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Monumental Disrespect: What Trump’s Shrinkage of Bear’s Ears Means for Indian Country

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Metate Arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Metate Arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo credit: John Fowler

By now it’s obvious that Donald Trump is acting out a twisted vendetta to erase every trace of Barack Obama’s eight-year legacy. The creation of the Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are part of that legacy, which were efforts to protect vast swaths of relatively pristine and undeveloped land in southern Utah in one of his last acts as president. That’s one frame for understanding Trump’s recent reversal of the monument designation for most of that land—approximately fifty percent for Staircase Escalante, and eighty-five percent in the case of Bear’s Ears. Altogether, the national monument designation protected roughly 3.5 million acres of public lands.

Obama’s 2016 monument designations under the Antiquities Act of 1906 was widely supported by American Indians because of their ancient connection to those places, which are considered sacred sites that must be protected. The history of Native land dispossession in the US has left countless sites of spiritual and religious importance to American Indians out of their control and vulnerable to desecration, a problem that has long plagued these places. With the land out of their direct control, the next best thing is protection afforded by federal law, like a monument designation.

The language used by Trump and his horseback-riding sidekick Ryan Zinke, Interior Department Secretary who advised the monument demotion, is rooted in classical Republican rhetoric about the evils of big government intrusion into public life, a topic near and dear to the hearts of the conservative, anti-tribal sovereignty Mormon state political leadership like Senator Orrin Hatch, Representative Ron Bishop, and governor Gary Herbert. But it also relied on misleading portrayals and hysteria about how local people will be cut off from their historic uses of the land, such as cattle grazing, hunting, and other recreational activities, which turned out to be untrue.

What was particularly insidious about the Republican campaign to overturn the monument designation was their co-optation of a relative handful of Navajo residents of the town of Blanding and their conservative San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who were conscripted as the Indian voice to further legitimate their cause. The role of Mormonism in the US’s history of forced assimilation cannot be ignored in this story, any more than the racist history of Mormon settlement can be.       

Make no mistake: the vast majority of American Indians who live near the monuments are vehemently opposed to the shrinkage of the monuments, and their recently-filed lawsuit against the Trump administration, which argues that he doesn’t have the legal right to overturn the monuments, proves it.

But despite all the smokescreen rhetoric of getting big government out of local politics and pandering to special interests, all you have to do is follow the money to understand that it is precisely special interests who are at the bottom of Trump’s decision. And it represents the very real possibility of a return to one of the ugliest chapters in recent American history for American Indian people in the southwest, especially the Navajo Nation—one that has never actually even ended.

It’s no secret that releasing massive segments of Bear’s Ears and Staircase from monument designation also releases restrictions on resource extraction. The monuments exist within a geographical region known as the Colorado Plateau, which is known for its rich fossil fuel deposits and uranium. In a recent Washington Post story, it became clear that the uranium industry had everything to do with Trump and Zinke’s decision. This should surprise no one. Energy Resources, Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, hired a lobbying firm this year to “help them with the matter.” Oh, and the lobbying firm they hired, Faegre Baker Daniels?—wait for it—it’s led by Andrew Wheeler, a coal industry lobbyist who is awaiting Senate confirmation as the EPA’s deputy administrator, second only to EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt. Another fox guarding the henhouse in Trumplandia.

Uranium mining and processing on the Colorado Plateau has a long, sordid history, and it’s nowhere near over. Uranium is one of the most toxic, cancer-causing substances on the planet. The peak years for uranium production for nuclear weapons were during the Cold War, from the 1940s to the 1980s. According to one study, on the Colorado Plateau—home to the Navajo, Utes, Southern Utes, Zuni, Acoma, Hopi, and others—approximately 4,000 mines were operated.

On the Navajo reservation alone, over 1,000 mines were operated, predominantly by the Kerr-McGee Corporation. For many years, miners were not given safety equipment, so it was no surprise when, years later, an epidemic of lung cancers and other related deadly illnesses surfaced. The vast majority of those mines remain unremediated, open sores on the land, still exposing residents to uranium that has leeched into the land and groundwater, in what Tracy Voyles has called “wastelanding.” Disproportionate rates of cancer still plague the Navajo Nation. And despite a $1 billion settlement in 2014 with Tronox, Kerr-McGee’s successor company, only about fifty mines will be cleaned up on or near the Navajo Nation.

Take the history of land theft, the looting of sacred sites, and the history of uranium production in the southwest, put them together and it’s not hard to understand why Native people are so up in arms about Trump’s attempted reversal of the monument designations. Big questions still remain about the legality of this move. What is clear, however, is that this fight is nowhere near over.


About the Author 

Dina Gilio-WhitakerDina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA. She is the co-author (with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of “All the Real Indians Died Off” And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.