This month the Trump administration began the process to make good on a campaign promise: to overturn the Obama-era national monument designation of Bear’s Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. It’s clear that Trump’s mission in life is to erase Obama’s legacy in whatever ways he can; creation of the monuments is part of that legacy. Altogether, 3.5 million acres of land were set aside as public lands, receiving the monument status to protect the land in perpetuity. The reduction of the monuments amounts to approximately 50% for Staircase Escalante, and 85% in the case of Bear’s Ears.
American Indians widely supported the monument creation (which is based on the Antiquities Act of 1906) because of their ancient connection to those places. They are considered sacred sites that must be protected. The history of Native land dispossession under the U.S. settler colonial system has left countless sites of spiritual and religious significance to American Indians out of their control and vulnerable to desecration, a problem that has long plagued these places. With the inability to control these lands, the next best option is protection afforded by strong federal law. A monument designation serves this purpose.
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 hysterical portrayals 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 U.S.’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 behind 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 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.
The library is dedicated to the memory of Secwepemc Chief George Manuel (1921-1989), to the nations of the Fourth World and to the elders and generations to come.access here