Willie Grayeyes: Lee and Trump administration continue their attack on Native American tribes

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Willie Grayeyes, board chairman of the Navajo grass-roots Utah Dine Bikeyah, is denied entry by Utah Highway Patrol to meet with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke after arriving at the Blanding airport on Monday, May 8, 2017, for an aerial tour of the recently designated Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.

Sen. Mike Lee’s legislation misleadingly titled “Protecting Utah’s Rural Economy Act” (PURE Act) demonstrates his continued attack on public lands and Native American tribes in Utah and the U.S. The PURE Act also comes in light of how Trump administration officials dismissed the benefits of national monuments on July 23.

The proposed PURE Act does little to mask such intent. It would exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act and prevent a U.S. president from designating a national monument in Utah without the approval of Congress and the state Legislature. Essentially, the PURE Act blocks new protections for cultural and natural resources to promote the exploitation of nonrenewable energy resources like coal, uranium, oil and gas on public lands.

Tribes and rural communities throughout Utah have a vision for our future. But Lee and Trump officials refuse to hear why we created Bears Ears National Monument. We did it to balance our spiritual and economic needs. The PURE Act and the latest discovery of the Interior Department documents undermine both. Bears Ears National Monument is a collaborative solution designed by tribes to prevent environmental threats and protect ancestral indigenous ties to public lands. Generated by grassroots Utahns, it has inspired a healing movement among Native communities.

Lee’s proposed law disrupts this ongoing healing because, if it were not for the Antiquities Act, Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition would not be celebrating our cultures, including at our fourth annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering at the Bears Ears Meadow.

Nearly 3 million Americans voiced their opposition to the Trump administration’s reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Most Native American communities support restoring Bears Ears to its original size. At this year’s Summer Gathering, the Lummi Nation traveled over 1,200 miles to gift the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition a Bear Totem Pole. As a gesture of goodwill, it represents how tribes everywhere are uniting and fighting to protect their sacred sites and keep access to them.

Leaders like Lee need to realize that Native Americans are citizens and have every right to participate and be represented in our democracy. Since European contact in 1492, our narrative, ceremonies, language, foods, teachings and existence express the same consistent message: We must all protect Earth Mother from various threats, including destructive proposals like the PURE Act.

If healing is not enough to persuade Lee, perhaps the incredible economic engine of existing, protected public lands is obvious. According to a report by Headwaters Economics, an independent nonpartisan research organization: “The greatest value of natural amenities and recreation opportunities often lies in the ability of protected lands to attract and retain people, entrepreneurs, businesses and retirees.”

In its 2017 research of 17 national monuments in 11 Western states, Headwaters Economics found that “National monuments help nearby communities diversify economically while increasing quality of life and recreational opportunities that make communities more attractive for new residents, businesses and investment.” Recently, documents accidentally released by the Trump administration show information on the benefits of national monuments.

We urge Lee to listen to his Native American constituents in San Juan County, Utah, and drop this bill. Native Americans make up 53 percent of the county population, and we are nearly unanimous in our support for Bears Ears and the Antiquities Act. The PURE Act, on the other hand, completely cuts out tribal involvement and encourages the state of Utah and Congress to continue to block protections for sacred sites and cultural resources in perpetuity, with no consideration for the rights of tribes.

Willie Grayeyes

Willie Grayeyes, Navajo Mountain, is the board chairman for Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Democratic candidate for the San Juan County Commission District 2..