine Corps combat engineer in Operation Desert Storm, General Schwarzkopf ordered troops not to target religious, archaeological, and other sensitive sites for bombing.

Filfred, a member of the Navajo Nation council representing districts in Utah, now says the Trump administration should take the same approach to Bears Ears, a 1.3 million acre swath of southern Utah that has become the latest battleground between the federal government and a burgeoning Native American movement of religion-infused environmental activism. At the heart of that battle is a conflict in worldview. To Native people, land is more than a place to build, dig, and live, it is saturated with religious meaning, and a connection to their ancestors and the spiritual realm.

“This is the place where we worship, this is our holy ground, and what Trump wants to do, and the Utah delegation, is they want to bomb our sacred place,” he says.

Earlier this week, Mr. Trump signed an executive order calling for a review of almost two-dozen sites designated as national monuments since Jan. 1, 1996. The order requires Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to submit reviews of monuments larger than 100,000 acres within 120 days, with the exception of Bears Ears, where he will submit a final review within 45 days. The investigation will center on whether the monuments could be reduced in size or perhaps eliminated.

The Bears Ears monument in particular – which President Obama designated last December, weeks before he left office – has become a political lightning rod. Members of Utah’s congressional delegation have long opposed giving the site a protected status, in part, because of the land's potential for resource extraction, and brought the issue to the Trump administration's attention. Trump said the designation “never should have happened” and called it part of a “massive federal land grab that’s got worse and worse.” 

The 1906 Antiquities Act gives presidents the power to create national monuments, and Mr. Obama created more national monuments than any president in history besides Franklin Roosevelt, with Bears Ears being one of the largest. No president has ever rescinded a national monument designation, though many have downsized monuments, and it is unclear if Trump has the legal authority to do so.

Evolving views of the 'profoundly sacred'

What is clear is that Native Americans with deep spiritual attachments to Bears Ears are prepared to fight any attempts to reduce or eliminate the area’s protected status.

The designation of Bears Ears as a national monument last year was the culmination of a years-long lobbying effort from five tribes in the region: the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, and the Zuni. In his proclamation, creating the monument, Obama said the area “is profoundly sacred” to the tribes, and that “the area’s cultural importance to Native American tribes continues to this day.” 

The designation was evidence of what academics say has been a steadily increasing awareness of and concern for Native American cultural and spiritual life. 

Prior to the 1970s, there was “little governmental sensitivity…[to] American Indian belief systems and ritual practices,” says Peter Nabokov, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who has published several books on Native American culture and architecture.

“We’ve grown up a bit about that kind of delicate connection between [Native] cultures,” he adds. 

Specifically, legislation like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 “have attempted to secure for them some sort of sense that their belief systems and life ways will be respected,” says Professor Nabokov. 

“A lot of [religious] practices were discouraged” or prohibited by federal laws, he adds, “and for many tribes in some cases they lost things they’ve never regained.”

A return to spirituality

These protections have resulted in a gradual resurgence of Native American religion and, given the nature of Native spirituality, the appearance of a new breed of faith-powered Native environmental activism.

“Native people don’t separate church and state the way [non-Native people] do in America,” says Rosalyn LaPier, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana who is currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School. “So when they look at places like landscapes, they’re viewing it through a religious lens.” 

“Some tribes would say that the entire landscape is saturated with both the natural and the supernatural, and [so] you have to always take that into consideration when making decisions about changing the landscape,” adds Professor LaPier, a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.

That worldview – and the conflicts it can create with the federal government – was on display at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota last year, where hundreds of tribes gathered for months to block the construction of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

And the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana, for example, is suing the administration over another executive order that would lift an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing on public lands. Coal development in and around the tribe’s lands would, among other things, adversely affect “cultural and spiritual practices” they engage in, according to their complaint. 

The Standing Rock protests made news around the world, but LaPier says such spiritual activism – encompassing a range of different Native religions – has been developing for years.

Filfred notes that the five Bears Ears tribes “came together way before Standing Rock.”

“At one time they wouldn’t sit down, they never looked at each other, they were enemies,” he adds. “But now they sit at the table.”

A united front

Not only have those tribes become united around Bears Ears, but more broadly they say Indian Country feels under attack because of Trump policies.

And it’s not simple rhetoric, experts say. Many of the Trump administration’s policy decisions so far, from the coal moratorium order to Bears Ears, remind tribes of a time when the federal government restricted their religious activities and did little to protect tribal lands from the environmental impacts of resource extraction.

“It’s easy to frame what’s happening in this administration and previous ones as more of the same, or a return to pre-1970s federal policy,” says James Allison, an assistant professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., who has researched energy development on tribal lands in the northern Great Plains. 

And some in Indian Country fear that these policies could undermine the cultural awareness and mutual understanding that has been developing between Native Americans and the rest of the country. 

“What you see as a weed I may see as a medicinal plant,” said Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, in February. “These are cultural differences, and the part of Bears Ears which was unique was it was actually for you and for me to better understand each other.”

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