I remember the rhythmic crunch of each of my steps breaking the crust of the snow on the road below. The twin buttes of the Bears Ears on the horizon sat ahead of me, backlit by the low January sunset. It was the winter of 2018, and I was running in protest with 17 friends and six dogs across the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments to raise awareness about the Trump administration’s efforts to radically reduce their protections and sidelined tribes’ involvement in their management. At that moment, I also had no idea where my next paycheck would come from. Not only was I running in protest, but I had also quit my job with the Department of Energy in protest as well. I had left because I could not stomach the moral compromises I would need to navigate as a Native person implementing the Trump administration’s policies.
The election of 2016 represented a seismic shift. Just months prior, the term “climate change” was a centerpiece of our work under the Obama administration; however, with the change in the presidency, I was asked to scrub this term from all our public-facing materials. I refused, and later shared this experience with congress. The climate of our office grew tense after the Trump administration appointed a new official who had advocated for the targeted executions of “liberal” professors, rooted out government employees who “believed” in climate change, and shared a multitude of racist and anti-Semitic views. The best way I could advocate for my community was to fight from the outside to make a change.
Four years later, we now sit at a precarious junction in our history. On June 21, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Five Tribes of the Intertribal Coalition—the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Zuni Tribe, and Ute Indian Tribe—signed a cooperative management agreement for the Bears Ears National Monument. The cooperative management, “co-management,” approach between the federal government and tribes is not a new concept and has been implemented in other federal programs. These agreements are more common in law enforcement, hazardous and solid waste disposal, tax revenues, economic development, and allocation of water rights. This marks the first time in the modern history of federal land management that the U.S. government will treat tribes as equals and experts, and not as people to be subjugated under a paternalistic policy.
This marks the first time in the modern history of federal land management that the U.S. government will treat tribes as equals and experts.
Labeling Bears Ears as a success story glosses over the jurisdictional complexities of Federal Indian law. Historically, the most litigated topics between states and the federal government are gaming regulations, fish and game issues, and environmental matters. The Bears Ears National Monument fits into the latter two categories. To understand the significance of this cooperation, we must recognize history, tribal sovereignty, and federal Indian law.
The relationship between the U.S. government and tribes has oscillated between conflict and cooperation since its founding. In the country’s early years, tribes were viewed as independent nations, as we would consider our neighbors of Mexico or Canada. Between 1778 and 1871, congress ratified 368 treaties with tribes. Before 1830, several tribes, like the Comanche in west Texas, had regional military superiority over the United States and Mexico. As tribes fought against and alongside the United States in conflicts like the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the view of them as independent nations began to change. In the subsequent decades, conflict increased between eastern tribes and settlers, which led to a series of consequential Supreme Court decisions known as the “Marshall Trilogy” that now form the basis of Federal Indian Law today.
In these decisions, the United States deemed tribes as “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship was akin to a “that of ward to his guardian.” Today, congress still holds absolute power over tribes and is the title holder for all Indian lands.
The Civil War strengthened, armed, and professionalized the U.S. military to the degree that would tip the balance of power in favor of the United States as manifest-destiny-fueled white settlement and violence. Policies of paternalism and subjugation continued throughout the 20th Century with boarding schools, forced sterilization, forced livestock reduction, voluntary and forced relocations, and flooding of reservations to create reservoirs—to name a few of the injustices. In the 1970s, with the momentum of recent Civil Rights gains, tribes and groups like the American Indian Movement began pushing hard for increased tribal self-determination and an end to paternalistic policies. The result was several substantial policy shifts in favor of tribes, like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 that enfranchised Native peoples’ fundamental civil liberties around religion.
Today, congress still holds absolute power over tribes and is the title holder for all Indian lands.
The conflict at the heart of Bears Ears has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been tied to white supremacy. White Mormon settlers arrived in southeast Utah in the late 1800s after the forced subjugation and displacement of Native peoples in the region. Since then, the white minority has dominated politics despite a Native majority in places like San Juan County, where Bears Ears is located. Utah was one of the last states to grant Native Americans the right to vote, and only did so after being forced by a federal judge in 1957.
