Shea Sawyer: The moral implications of Bears Ears

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah's Bears Ears National Monument are shown on Dec. 28, 2016, in southeastern Utah. With Joe Biden's capture of the White House comes the likelihood that Utah's two big national monuments will be restored to their original boundaries, reopening yet another front in the West's public lands wars.

In 2015, five tribal governments proposed that 1.9 million acres of eastern Utah be designated a national monument and be placed under the collaborative management of federal agencies and native tribes. In the last full month of his presidency, Barack Obama designated 1.35 million acres as Bears Ears National Monument.

The decision was met with heated controversy. Then-Sen. Orrin Hatch explained his support for protection of historical landmarks but vilified Obama’s decision, calling it a land grab and an overreach of executive power. The controversy stemmed from deeply contrasting perceptions of what it means to protect land.

Hatch worked with President Donald Trump to reduce the lands by 83%. The administration justified the move by saying the area necessary for preservation should be “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of those objects.”

The industrial, Western and conservative worldview of the opposition believes the integrity of the land can be protected through reductionist policies. Conversely, the tribes leading the movement believe the region must be protected as an expansive whole to preserve their relationship to this landscape.

The entire stretch of land we now call America was appropriated through a process called settler colonialism. Defined by Professor Kyle Whyte, then at Michigan State University, as “a form of domination that violently disrupts human relationships with the environment,” settler colonialism inhibits Indigenous people’s ability to interact with the land in traditional ways.

The majority of appropriated land remains inaccessible for Indigenous ways of traditionally relating to it. The return of a small fraction of stolen land, in and of itself, does not challenge the ethical systems that allowed the theft in the first place.

The real triumph of Bears Ears was the government’s unprecedented recognition of Indigenous values in its policymaking. I do not mean to disregard the victory of Bears Ears and all those who championed the policy. It surely was a hard fight and a mighty win. My assertion is instead that, while the area that was appointed monument status is exceptional, the ethical implications of the policy extend much farther than the borders of Bears Ears.

The integrity of this land and ability for Indigenous relation to it relies on its completeness. Habitat fragmentation is a leading cause of biodiversity loss and directly contradicts the Indigenous view of what it means to properly care for the land. The inter-tribal proposal for the monument requests that “the President proclaim the Bears Ears National Monument to honor the worldviews of our ancestors, and Tribes today, and their relationships with this landscape.” The decision-making of Native American tribes has been limited to the shrinking parcels of land designated to them. This separation has prevented Indigenous worldviews from permeating the colonial political structures of America.

The dominant ideologies of the U.S. dictate the way we currently relate to and interact with the environment. As the cataclysmic consequences of the past few hundred years of industrialism mount, the need for a transformation in the basis of our relationship with the land is glaringly clear.

Recently, many environmentalists point to Indigenous worldviews as the answer. It is true that the interconnection and responsibility to the land seen in Indigenous traditions and social structures result in the kind of sustainability modern society would do well to model. But how, with all our entrenched political and economic structures, do we transform the dominant values in our country?

This is what makes the appointment of Bears Ears, all 1.35 million continuous acres of it, so momentous. Both the inclusion of tribes in federal policymaking and the tribal management of the land carve space in our politics for new values to form. As much as the appointment of Bears Ears was a sign of unification with Indigenous worldviews, its repeal was a display of anti-Indigenous values and allegiance to unsustainable energy.

As Joe Biden enters his presidency, he will face the decision of whether to reestablish Bears Ears monument in full. His decision and Utah politicians’ reaction have to do with more than just the fate of this parcel of land. It has to do with the fate of American and Indigenous values and our planet as a whole.

Shea Sawyer

Shea Sawyer, Lehi, is a senior at Utah Valley University majoring in peace and justice studies and environmental studies.