Op-ed: I’m banking on Zinke keeping our Bears Ears promises to Indians

Stephen Trimble at his home in Torrey, Utah Stephen Trimble at his home in Torrey, Utah

I fear we are headed down an old and familiar path at Bears Ears. We promise Indian people that we will honor treaties, that we will recognize their rights to lands they have called home for millennia. We, the United States of America, make promises. Then, we break them.

The Bears Ears National Monument proclamation isn’t a treaty, but the president’s words have the weight of law, granting new protections for a swath of public lands “profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes.” And now Utah’s office-holders are asking a new president to rescind the monument, to once again default on our legal agreements with Native nations.

The monument exists because the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition documented their people’s spiritual, historic and working relationships with this land. Over seven years, in dozens of interviews, the Inter-Tribal Coalition mapped indigenous connections to nearly two million acres in these stunning canyons. To adequately preserve the cultural sites surrounding the Bears Ears — its “objects,” in the words of the Antiquities Act — the monument could have been even bigger.

President Obama understood this relationship with the land. He listened to the tribes. He waited until the Public Lands Initiative failed. And then he asked federal and Inter-Tribal Coalition representatives to create something “bold and new.”

If Gov. Gary Herbert wished to demonstrate this same respect for Native people, he would have honored their proposal and avoided the loss of the Outdoor Retailer shows. He would have vetoed the resolution calling for the monument’s withdrawal sent to him by the Utah legislature. His signature on this misguided resolution will cost Utah tens of millions of dollars in lost income.

Newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke just may be the most headstrong individual in our rambunctious corral of western Republicans. In his opening letter to America as the cabinet member in charge of both the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he names tribal sovereignty as one of his three top priorities, taking a robust stand in support of this fundamental doctrine in the nation’s law. The new secretary tells us, “I will do everything in my power to ensure respect to the sovereign Indian Nations and territories.”

If he means what he says, Zinke will work with the tribes — and all stakeholders — to plan a visionary future for America’s Bears Ears National Monument.

If he truly respects tribal sovereignty, Zinke will remind “official Utah” that San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally holds no elected position within the Navajo Nation. She speaks against the monument, but she speaks for no tribal government.

If he means to ensure tribal sovereignty, Zinke will celebrate the Navajo Nation council’s unanimous support for the national monument. All five sovereign tribes in the Inter-Tribal Coalition have passed equally strong resolutions. The secretary can tally support for the monument from 30 tribal governments with ties to the Bears Ears and from more than 500 federally recognized tribes represented by the National Congress of American Indians. Such unanimity comes rarely in Indian Country.

Indigenous writers and leaders identify respect, responsibility and reciprocity as the keys to understanding the Native relationship to land. The dominant society — epitomized by Herbert and the Utah Legislature and congressional delegation — sees land as commodity, capital and property.

I’m banking on our new secretary of the interior, who’s proud to be an adopted member of Montana’s Assiniboine-Sioux tribe, to bridge this divide and push back against the likes of Rep. Rob Bishop, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Herbert, who demand we do away with Bears Ears National Monument. With Ryan Zinke’s leadership, this time let’s keep our promises.

Stephen Trimble, writer, photographer and conservationist, teaches in the University of Utah honors college.