When word came down on Dec. 28 that President Barack Obama had created a 1.35 million-acre national monument called Bears Ears, Jonah Yellowman celebrated. So did leaders of his Navajo people and other tribes that rarely have much to cheer about, such as the Hopi, Ute and Zuni.
Yet the festivities did not last long. Angered at Obama, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and other Republicans quickly lobbied President Donald Trump to rescind or scale back the monument. For Yellowman, such a reversal would represent a historic betrayal. He and other activists have spent years trying to protect Bears Ears and its cliff dwellings and other antiquities.
“People are target shooting at our rock carvings,” said Yellowman, a Navajo elder. “They are cutting out our pictographs, our stories, and taking them away and selling them.”
Across the West and beyond, Native Americans are resisting the administration on multiple fronts. In North Dakota, two tribes have filed lawsuits against Trump’s approval of the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access pipeline, which skirts the Standing Rock reservation. Tribes are fighting oil and gas projects in Texas, Oklahoma and other states.
While Native Americans have long organized to counter perceived threats, Trump’s election has made it “more visceral,” said David Rich Lewis, a historian at Utah State University who specializes in tribal environmental issues.
Trump has a history of clashing with tribes over casinos and other developments. He also has vowed to open up more federal lands to energy development, including those in and around Indian Country. More recently, he has embraced as a hero former President Andrew Jackson, a leading advocate of “Indian removal” in the American West.
People are target shooting at our rock carvings. They are cutting out our pictographs, our stories, and taking them away and selling them.
Jonah Yellowman, Navajo elder
In Utah, Bears Ears is named for a pair of 8,700-foot-high buttes that rise from the Colorado Plateau. Spanning 2,100 square miles – an area larger than Delaware – the new national monument stretches from Canyonlands National Park in the north to the Navajo Nation in the south.
It’s a remote and rugged landscape – “a milieu of the accessible and observable together with the inaccessible and hidden,” as Obama said in a proclamation protecting the land. Hidden among these forests and red-rock canyons are thousands of documented archaeological sites, the remnants of early settlers in the area – the Ancient Puebloans, or Anasazi.
Several of these sites are visibly damaged. At the Wolf Panel, a wall of rock carvings on Comb Ridge, gun-toting visitors have used the panel for target practice. Pottery has been stolen from cliff dwellings. Elsewhere, the wood frames of old hogans – the traditional dwellings of nomadic Navajo – have been knocked down or hauled away for firewood.
“I don’t know why someone would do something like that,” Yellowman said during a recent visit to the remnants of old hogans. “Either they are being told to do it, or they don’t care.”
For tribal leaders, Obama’s designation offered conservation protections and provided a political boost. Obama’s proclamation, for the first time, grants authority to the tribes to co-manage a large national monument. “The tribes have never before gotten together to work on something like this,” said Alfred Lomahquahu Jr., a vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe who calls the arrangement unprecedented.
Under the Antiquities Act, presidents hold the authority to establish national monuments to help preserve natural, cultural or scientific sites. Theodore Roosevelt signed the act into law in 1906 and was quickly the first president to use it – creating the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming and the 800,000-acre Grand Canyon national monument, which later became a national park.
Altogether, Obama established 29 national monuments during his two terms, a rebuff to a recalcitrant Congress. After the U.S. House of Representatives declined to act on public lands legislation to protect Bears Ears, Obama created the monument during his last weeks in office.
Acting on a petition by Indian tribes and their environmental supporters, Obama reduced the proposed size of the Bears Ears designation from 1.9 million acres to 1.35 million. But that didn’t mollify critics such as U.S. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who immediately called it an “arrogant act by a lame-duck president.” Gov. Herbert said he was deeply disappointed.
“It is the problem of someone unilaterally making a decision without taking into account the positions and concerns of local people,” said Herbert in a recent interview with McClatchy.
For decades, Utah politicians have chafed over what they see as federal dominance of their home affairs. Federal lands make up two-thirds of Utah, which is home to five national parks, eight national monuments and 31 wilderness areas.
Some are still seething over President Bill Clinton’s creation of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. Critics say that, while drawing tourism dollars to the southeast part of Utah, such expansive designations deprive the state of potential revenue from mining and energy development, generally prohibited in national monuments.
Under Obama’s directive, Bears Ears would be off limits to new mining and oil and gas drilling, but ranchers could continue to lease land for livestock grazing. One of those ranchers is Sandy Johnson, whose family has raised cattle since 1920 in and around Fry Canyon, an isolated stretch of the new monument.
With a weathered face and hands calloused by decades of rope handling, Johnson and his family graze roughly 330 cattle on an allotment of 350,000 acres. Each year is a crap shoot, with the weather and rainfall dictating what kind of grass will be available for feed. Every spring, he and his son Preston mount their horses and drive the cattle from the lower country to the high pastures west of Bears Ears. In the fall, they move them down the mountain and sell the calves for their yearly income.
