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Biden revives efforts to protect Utah national monument that united five Native tribes

At different time periods, the region has been home to the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe.

Biden revives efforts to protect Utah national monument that united five Native tribes
Cover Image Source: The two bluffs known as the "Bears Ears" stand off in the distance in the Bears Ears National Monument on May 11, 2017 outside Blanding, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

Five Native tribes that trace their lineage to a rocky corner in southern Utah have now found renewed hope of a broken promise being mended. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden ordered federal officials to review the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument that has been the focal point of protests and political battles ever since former President Donald Trump drastically shrunk its boundaries in an unprecedented move on December 4, 2017. According to CNN, Trump slashed the sprawling region rich in red rock canyons, cliff dwellings, and numerous archaeological sites by roughly 85 percent just 11 months after former President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears as a national monument.



 

The fight to protect Bears Ears has united Native tribes that consider the land sacred and seek a chance to have a say in how their ancestral homelands are managed. The monument is a key element in their way of life and distinctive origin legends. "Bears Ears represents a place of refuge, a place of commerce, a place of practicing their culture, and most importantly, a place of spiritual and theological practice," said Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group formed by the tribes in 2015 to advocate for the monument.



 

Archaeologists say that the mesas, cliffs, and canyons in the 1.3 million acres of Bears Ears have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. At different time periods, the region has been home to the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe. Over five years before Bears Ears sparked nationwide controversy, Native leaders in San Juan County — where the monument is located — began looking for ways to protect the region as they didn't want to be mere observers as others debated the fate of their sacred land.



 

Utah Diné Bikéyah or "People's Sacred Lands," a Navajo-led group, interviewed numerous elders and approached local and state officials with multiple government protection proposals. Leaders from different tribes joined the effort in the years that followed, creating conservation plans that would allow the tribes to co-manage the land. "Those five tribes have their own way of traditionally take care of the land and is particularly different from the Western way of taking care of the land. So we came up with a thought out plan from these different tribes," said Woody Lee, executive director of Utah Diné Bikeyah.



 

Their efforts bore fruit in 2016 when former President Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument, noting that members of Congress, Secretaries of the Interior, state and tribal leaders, and local conservationists had proposed protections for at least 80 years. He directed officials to engage tribal government officers in the development of a management plan for the monument. However, in less than a year, the tribes and their supporters went from "an incredible amount of jubilation and joy," Gonzales-Rogers said, to a feeling of "loss and a form of depression" when Trump split the monument into two separate units that comprised approximately 201,876 acres.



 

"There has never been a time when the whole region has never been occupied by some Indigenous group, all the way back into the Paleolithic era and into the modern era," said Lyle Balenquah, a Hopi archaeologist who has studied the area extensively. "It contains one of the densest concentrations of archaeological sites in the Southwest." As an archaeologist, Balenquah knows it's important to preserve Bears Ears for the key role it plays in Indigenous history. As a Hopi person, he can't sit back and watch as his culture and his ancestors' representation are erased. "We have stories, songs, prayers, and ceremonies that talk about these ancestral places," he said. "We feel that we should have a greater say in how that landscape is managed and a greater role in whatever the Biden administration chooses to do."

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