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Op-ed: Bishop is wrong, Utah’s Native Americans want Bears Ears protected

First Published      Last Updated Feb 26 2016 04:31 pm

Recently, a number of people have tried to speak on behalf of Native Americans who live in Utah — including those of us who are Navajo and live in San Juan County.

False statements have been made to the media, claiming that the proposal put forward last month by five tribes — Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah Ouray Ute — to protect the Bears Ears as a national monument is not supported by native communities and local people in San Juan County.

As one of two council delegates on the 23rd Navajo Nation Council who represent Utah Navajos — I represent the Utah communities of Naa'tsis'Áán (Navajo Mountain) and Oljato (Monument Valley) — I can tell you that these reports of division among Utah Navajos are not accurate. As a council delegate, I am glad to see that the Bears Ears initiative has moved forward in the preferred manner, originating first from the grassroots and our esteemed elders and then through the political channels to Window Rock and then on to Washington, D.C.



I recognize that many people may be unaware of how the Navajo Nation is politically organized, so let me explain.

The fundamental building block of Navajo democracy is the Chapter House. There are 110 Chapter Houses on the Navajo Nation, with seven that extend into Utah. Chapter houses are community centers where residents discuss and decide upon matters that affect their communities. Official business is conducted in our Native language according to the Navajo Nation Local Governance Act. Issues include everything from approving government budgets, securing clean drinking water after the Gold King mine spill, and considering proposals such as protecting Bears Ears. Chapter Houses are also the place where local residents are given the opportunity to express their opinions to their Council Delegate, such as myself.

Thus, if you want to know what people "on the ground" think about a subject, it is a good idea to ask for the community to vote on it during a Chapter House meeting. And it is here, not in the media, that it becomes clear that the Navajo people who live in San Juan County overwhelmingly support the creation of a 1.9 million acre Bears Ears National Monument.

Of the seven Navajo Chapter Houses in Utah, six have passed resolutions in support of protecting Bears Ears. As recently as November 8, the Oljato Chapter House unanimously (40-0) reaffirmed its support for protecting Bears Ears as a national monument.

Normally, delegates like to see consensus on issues such as the protection of Bears Ears, but this is not always possible. For example, the community of Aneth endorsed the position of San Juan County in August and supports mineral extraction across large swaths of federal lands inside Bears Ears. It is not unusual for this kind of disagreement to exist, but in this case San Juan County violated normal consultation protocol by asking the Chapter House to endorse its official government position after the fact. Typically Native American tribes insist on being engaged before important decisions are made and San Juan County did not do this.

In comparison, Utah Diné Bikéyah followed Navajo procedures when it obtained resolutions of support from all seven chapters to carry out its land planning effort in 2010. Then it developed a proposal with full community input and eventually won the approval of all seven chapters in 2014. Then, after this consensus was secured in Utah, it then asked for the support of the Navajo Nation Council and the president, which was granted wholeheartedly. This contrasts profoundly with the actions of San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who began going against Chapter Houses more than one year after they had studied San Juan County's five alternatives and had endorsed Bears Ears.

In an Oct. 29 interview on KSL Radio's Doug Wright show, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop stated that in the Public Lands Initiative process, he "need[s] to give precedence to the Native Americans who live in Utah." As a council delegate representing Utah, I could not agree more and I can assure the congressman that he has local Navajo support in protecting Bears Ears.

If Bishop agrees to give precedence to the Native Americans who live in Utah, then he should understand that we have already spoken, and with overwhelming unity we have asked for Bears Ears to be protected. Local Navajo communities have the sovereign support of the Navajo Nation government and we understand that other tribes are similarly supporting their grassroots people. What we have said, and continue to say, is this: It is time to protect Bears Ears, and if it can't be passed in the coming months through the Public Lands Initiative, then the president should declare this living cultural landscape as a national monument for all.

Herman Daniels Jr. is a Navajo Nation Council Delegate representing Shonto, Naa'tsis'Áán, Oljato and Ts'ah Bii Kin.

 

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