Washington • President Donald Trump approved the Keystone Pipeline despite strong objections of Native Americans. He repeatedly calls Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” in a way that’s not meant to be nice.
When he honored Navajo Code Talkers in the Oval Office, the president stood in front of a portrait of a predecessor whom he has often praised: Andrew Jackson, who was once referred to as the “exterminator of Indians.”
And now Trump has slashed southern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument — essentially the first Native American-pushed monument — by more than a million acres to a fraction of its original self.
Just 11 months into office, Trump has earned a rebuke from a swath of Americans still reeling from a historically caustic relationship with the federal government.
“He’s not good for tribes,” said Natalie Landreth, senior staff attorney of the Native American Rights Fund, which represents the Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute tribes that have sued Trump over his order to shrink the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears monument into two separate monuments totaling about 200,000 acres.
It’s a sharp turn, say Native American leaders and other observers, from the Obama administration’s outreach to Native peoples that included launching annual tribal conferences to bring together tribal leaders with U.S. officials as well as a host of actions that tribes had sought.
The White House held the tribal conference every year of Obama’s two terms. The Trump administration did not announce one this year, though the administration has invited some tribal groups for meetings.
Landreth said Obama made some of the “largest leaps forward” for Native people in his time in office, but the relationship has soured with the new Oval Office occupant. She noted that Trump didn’t respond to outreach by the tribes pushing to keep the full Bears Ears monument, a move that added to the insult they feel.
“The tribes view this as an affront to themselves,” Landreth said, “and their own self-determination.”
Tribal leaders feared Trump would not be as friendly to Native Americans as Obama, given his history with tribes.
In the early 1990s, Trump, trying to combat tribal casinos that were digging into his gambling empire, alleged that Native American leaders were under the mob’s control and were trafficking in drugs. He even charged that the Native Americans weren’t really native.
“I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” Trump told radio host Don Imus in 1993.
In changing the Bears Ears monument boundaries, Trump thanked the local Navajos who were present but mentioned Native Americans only once in his remarks: He noted that his action to reduce the protected area would allow Native people to have a rightful voice over the “sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions.”
Technically, Congress has to make that happen, and legislation has been introduced to allow it.
San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who is Navajo, praised Trump’s action to gut the Bears Ears monument, arguing it was “insulting that bureaucrats thousands of miles away didn’t believe we were capable of protecting and preserving our homeland.”
“I know the bureaucrats have made promises to Native Americans and these promises were broken again and again,” she said, lauding Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for “listening to the local grass-roots people.”
However, all seven Utah chapter houses of the Navajo Nation that surround the monument had favored the original designation, with 163 Navajos wanting to keep the larger monument and three opposing it in a recent vote.
That’s part of the problem, some Native leaders say: Trump isn’t listening to their people.
Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, says the Bears Ears shifts and the lawsuits that followed are going to widen the gulf between Native Americans and Trump, and it all could have been avoided by listening to the tribes.
Chapoose said the Obama administration’s tribal conference and approach had created a two-way street for discussions of Native needs.
“They got accustomed to the opportunity to put forth their concerns and find solutions,” Chapoose said. “This administration shut the door on them.”
He described Trump’s first-year relationship with tribes as “rocky, that’s for sure,” undermining the gains Native Americans made in the past eight years. It’s typical that the pendulum of relations with tribes swings between Democratic and Republican administrations but in this case, Chapoose said, it is dramatic.
“When you don’t let each side have a fair shake, one of them will be disenfranchised,” he said. “Tribes weren’t being taken seriously.”
The White House defends Trump’s relationship with Native Americans.
After Trump made the recent “Pocahontas” remark, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she didn’t think that it was a racial slur and that was not the president’s intent.
“The president certainly finds an extreme amount of value and respect for these individuals, which is why he brought them and invited them to come to the White House and spend time with them, recognizing them, and honoring them today,” Sanders said. “So I think he is constantly showing ways to honor those individuals, and he invited them here at the White House today to meet with them and to also remind everybody about the historic role that they played many years ago.”
Zinke, the Interior secretary who is an adopted member of the Assiniboine Sioux Tribe, insists the administration has a good relationship with Native Americans and maintains the change to Bears Ears would help those tribal members who live in the area.
“The president also supports sovereignty and respects our Native Americans,” Zinke said. “I certainly have brought a leadership team of hard-charging Native Americans to my leadership team and as a former [Navy] SEAL, I respect the warrior culture of Native Americans. ... No one respects our Native Americans more than I do.”
Trump named November as National Native American Heritage Month and, in that proclamation, said the nation should “honor and celebrate the first Americans and recognize their contributions and sacrifices.”
“My administration is committed to tribal sovereignty and self-determination,” the proclamation said. “A great nation keeps its word, and this administration will continue to uphold and defend its responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives. The United States is stronger when Indian Country is healthy and prosperous.”
During that month, though, news broke that Trump would reduce the Bears Ears monument by more than 85 percent.
Ethel Branch, attorney general of the Navajo Nation, says tribes hope to open a line of communication with Trump’s White House as they have with his predecessors. So far, though, it hasn’t been as successful.
“I do have concerns that this relationship is a one-way relationship,” she said, pointing to worries that the Trump administration doesn’t understand tribal sovereignty.
“It is very disappointing to see a lack of regard for that,” she said. “And a lack of willingness to understand the need for that protection” of the Bears Ears area.
Sally Jewell, who served as Interior secretary under Obama, said there’s no question that the deep bond formed between tribes and the federal government has weakened since Trump took office.
He doesn’t have the same regard for Native people, she said. “Not just in words but in deep and personal actions.”
During a fellowship at Harvard University this fall, Jewell said she brought in Native American leaders for a forum. They weren’t happy.
“The impression of tribal leaders is one of disappointment and one of wariness,” she said. “It’s disappointing. Tribal leaders are resilient. They’ve survived so much, but what’s discouraging is there was so much hope. ... It would have been great to see that momentum continue.”
Jewell, who oversaw the creation of the Bears Ears monument and had visited the area to hear from local officials and hike the region, said the Trump team listened only to anti-monument San Juan County officials and Utah’s elected leaders who wanted to get rid of it. The monument wasn’t about a legacy for Obama, she added, but for future generations and was meant to honor tribes that had made the land their home for ages.
Of Trump’s shrinking of the monument, she said, “It’s a slap in the face.”
One that, for tribal leaders, still stings.