The First Native American Cabinet Secretary Visits the Land of Her Ancestors and Sees Firsthand the Obstacles to Compromise
CEDAR MESA, Utah—Jonah Yellowman sang his morning prayer in Navajo Thursday as the rising sun began to light up Bears Ears country. Below the steep cliffs in the east, golden light brought to life the sandstone monoliths in the Valley of the Gods. Up the mesa, twin buttes formed a silhouette suggesting a bear’s head peeking over the northern horizon.
Who heard Yellowman’s inspiring invocation was just as meaningful as where he stood, peacefully praying at the heart of a national controversy about environmental justice. Those in the circle of 20 people were mostly Native Americans from five tribes of the region who’d persuaded a U.S. president to preserve the area as a national monument five years ago.
Head bowed in prayer with the group was U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, whose Pueblo ancestors inhabited this spectacular and storied landscape. The first Indigenous person to become a cabinet secretary, Haaland is not only the new president’s top public lands official, overseeing 244 million acres, but also a person with deep roots in Bears Ears, a 35th generation New Mexican of the Laguna and Jemez Pueblos.
“I never thought,” Yellowman said afterward, “I would do something like this for an important person like her.”
The scene on Muley Point represented an historic coming together of the federal government and sovereign tribes and, perhaps, a new chapter in the struggle over managing public lands. It’s a struggle that’s playing out on the national stage, in Congress and the White House, and locally, from Navajo hogans to the rural, predominantly Mormon, towns of San Juan County, where the Bears Ears National Monument is located.
Haaland spent three days in Utah last week at the request of newly elected President Joe Biden. On Inauguration Day, he’d directed the Interior secretary to advise him on changing the boundaries and the management of the Bears Ears and two other national monuments, the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of Maine. But her visit to red rock country is significant far from any of those mountains and waters, especially to environmental justice communities.
Listening to All Stakeholders in a Contested Landscape
Listening, and taking to heart what’s said, has long been a big concern for everyone in Utah’s southwestern corner. The Indigenous tribes set aside long-standing quarrels between themselves to create the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, write a proposal to create a national monument and take it to the White House.
Then-President Barack Obama responded by creating the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 and establishing the Bears Ears Commission. With one seat for each of the Four Corners tribes, the five-person commission was intended to tap the knowledge of the region’s longest residents, Indigenous people, to help manage the monument.
But non-Natives, including ranchers, miners and Utah’s mostly white, mostly Republican political leadership, persuaded the Trump administration they had been the victims of government overreach by Obama’s action. Tribes of the region watched in shock and anger as President Donald Trump shrank the monument’s acreage by 85 percent less than a year after it had been created. In making that decision, Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gave coalition members just one hour in a Salt Lake City conference room to make their case for keeping the monument intact.
Zinke’s successor chose a different tact.
“My message is really very simple: I’m here to listen, I’m here to learn,” Haaland said at a press conference Thursday, after visiting ancient sites inside and outside the current monument boundaries with Utah Republican political leaders Sen. Mitt Romney, Rep. Blake Moore and Gov. Spencer Cox.
Haaland said everyone agrees the land should be protected for future generations and that public land decisions have profound impacts on the people who live nearby. She said it’s important for Biden to “get this right.”
“My job, as I mentioned in my remarks, is to be here to listen, to learn, to make a report to the president of every single voice that I’ve heard on this trip, to make sure that he has all the information that he needs to make a decision.”
However, it will be up to the President, she emphasized, to determine whether to restore or expand the monument.
Growing Political Clout For the Nation’s Oldest Environmental Justice Communities
In some ways, the real task ahead amounts to healing the racial divide that has dominated headlines since the start of the Trump administration—from the Charlottesville white supremacists’ march to a year’s worth of Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
In San Juan County, tensions rose after Trump shrunk Bears Ears, effectively throwing out the collective wisdom of the coalition tribes—Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, the Ute Mountain Utes and the Ute Indian Tribe—that had conceived of the monument. And it sounded like another of the innumerable instances in which white elected officials disempowered Native Americans by taking over their land and violating their rights.
“This is a place of worship for Native Americans, like a church or cathedral, and destroying a cathedral or a church would be very devastating,” said Mark Maryboy, one of the original Bears Ears advocates and a former Navajo Nation Council delegate, making the point that the Anglos opposed to monument protections wouldn’t allow the destruction of their own sacred sites.
In deprivations of democracy traditionally associated with the Black South, Native Americans weren’t considered citizens in the United States until 1924 and didn’t have the right to vote in Utah until 1957. It’s taken decades and a series of federal Voting Rights Act lawsuits, but the white- and Republican-controlled San Juan County government has steadily made elections more fair for the county’s Native majority.
One of those cases resulted in Maryboy making Utah history in 1986 as the state’s first Native American county commissioner.
“There are lots of different ways to keep people from voting simply through manipulation of the electoral process,” said Dan McCool, a retired University of Utah political scientist who’s testified in the federal court proceedings about the many ways San Juan County has violated the Voting Rights Act. One is refusing to register Navajos who don’t have Anglo-style addresses.
Some non-Indigenous locals have a hard time accepting that Native people actually have a voice in public policies beyond the reservation, McCool said. He’s heard local Anglos say Indigenous people should have no say on Bears Ears because “this is, quote, our land.”
Former San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, one of the monument’s harshest critics who’s now a Republican state legislator, said in the 2019 PBS Utah documentary, Battle Over Bears Ears: “National monuments were not a tool to fix racism.”
Mark Maryboy’s sister, Tara Bennally, is field director for the Utah Rural Project, a voting advocacy nonprofit. She said many Native people have told her discrimination makes voting pointless, but then the “violent and traumatizing” reduction of Bears Ears convinced many Native people that voting was a necessary tool to give their voices impact.
