SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — On Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, large areas of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments were opened to mining bids in what a Reuters headline described as a “modern-day land run.” Representatives of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni all testified against Rep. John Curtis’ (R.-Utah) bill, H.R. 4532 (Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act), but in the end, federal protection for 85 percent of the land was ended.
The formerly protected land is sacred to members of the five tribes whose representatives testified before the Subcommittee on Federal Lands of the House Committee on Natural Resources. According to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition website, the area “contain[s]more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites, making it the most significant unprotected archaeological area in the United States.” And tribal citizens continue their relationship with the land today, performing ceremonies there and gathering natural materials like firewood, plants, and herbs for food, medicine, and ceremonial purposes.
Vandalism and looting of the ancient structures, burial grounds, and petroglyphs have always been a problem, but many say that mining nearby could damage them even more than vandals. According to the five tribes involved in the hearings, the bill also ignores tribal sovereignty while claiming to promote it.
“Representative Curtis’ bill retains the same failing as the Trump proclamation: It does not protect the landscape in a way that is meaningful and lasting, and it fragments and disconnects the Bears Ears cultural landscape,” said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye at the hearing. “For the bill to claim that it creates ‘the first tribally managed national monument,’ is an affront to tribal sovereignty and an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has actually read the bill.”
Now, the bill has passed, and the land is open to mining. On the first day, nobody came to claim land, but the option is now there, just like it was in 1872 under the original mining law that inspired the current change. The late 19th-century saw many Indigenous rights and sacred places destroyed in the name of “progress.” We would like to think things have changed, but here we are again, discussing whether living Indigenous people have the right to make decisions about their ancestral lands and the sacred art left to them by their forebears. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition continues to pursue legal means to regain protection for the area.