Writers on the Range: Don’t believe what you hear about Bears Ears
San Juan County is celebrating President Donald Trump’s recent decision to cut more than 2 million acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The move amounts to the largest rollback of federal land protections in U.S. history. By saying San Juan County, however, I mean the county’s conservative leadership and not the majority of its residents.
Much of the county overlaps the Navajo Nation, and while polling data on reservation land is virtually nonexistent, it’s clear that not all local residents celebrate Trump’s order. In fact, 98 percent of voters in the Navajo Nation districts that straddle the Utah-Arizona line have voiced support for the protection of Bears Ears. Nonetheless, longtime county commissioner Bruce Adams assured a crowd of 250 monument opponents in Monticello, Utah, on Dec. 2 that “President Trump has listened to the 15,000 people that live in San Juan County.” Not only is this a serious overestimation, it begs the question: Has the county leadership itself listened to the 15,000 people who live here, or have certain voices been silenced?
Unlike Utah as a whole, white Mormons make up the minority in San Juan County, where I live and where Bears Ears is located. According to the most recent census data, the population is over 50 percent Native American. An ongoing lawsuit has determined that San Juan County is in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act owing to its systematic discrimination against Native residents. If the judge overseeing the case rules voting districts must be redrawn — and it looks likely that he will — the county commission and school board could become majority Navajo for the first time in history.
The current county commissioners are already arguing that redrawing the districts would discriminate against the white residents, and others are lashing out at any assertion of Native American rights. Monte Wells was one of the people arrested with San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman for leading an illegal ATV protest ride in 2014, which resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in damage to archaeological sites. In a Facebook post for his influential blog site, he recently wrote that Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye should remember “who conquered who.”
Lyman used that same word — conquered — at the Monticello celebration of the slashing of Bears Ears National Monument. No less than three times during his speech, he repeated an out-of-context line from Thomas Jefferson, warning of the day when our “children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.” Conquered from whom, Lyman didn’t say. Jefferson’s full quote is about the dangers of powerful banks, not Indigenous peoples.
Of course, Native Americans, like any large group of people, are diverse in viewpoints. It is true that Rebecca Benally, the county’s sole Navajo commissioner, served as an opening speaker for President Trump in Salt Lake City on Dec. 4. But anti-monument activists have gone so far as to claim that environmental groups are using Native Americans as props. This is false.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which led the push for a monument in 2016, is made up of leaders from the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian tribes. To suggest that representatives from five sovereign American Indian nations with ancestral or current ties to the Bears Ears area could somehow be duped by conservation groups into setting aside centuries of conflict to unite behind the monument is insulting, demeaning and frankly absurd. All five tribes sued the Trump administration just hours after the president’s orders were signed.
That’s not to say Native Americans and non-Native conservationists share identical beliefs. A coalition by definition is an alliance between disparate groups in pursuit of a common goal. It’s worth noting, however, that conservation leaders tend to treat Indigenous allies as partners, not as pawns.
As a San Juan County resident, I respect some of the anti-monument arguments. I understand why local towns worry about “becoming the next Moab.” I agree environmentalists praise tourist-driven economic growth far too often. But our county commissioners need to stop pretending they represent the whole county.
Commissioner Adams, who has claimed his Mormon ancestors were the first people to “really settle” in a landscape renowned for thousands of years of archaeological history, doesn’t speak for me. Nor does he speak for most of Bluff, a town which billed itself as the “Proud Gateway to Bears Ears.” And Commissioner Lyman doesn’t speak for the Navajo and Ute locals who reject his implication that they should act like “conquered” subjects.
Until it’s unacceptable for our politicians and their supporters to denigrate half the population of San Juan County with perverse interpretations of history, and until Native residents are fully represented in the electoral process, we won’t have a county leadership worthy of the name.
Zak Podmore is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in San Juan County, Utah.
For the last 35 years I’ve been covering what we call the “salmon wars” in the Pacific Northwest, writing so many stories about salmon heading toward extinction that I’ve lost count.
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