Native tribes deserve respect for work on the Bears Ears Monument

Native tribes deserve respect for work on the Bears Ears Monument
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For decades before President Obama proclaimed the Bears Ears National Monument, the Navajo Nation and other local native nations fought to protect the area because of its importance to our cultures, religions and histories. Beginning in 2010, when the possibility of a national monument became real, the Navajo Nation, in alliance with the Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Mountain Tribe and Ute Indian Tribe, engaged in six intensive years of comprehensive research to identify the proper boundaries of a monument that would protect the resources that matter so much to us. Throughout this process, we participated in intergovernmental negotiations, both amongst our nations and with the local, state and federal government.

In the end, the Obama administration designated a smaller area than our nations asked to be protected. But to the Administration’s credit, it incorporated the collaborative management model that our nations painstakingly designed by writing it into the proclamation creating the Bears Ears National Monument. In this model, the Bears Ears Commission, which consists of officials formally appointed by our tribal governments, will partner with federal agencies to ensure management of the monument in a manner that appropriately honors our ancestors whose presence remains upon those lands, our deities who reside there, the medicine of the place, and the continuation of our cultures and religions into the future.

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Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWhitefish stops work on Puerto Rico power grid over payment dispute Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy Feinstein: 'Disgusting' Trump even considering lifting elephant trophy ban MORE, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and other Utah officials have made public statements suggesting that the Bears Ears Commission provides an inadequate form of tribal management. Yet our five tribes designed the commission, and we are more than satisfied with what it provides for. The only inadequacy with the commission flows from Zinke’s direction to our federal agency partners to ignore our commissioners and to otherwise block the good work that our commissioners must do to adequately protect the thousands upon thousands of ancient villages, granaries, potsherds, bones, fossils and other “objects” with which the monument lands teem.

Other voices have chimed in as well, most recently in an opinion piece by the Property and Environmental Research Center and the Sutherland Institute. They proposed that the administration replace the commission with a “trust” which “could be composed of Native Americans and representatives of nearby communities to ensure tribal co-management and local input.” This paternalistic proposal, like the views of Zinke and the Utah officials, ignores the sovereignty of our nations and the distinctive voices of our peoples. It further displays a thinly veiled purpose of providing for greater extractive use of Bears Ears. A board of trustees with tribal and non-tribal representatives would prevent our nations from providing management direction from a distinctly tribal perspective. It would also ignore the roles of our nations in the three-sovereign configuration of American government as established in the U.S. Constitution.

In the federal legal framework, Congress and the Interior secretary play special roles in defining and executing the federal government’s treaty and trust responsibilities to Indian nations. Yet leadership in Washington appears to be demonstrating that it lacks a basic understanding of what a tribe is, and what tribal sovereignty means. Our nations have a right to self-determination, self-governance and an ongoing working relationship with the federal government. We are not just one among many “local” interests. Washington should listen to the loud, clear and consistent shared message that our unified nations continue to voice. Leave Bears Ears National Monument alone, and leave the Bears Ears Commission intact.

The Bears Ears Commission began meeting within weeks of establishment of the monument and is hard at work on producing monument planning documents and recommendations. The commission is also beginning work to establish a world-class Bears Ears Institute that would be an international leader in the rapidly growing global interest in indigenous traditional knowledge. The Bears Ears National Monument, uniquely enriched by tribal voices and traditional knowledge, can become one of the jewels of our national conservation system. The proclamation and the significant hard-earned role of the five tribes in designing the future of the monument through the Bears Ears Commission should not be changed.

Ethel Branch is attorney general at the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.