In 2018, the Rural Utah Project registered over 1,500 San Juan County voters who helped topple the white majority on the county commission. Their votes helped elect two Navajos, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, who is Tara Bennally and Mark Maryboy’s brother.
The two new commissioners quickly rescinded anti-monument resolutions enacted by their predecessors and threw support behind new congressional legislation, co-sponsored by Haaland, to restore the Obama boundaries. They also fired the attorneys the past commission had engaged to defend Trump’s shrinking the monument the region’s Native people had worked so hard to bring to life.
“The people could see for themselves that there was a change happening,” Benally said. “You could feel it.”
Their efforts didn’t stop in San Juan County, or even Utah.
Coronavirus shutdowns on the Navajo reservation, which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, prompted voting rights groups like Benally’s to find clever—and safe—ways to connect with voters in some of the most remote parts of the country. In the end, efforts like theirs to get Indigenous people to the polls helped Biden win Arizona’s 11 electoral votes.
Shrunken Monument Brings Little Growth in Development
Now that Biden is president, Haaland is faced with explaining to him what’s at stake—past, present and future—for the public lands across Bears Ears country.
Nearly every acre of the national monument established by Obama and shrunken by Trump to reduce restrictions to mining and development was managed as federal land before Bears Ears was even dreamed of. The federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service give ranchers permits to run sheep and cattle on the range and for companies to extract oil, gas and uranium, as directed by a slew of federal laws for decades.
The biggest change brought by naming it a monument is that no new mining or development is allowed. And that’s fueled more conflict between Bears Ears advocates and opponents.
Monument critics say uranium mining and oil and gas development should be allowed throughout the region to preserve jobs and economic opportunities. But, even though around 1 million acres of land was opened to development for more than three years after Trump reduced the boundaries of Bears Ears, there has been no rush to extract minerals there. In fact, a recent report by the Utah Geological Survey says that, although 255 oil and gas wells have been drilled on current and former monument lands over the decades, none has been in operation since 1992.
Meanwhile, some regard the area’s cultural and scientific resources as invaluable.
More than 100,000 identified archaeological sites pepper the landscape. They include burial sites, pictographs and petroglyphs, stone storage sheds and dwellings built into cliff walls. And that first Navajo on the San Juan County Commissioner, Mark Maryboy, noted that long before there was a United States or a federal government, Indigenous people lived in the region and left behind vital information about how humans adapted to—and fled from—a changing climate.
Today, Indigenous people rely on Bears Ears country for culturally significant practices, such as gathering wood, collecting herbs, practicing ceremonies and harvesting medicinal plants—part of their ongoing dialogue with the land. In the eyes of Maryboy and other Indigenous people, mining and other industrial resource extraction puts the land and Native American culture at risk. And shrinking the monument boundaries, and abolishing the Bears Ears Commission, basically amounted to a racist act, they say.
Finding a Permanent Solution
Since Obama created Bears Ears and Trump reduced it, Native people have come to dominate the once white-controlled county commission that fought the monument’s very existence. Some former monument opponents are calling for compromise.
At the news conference in the San Juan County community of Blanding on Thursday, Sen. Romney said President Biden has “an opportunity to bring people together and create more unity.”
But Romney and senior Utah Sen. Mike Lee were among the 40 Republicans who voted against Haaland’s confirmation last month, which was seen by some as another strike by the state’s leaders against Native Americans.
“You can take a purely political course, and one side will be happy, and the other side will be mad,” Romney told reporters, “and then we go from having a permanent solution to a temporary one and we go from uniting the American people to dividing us up.”
Voicing the recent refrain of Utah’s GOP majority, he concluded: “The President is able to take action to bring us together and to find a permanent solution.”
Just minutes after Romney spoke, it became clear how high the hurdles will be for any compromise on Bears Ears when Clark Tenakhongva, vice-chairman of the Hopi Tribe and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, took the podium.
“It must be understood that we were the first inhabitants of this nation,” Tenakhongva said, describing how much the area’s Indigenous people distrust negotiations with governments beyond the tribes.
He recalled a key talking point of the Bears Ears’ largely white opponents—creation of the monuments was government overreach. “Wait until you become a brown skinned-person and a Native American,” he said, his tone filled with frustration. “And that’s when you will talk about overreach of the American government.”
New Horizons for an Ancient Landscape and Its People
Haaland spent much of her time in Utah with the Native leaders. And, although she already knew down to her DNA what Yellowman was singing about—“who we are, where we are, and how we travel”—the morning’s message had the full attention of President Biden’s top advisor on public lands. She listened to Yellowman’s prayer, and Mark Maryboy’s history of the local controversies involving these sacred lands.
Ahjani Yepa, Pueblo community outreach coordinator for Utah Dine Bikeyah, the Native nonprofit that hatched the Bears Ears idea, called the morning a beautiful blessing for those who’ve been praying for years to get their ancestral lands protected.
“I know that [Haaland], over every other person who has held that position, will understand and hear our voices,” she said. “And hopefully she can take that message to President Biden, and that he will follow her recommendations.”
Yepa pointed out that much is at stake, not just for local, Indigenous people, but for all Americans. Environmental issues are land issues, and land issues are Native issues, she said.
“It holds so much of our culture, our history and our knowledge,” she said. “In the face of climate change and everything that’s coming, these lessons and answers on how to live with the landscapes that all of our tribes have evolved with, those answers are all embedded in this land.”
Now, she said, it’s time for the prayers for Bears Ears and for Haaland to continue. And to be heard.