I have seen signs supporting the designation; some are stuck in parking strips, others are propped up in bay windows and, once, I saw one taped to the back of a beat-up Toyota Corolla. Printed in bold, the signs read, “Utah Stands with Bears Ears.”
But I have also seen televised interviews with Utah’s representatives decrying the monument. I have read op-eds about how this monument hurts locals. I have listened to my own relatives call Bears Ears National Monument a land grab by the Federal Government.
I thought I understood the issue, protecting public land against economic exploitation, but after attending the American West Center’s Navajo Voices on Bears Ears event, my perspective changed. This monument is about tribal sovereignty, not environmentalism. It amplifies their traditionally marginalized voices and it prevents the continued colonization of Southern Utah.
In 2010, Utah’s Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting sacred land, was organized in answer to former Utah Sen. Robert Bennett asking if native people had interest in land management and preservation. After six years of research and attempts to work with San Juan County to protect Bears Ears, Diné Bikéyah and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition presented their national monument proposal to the Barack Obama administration in Washington D.C. Utilizing the Antiquities Act, legislation which grants the president power to charter National Monuments based on historical or scientific significance, former President Obama established Bears Ears National Monument through a presidential proclamation. Obama, acknowledging the importance of the land to the tribes, also created the Bears Ears Commission, which is designed to give tribal leaders a voice in the development, management and use of the monument. Bears Ears has been dedicated for spiritual and environmental reasons, but the designation is powerful in that it grants the indigenous control.
Colonization is often viewed as a historical event, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and ending around the time of the American Revolution. However, the outrage in San Juan County over the designation of Bears Ears National Monument illuminates modern colonization in our own state, which began with the establishment of the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Bears Ears is sacred to indigenous tribes for traditional and spiritual reasons: medicinal herbs grow on the buttes and ancestral burial grounds dot the 1.35 million acres of the monument. This connection to the land results in stronger claim than those who want to profit off the natural resources in the area.
Panelist Micah Daniels leaned into her microphone when she stated, “If it sounds like I am angry, I am.” With the threat of President Donald Trump rescinding the designation of Bears Ears, we all should be. Destroying Bears Ears National Monument is culturally equivalent to the burning of the Library of Alexandria or the sacking of Rome, but more importantly it would follow the American tradition of silencing native voices. The designation of Bears Ears was driven by five tribes who petitioned Obama after completing years of research, and it was the first time Native input impacted land management in our country. Understandably, Shash Jaa’, the Navajo name for Bears Ears, is a rallying cry from a community historically marginalized in national politics. Standing with Bears Ears is about elevating the tribal voices not only in Utah, but nationwide.
In December, President Trump is coming to Utah to discuss issues including the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. Please take the time to vocalize your support for Bears Ears by participating in KSL’s National Monuments Poll then reaching out to your local and national representatives.