President Donald Trump not only trimmed and broke up the Bears Ears National Monument when he visited Utah last week. He also renamed it with the Navajo-language term for Bears Ears, a gesture that could be courting trouble with many Native Americans.
Officials in the Trump administration say renaming one of two new smaller monuments Shash Jaa reflects tribal spiritual and ancestral ties to that part of southern Utah’s San Juan County, where Bears Ears Buttes rise over the landscape like twin beacons.
“Looking at the historical relevance, we thought that choosing a tribal name was important, and it’s local. We consulted with Navajo that live in Utah and they asked for it,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told The Salt Lake Tribune last week. “Certainly, I don’t think anyone would object to having a native name rather than Bears Ears as the name of the monument.”
But according to Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, who is leading the multiple tribe-backed lawsuit to halt the action, the Interior did not consult Navajo tribal officers about any aspect of Trump’s proclamation establishing a diminished and renamed monument.
Nor did the Interior run anything past Utah Dine Bikeyah, the local grass-roots Navajo group deeply involved with the Bears Ears proposal, according to executive director Gavin Noyes, who views the rename as a cynical attempt to divide the tribes by exploiting historic grievances among them.
“The tribes have all gotten together and they have designed themselves as a commission and chosen a name that works for everybody. It’s collaborative and it’s in English,” Noyes said. “Even though every single tribe has a name for Bears Ears in their own language, the selection of the Navajo name tramples the Native American true history of the place.”
Noyes’ group had initially suggested naming the ambitious land conservation proposal Dine Bikeyah, which means “the people’s homeland” in Navajo, but embraced the more inclusive name to gain support from the Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Hopi tribes. Five tribes eventually signed on and petitioned for the monument designation as sovereign entities.
On Dec. 28, Obama named the short-lived monument Bears Ears in reference to the twin buttes visible from every direction that have served as a geographic reference point for thousands of years. The first sentence of his proclamation cited the various names for the buttes in the tribes’ languages: Hoon’Naqvut (Hopi), Kwiyagatu Nukavachi (Ute), Shash Jaa (Navajo) and Ansh An Lashokdiwe (Zuni).
During his brief visit to Salt Lake City last week, Trump trimmed the monument to a fraction of its original size and carved out a second monument for Indian Creek. Together, the two add up to 202,000 acres, an 85 percent reduction of the original monument that left out Cedar Mesa and other critical landscapes rich in archaeological and natural values.
In a speech at the Utah Capitol, the president said Utah’s national monument designations disenfranchise locals residents, including Native Americans, by keeping them from accessing these public lands.
“We have seen needed improvements, like infrastructure upgrades and road maintenance, impeded and foreclosed,” Trump said. “We have seen how this tragic federal overreach prevents many Native Americans from having their rightful voice over the sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions”
Some tribal officials scoffed at this claim, since it was elected Native American leaders who pushed for a Bears Ears monument.
“It’s pretty obvious [Trump] thinks he’s going to divide us, but if anything, it has done the reverse,” said Shaun Chapoose, who serves on Ute Tribe’s business committee, on KUER’s RadioWest program last week.
“You can call it whatever you want,” Chapoose continued. “It is known fact historically, yeah, the Navajo are there now. But throughout history the Hopi have been there, the Zuni have been there, my people have been there. Remnants of our existence have always been there.”
Obama’s Bear Ears proclamation also gave a special advisory role over monument management to a panel known as the Bears Ears Commission, comprised of one representative from each of the five tribes. The commission, which has met monthly since February, includes Chapoose and other tribal officials who are strong monument supporters.
Trump now intends to insert an anti-monument member of the San Juan County Commission onto the panel. The proclamation he signed Monday renames it Shash Jaa Commission and excludes Indian Creek from its jurisdiction. It also requires the group include the county commissioner representing the Navajo-majority’s District 3, a seat currently held by Rebecca Benally, a monument opponent.
In a separate case, a federal judge has ruled San Juan’s voting districts violate the Constitution because they are gerrymandered along racial lines.
Native Americans make up a slight majority in San Juan County, but have never held a majority of seats on either the three-member county commission or five-member school board due to the illegal way voting districts are configured, the Navajo Nation has argued in court.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby agreed and has ordered a redistricting that could soon result in two Native American-majority commission districts in San Juan County, including the one now held by Phil Lyman of Blanding.
Trump’s proclamation on Monday also called on Congress to give the reconstituted Shash Jaa Commission “co-management” powers with federal agencies, but that gesture got little respect from Navajo tribe officials. They say Obama’s proclamation gave them as much influence over monument management as allowed under current law and that they were happy with that.
— Tribune reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this report.