During the early 20th Century, white settlers increased the theft of cultural and archeological artifacts from the thousands of sites throughout the region. These thefts continued even as congress tried to protect resources through acts like the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Despite these efforts, artifact theft vastly enriched local settler communities in places like Blanding, Utah, which sits on the east border of Bears Ears. In 2009, the federal government conducted one of the largest federal stings related to archeological theft in modern history in Blanding: Operation Cerberus Action. Federal agents seized over 40,000 artifacts, with some pieces dating back to 6,000 B.C., totaling millions of dollars on the black market.
Native languages and cultures hold thousands of years of tested knowledge about specific ecosystems.
Displacement and erasure of our language and culture. I grew up hearing about how my mom and her siblings were physically beaten and had their mouths washed with soap when they spoke Navajo, their only language, at Indian boarding schools. The intent of these “schools” was to forcibly steal and assimilate Native children into the white culture. At them, Native children faced physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.
I witnessed first-hand how many from this generation refused to teach their kids Navajo culture because they worried it would “hold them back.” I also saw the result of the trauma of boarding schools: substance abuse, physical violence, and a broader breakdown in families and communities. My mother and her siblings held firm to their language and tradition despite their experiences. I was lucky that I could learn my language and feel proud of my cultural traditions. Many Native people my age are not afforded the same privilege.
Just a few days after Secretary Deb Haaland announced the cooperative agreement at Bears Ears, she tearfully testified to congress about the Department of Interior’s efforts to investigate the horrors of boarding schools. Bears Ears and the history of forced assimilation are inseparable.
For the Native communities tied to the Bears Ears region, our history and heritage loss from decades of unfettered artifact theft and boarding schools is immeasurable. We do not know the full extent of what has been lost, nor do we have much hope of returning everything that was taken. But the foundational pieces of cultures and languages remain, despite the many attempts by the government and white supremacist ideology to erase them. These pieces of our language and culture will die if we do nothing to revitalize them in our generation actively. The cooperative management agreement between the federal government and the tribes speaks to this specifically: “Develop opportunities to engage Tribal youth in the culture and traditions of the Bears Ears,” it reads, “as well as the protection and management of the monument to cultivate a shared understanding of the monument’s context and a shared stewardship for its resources.”
Connecting youth to this landscape and its cultural traditions is not only about social justice. We must figure out how to adapt our land management to a rapidly changing climate. The Southwest, where Bears Ears sits, is facing its worst drought in 1200 years. All five tribes of the intertribal coalition remember the last drought over a millennia ago because our ancestors saw it, and these stories are codified in our history.
As someone who’s trained in western science and policy, I know the shortcomings and strengths of this approach to addressing climate challenges. Native languages and cultures hold thousands of years of tested knowledge about specific ecosystems. Yet it is still no panacea for tackling global climate change alone. We need multiple perspectives, like the ones represented by the co-management of Bears Ears, to address these large and complex issues.
All five tribes of the intertribal coalition remember the last drought over a millennia ago, because our ancestors saw it, and these stories are codified in our history.
Tribal co-management of Bears Ears is likely to become a target for the political right. Bears Ears was one of the first policy priorities of the Trump administration’s initial year in office because it represented a significant gain for environmental goals and tribes. It’s not hard to imagine a variety of nightmarish scenarios of what could happen to my community and our recent gains should another Republic administration come into power. What gives me hope is that we’ve built a coalition of Native and non-Native communities who show up politically and protest. As one preeminent Federal Indian Law lawyer said in 2017 when the Trump administration reduced Bears Ears by 85 percent, “Oh shit, now the Indians have allies.”
Bears Ears represents a culmination of tribes’ decades-long efforts to rebuild themselves as Nations and a unique approach to federal land management. We are looking to a future in which the challenges of our natural world directly threaten our civilization. We will all share this future, and we have a choice: we can fight over what it looks like or we can work together.