Utah Republicans Shamelessly Invoke Tribes To Condemn Biden’s Monument Restorations

As news broke last week that President Joe Biden would restore the boundaries of a pair of national monuments in Utah that former President Donald Trump reduced four years ago, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) condemned the move on Twitter.

Reexpanding the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments “is a devastating blow to our state, local and tribal leaders and our delegation,” Romney wrote, adding that Biden had “squandered the opportunity to build consensus by working with stakeholders to find a permanent, legislative solution.”

In an opinion piece published in the Deseret News and titled “A monumental insult,” Romney, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and the rest of Utah’s congressional delegation argued that Bears Ears, and presumably Biden’s restoration, “fails to include the crucial input and involvement of local tribes in protecting and highlighting their own cultural heritage.”

It’s no secret that Utah Republicans fervently opposed Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears when President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama created them in 1996 and 2016, respectively, and lobbied for Trump’s rollbacks. State leaders have a long history of attacking public land protections.

But portraying tribes as agreeing with them is nothing short of dishonest.

Their statements “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding, or a complete ignorance, of Indian law and policy,” said Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a consortium of the five tribes that petitioned Obama to make Bears Ears a monument. “The tribes are their own unique sovereigns. Senator Romney does not speak for them.”

“Frankly, some of this sounds like sour grapes,” Gonzales-Rogers added.

Utah Republicans did not elaborate on their sweeping claims that Biden’s action somehow harms or offends tribes, and Romney and Lee’s offices did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

President Joe Biden hands a pen to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland after signing an executive order to expand the areas of three national monuments during an event at the White House on Oct. 8, 2021. The Biden administration restored the areas of two Utah sites held sacred by several Native American tribes after former President Donald Trump opened them to mining, drilling and development during his time in office.

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Bears Ears is the first and only national monument established at the direct request of sovereign tribes. The landscape is home to more than 100,000 known cultural and archaeological sites, including ancient rock art panels and cliff dwellings, and five tribes — the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe — consider the area sacred.

Grand Staircase-Escalante is also rich in both archeological and paleontological resources. The landscape makes up a portion of the Southern Paiute people’s ancestral homelands and numerous other tribes have historical ties to the area.

When Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended shrinking Bears Ears in 2017, the Bears Ears tribal coalition condemned it as “a slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.”

When Trump followed through and reduced the monument’s size by 85%, the coalition promptly sued. And when Biden signed a proclamation on Friday to restore the monument to its original size, the coalition celebrated it as a recognition of “the deep and enduring ancestral and cultural connections that Tribes have to this landscape.”

Deb Haaland’s first trip as interior secretary was to the two Utah monuments, where she met with various stakeholders, including tribal leaders who felt ignored and betrayed by the Trump administration’s sham review and rollback.

In a report submitted to the White House in June and made public last week, Haaland advised Biden to restore both Utah monuments to their original footprints. The 16-page document details the administration’s consultation with 11 federally recognized tribes.

“During Tribal consultation, all Tribal leaders and representatives who provided input expressed support for the restoration of the pre-modified boundaries and conditions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments,” the report reads.

“Some Tribal leaders characterized the Trump-Pence administration’s action to dramatically reduce the monument boundaries as yet another broken promise by the Federal Government, adding to the generational trauma that Tribes have endured from hundreds of years of policies and efforts to exterminate Native Americans and remove them from their lands.”

Ancient granaries, part of the House on Fire ruins, are shown here in the South Fork of Mule Canyon in the Bears Ears National Monument on May 12, 2017, outside Blanding, Utah.
Ancient granaries, part of the House on Fire ruins, are shown here in the South Fork of Mule Canyon in the Bears Ears National Monument on May 12, 2017, outside Blanding, Utah.

George Frey via Getty Images

When Biden signed proclamations on Friday reversing Trump’s rollbacks, elected tribal leaders stood behind him, including Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart, and Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma.

“Today’s announcement, it’s not just about national monuments,” Haaland said at the signing ceremony. “It’s about this administration centering the voices of Indigenous people and affirming the shared stewardship of this landscape with tribal nations. The president’s action today writes a new chapter that embraces Indigenous knowledge, ensures tribal leadership has a seat at the table and demonstrates that by working together we can build a brighter future for all of us.”

Biden’s proclamation on Bears Ears commits additional resources, including rangers and new informational signage, in order to better protect the area’s cultural and archeological resources and manage growing visitation.

There are, of course, Native Americans who oppose the monuments for a variety of reasons. Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, has been one of Bears Ears’ fiercest opponents, going as far as to claim that “national monuments kill people.”

Republicans, including Trump administration officials, have repeatedly pointed to Benally to argue that local Native Americans oppose the monument, and she was among several Navajo members present when Trump dismantled the monument.

But individual tribal members don’t speak on behalf of tribes; that’s the job of elected tribal officials. And tribal support for Bears Ears has and continues to be overwhelming.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition represents the five tribes’ collective interests on Bears Ears in the same way that the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission acts on behalf of four Pacific Northwest tribes — Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce — when it comes to fisheries issues in the Columbia River watershed.

“When we have a consensus, we are acting on behalf of that tribe for this issue,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “It is inherently a direct, dotted line to each tribe specific to Bears Ears.”

Board members, staff and supporters of the Indigenous-led group Utah Diné Bikéyah celebrate President Joe Biden's decision to restore the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument at an overlook on Cedar Mesa in San Juan County on Oct. 8, 2021, in Utah.
Board members, staff and supporters of the Indigenous-led group Utah Diné Bikéyah celebrate President Joe Biden’s decision to restore the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument at an overlook on Cedar Mesa in San Juan County on Oct. 8, 2021, in Utah.

The bottom line, Gonzales-Rogers said, is Romney and other Utah politicians are using the anti-monument views of individual tribal members to misrepresent the positions of elected tribal governments.

Gonzales-Rogers took issue with Romney accusing the Biden administration of having “squandered the opportunity to build consensus” with tribes and other stakeholders. The tribes were open to working with state officials and Utah’s congressional delegation, but they never provided the coalition with their vision and recommendations for Bears Ears, Gonzales-Rogers said. Instead, it became clear that they simply wanted tribes to follow their lead.

“If anyone has squandered an opportunity it’s the Utah federal delegation and Governor [Spencer] Cox,” he said. “This premise that the tribes did not want to collaborate and be a partner is incredibly untrue.”

“You’ve got to look at this historically,” he added. The state of Utah “has an acrimonious relationship with tribes. It has always questioned the sovereignty of tribes in its state.”

Ancient rock art in Sheiks Canyon, part of Bears Ears National Monument.
Ancient rock art in Sheiks Canyon, part of Bears Ears National Monument.

Sumiko Scott via Getty Images

Jade Begay, director of Indigenous-led organization NDN Collective’s climate justice campaign, called it a “classic example of divide and conquer.”

“Utah elected officials like Senators Romney and Lee are trying to incite division between Indigenous Peoples, tribal leaders, and communities,” she told HuffPost via email. “Ultimately, these lawmakers’ statements are invalidated by their position within a party that promotes the violation of treaty and Indigenous rights.”

Monday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which honors and celebrates Indigenous communities and their cultures. After invoking tribes in their ongoing fight against protected monuments, not a single member of Utah’s congressional delegation acknowledged the holiday.

Lee, however, recognized Taiwan’s national holiday on Twitter Sunday. And on Tuesday, Lee and Reps. John Curtis (R-Utah) and Burgess Owens (R-Utah) publicly celebrated National Farmers Day.

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