Federal officials have told Johnson that, with the new monument, his family will be able to continue ranching as they have for decades. He doubts those promises will stand the test of time.
“They can say all they want, but once that land is put in a monument, they are going to restrict it down,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table at the family’s home in Fry Canyon. “Soon it will be off limits for me, the four-wheelers, the miners, everybody.”
They can say all they want, but once that land is put in a monument, they are going to restrict it down.
Sandy Johnson, local rancher
Like many opponents of Obama’s action, Johnson and his wife, Gail, blame the new monument on “outside environmentalists” that have used Native Americans as “front groups.” As Trump supporters, the Johnsons hope the new president will roll back the monument designation.
The ranching couple also dismiss claims that Bears Ears is a sacred site for local tribes. “The last two years they’ve had a gathering up there, and that is the only time we’ve seen them up there,” said Sandy Johnson.
“That is a myth,” responded Lomahquahu. He and others say monument opponents are engaged in a strategy to delegitimize Native American interests, part of a pattern that dates to frontier days.
“The tribes have been going up to Bears Ears before the Mormons arrived 150 years ago,” Lomahquahu said while attending a recent conservation gathering in Bluff, Utah. Native Americans still hold ceremonies in the Bears Ears area, he added, “but we don’t show those to outsiders.”
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is one with close ties to Bears Ears. The tribe, once spread across eastern Utah and western Colorado, left behind rock carvings and artifacts before federal troops forcibly moved the tribe to reservations, including one in southwestern Colorado.
Along with the Navajo, the Ute have a special reverence for bears, often referring to them as “grandfather.” In the local folklore, Bears Ears was the place where the bruins first came out of hibernation each year.
“Right after the spring is the most beautiful time to go up there, with all the flowers blooming,” said Mary Jane Yazzie, a Ute elder. She has a view of Bears Ears from her modest home in White Mesa, east of the monument, and still visits the high country for ceremonies and relaxation.
According to Lomahquahu and others, the origins of the monument campaign came in 2010, when former Sen. Rob Bennett, R-Utah, announced an initiative to settle local public-lands disputes. Bennett asked the tribes to offer input, but before he could turn his proposal into legislation, he lost his primary bid and was replaced by Lee.
By 2014, advocates say, they had given up on congressional efforts to protect Bears Ears as part of a wider deal on Utah public lands. Two conservation groups, Friends of Cedar Mesa and Utah Dine Bikeyah, then urged tribal leaders to come together as a coalition to seek monument status. “What they realized is that the tribes themselves have the ability to speak directly to the federal government,” said Lomahquahu, referring to tribal law.
Yazzie, the Ute elder, chuckled when asked whether she had been “bought off” by environmental groups, as opponents claim. “Where is the money?” she laughed, gesturing toward her dilapidated home and dusty yard.
Yazzie said she had decided to join the campaign – as well as Dine Bikeyah’s board – for several reasons, not just conservation concerns. She hoped that by being at the table, she could help elevate the voices of her people on a range of local issues. “All Native Americans have ties with each other and ties to the land,” she said, adding that she feels a kinship with tribes fighting the Dakota Access pipeline and other energy projects.
The Bears Ears designation without doubt has widened divisions in San Juan County – a rural county with a history of racial tension. As of the 2010 census, more than 50 percent of the population was Native American, but all local commissions were controlled by whites. In 2016, a federal district court struck down the county’s practice of mapping all Navajo voters into a single district, calling it “racial gerrymandering.”
According to Yazzie, a retired schoolteacher, Native American children continue to face bigotry in public schools.
Not all the county’s Native Americans support the monument, just as not all non-natives oppose it. But the battle lines are at least partially racial. In 2014, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman defied federal warnings and led a rally of all-terrain vehicles into Recapture Wash, which had been closed to vehicular traffic to protect Native American artifacts. Lyman was accompanied by armed militiamen, adding to fears that local public-lands disputes could eventually turn violent.
Lyman spent 10 days in jail for defying federal authorities, but he remains on the county commission and is active in lobbying against Bears Ears. At a recent meeting, he expressed hope that U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican who represents the area, could help roll back the monument designation.
“It’s amazing that we have the chairman of the House oversight committee,” said Lyman. “He’s our congressman and he’s a real advocate.”
Lomahquahu said he and other tribal leaders were bracing for a legal fight, and were networking with their allies. National environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society and Conservation Lands Foundation are lending assistance. In January, actor Leonardo DiCaprio joined with other philanthropies to pledge $1.5 million for the monument, which is likely to receive few if any federal funds to manage it.
“There are a whole slew of people behind us,” said Lomahquahu. “That is going to make it very difficult for Trump or anyone else.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong party affiliation for former Sen. Rob Bennett of Utah. He is a Republican.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth