Senate blocks poorly disguised assault on Native American heritage

There is great enthusiasm in Indian Country for the preservation of our living cultures, the celebration of our history and the protection of our sacred sites. For more than a century, several Native American sites have been thoughtfully protected by Congress and presidents of both parties. Yet areas of great importance to our people still remain unprotected. This is why an unprecedented partnership of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribal governments has formed to honor, protect and preserve our heritage. The first such tribally led proposal, for a Bears Ears National Monument in Southeast Utah, reflects the shared history and deep connection our people have with these public lands.

While the response to our proposal in Native American circles, and with the public in Utah, has been heartening, some in Congress have resorted to centuries-old tactics to divide Native people – disingenuously pitting one tribal group against the other. The latest such attempt played out in the U.S. Senate recently where Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeSenate set for showdown over women in the draft Overnight Finance: Path clears for Puerto Rico bill | GOP senator casts doubt on IRS impeachment | Senate approves .1B for Zika Overnight Tech: Trade groups press NC on bathroom law MORE (R-Utah) pushed an amendment to eviscerate the very law that was originally passed to help protect Native American sacred religious and cultural sites – the Antiquities Act.

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Places like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Chimney Rock in Colorado and Hovenweep in Utah are all examples of sites important to the Native American community that were protected through the Antiquities Act. The Antiquities Act is also responsible for the protection of more than half of what are now our National Parks.

Lee’s amendment would not only block the protection of the Bears Ears National Monument, but all future sites of historic, cultural and natural wonder. Protecting public lands continues to have great support. In January, the Colorado College released a poll showing that 80 percent of Westerners, including Utahans, are in favor of future presidents protecting public lands with a national monument designation. People around the West continue to call on the president to use his authority to protect our heritage, wildlife habitat and access to outdoor recreation. Yet, despite this, Lee and others continue to pursue failed efforts to obstruct communities’ efforts to safeguard important historic, cultural and natural sites.

These are not merely symbolic protections we seek. The ancestral lands of the Bears Ears region continue to face rampant and ongoing looting and destruction of artwork and gravesites. These are acts that literally rob Native American people of spiritual connections, as well as a sense of place and history. They are insults to the dignity of our societies and traditional knowledge.

When President Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to protect the Grand Canyon he said, "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it; not a bit. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you." This is a sentiment that rings true for the Bears Ears. Our people have lived in the Bears Ears region since time began. Our traditional oral stories speak of this area and certain spiritual resources are found only here.  By visiting Bears Ears and giving our prayers and conducting our ceremonies, we heal our bodies and help heal the land itself.  This is why we are working on a proposal to bring people together.

It is clear that the Native American community and the American people still understand the wisdom of allowing the president to directly protect public lands. And it is clear that there are places that are still in dire need of appropriate safeguards. Therefore, we are glad that the majority of senators opposed Lee’s efforts to undermine a bedrock law that has allowed for the honor and protection of Native American sites across the country.

Bowekaty is a councilman for the Pueblo of Zuni.

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