Prose by Rebecca Robinson
Photographs by Stephen Strom
New to the Bears Ears saga? Read the August 2016 feature by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom on the people and politics behind the monument creation and opposition, as well as their recent Letter to America.
When Barack Obama declared Bears Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was charged with developing a management plan in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. The Coalition saw President Obama’s decision to provide members with a major voice in shaping policies for the monument as “a tremendous step toward healing past injustices suffered by the Tribes.”
Tribal leaders fully recognize both the opportunity presented by Obama’s action and the political challenges confronting them. Zuni Councilman and Coalition co-chair Carleton Bowekaty says the tribes are prepared to surmount what may be considerable obstacles to success.
“There’s going to be a lot of roadblocks, there’s going to be a lot of issues, but we have plenty of knowledge, [and] we have longevity in mind,” Bowekaty says. “Our view is long range.”
The tribes took a significant step forward last month with the establishment of the Bears Ears Commission, comprised of one representative from each of the Coalition’s five tribes–Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
Bowekaty, the Commission’s Zuni representative, says the tribes “recognize the fact that there’s not one sole expert on cultural issues and there’s not one sole expert on conservation and land management issues. But each tribal representative will have the ability to draw on those resources and integrate the information needed between the tribal communities and cultural officers in order to make the best decisions on behalf of the tribes.”
The Commission wasted no time in taking its first public action: extending an invitation to new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to meet with tribes during his highly anticipated but as-yet-unscheduled trip to southeastern Utah.
They’re not the only ones who want an audience with Zinke.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert asked Zinke to visit the new monument and speak with the residents of San Juan County, some of whom are staunchly opposed to the new monument. In February the Utah Legislature passed a resolution urging President Trump to rescind Bears Ears National Monument, and Utah Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and Senator Orrin Hatch continue to urge Trump to act.
Gavin Noyes is executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah (UDB), the nonprofit whose Native-led work laid the foundation for the Coalition’s monument proposal. He notes that the tribes’ celebration of the monument declaration has been accompanied by the realization that defending the monument from threats of rescission will require considerable investments of time and money.
“I think big-picture wise, everybody’s just happy to have a national monument,” Noyes says. However, “monument defense . . . [is] already sucking up a lot of our time we haven’t allocated yet.”
But the tribes have many champions. From Chaffetz’s infamously rowdy town hall in February to the spirited crowd at Representative Chris Stewart’s town hall last month, Bears Ears supporters have mobilized by the thousands to keep the pressure on politicians.
Outdoor industry companies have become a powerful ally. Most notably, Patagonia recently launched a high-profile ad and advocacy campaign encouraging members of the public to contact Zinke and urge him to keep the monument intact. The Outdoor Industry Association’s February decision to withdraw the Outdoor Retailer trade show from Utah was a significant economic blow and sent a strong and unambiguous message to Utah politicians.
The Coalition, UDB, and their allies expect that they won’t be able to rely on robust funding from the new administration for management and staffing of the monument.
“Initial appropriations for management of a national monument will be an issue, especially with an . . . administration that has their own views of public lands and states’ rights,” Bowekaty says. “We’ll continue to educate them on what we believe is a good monument that should receive appropriate funding. At the same time . . . we will approach organizations and foundations for assistance.”
Coalition co-chair and Hopi Vice Chairman Alfred Lomahquahu is the Hopi representative on the new Commission. He says the Commission is in a unique position to solicit private funding to support its work.
“We can get outside funding sources that the government can’t get,” Lomahquahu says. “It’s going to have to happen.”
The tribes received a major boost in mid-January 2017, when a group of foundations established a $1.5 million Bears Ears Engagement Fund as a way “to support robust tribal involvement in managing the monument and to also support community efforts to enhance resource conservation in the monument and to create economic opportunity.”
“We’ve been leading on the idea of collaborative management and will continue to develop and present the model,” Bowekaty says. “We have some pretty good draft framework available that we would be able to propose to the federal agencies.”
Natasha Hale, who manages the Native America program at Grand Canyon Trust and has helped to coordinate the Coalition’s work, says the newly formed commission needs a position akin to a chief of staff, a leader who can advance conversations with federal agencies about collaborative management and also coordinate anticipated legal battles between the tribes and the Trump administration.
“The challenge with any type of startup initiative [is that] you have to build up a leader and you have to create an institution,” Hale says. “Unfortunately, many people like the political and big vision [work], but there aren’t a lot of people who like to roll up their sleeves and get in the dirt.”
For his part, Lomahquahu’s prepared to work in the trenches.
“As tribes, now we have to talk the talk and walk the walk,” Lomahquahu says. “Now we have the responsibility of either dropping the ball or making it happen so we can use the monument as a way for other tribes to start working with the federal government. If we don’t do that, it’s not going to be able to happen for other tribes.”
The numerous challenges facing the Coalition do not detract from the magnitude of the tribes’ accomplishments, nor do they diminish the strength of the community they have created amongst themselves.
“It’s a family,” Lomahquahu says. “You’re going to have dissent here and there but as a family you’re always going to stick together.”
That family includes what Lomahquahu refers to as a “higher power,” part of the spiritual guidance in which the members of the Coalition place their faith and to which they attribute their success.
“Somebody’s guiding us and helping us, and when that’s happening, then most likely it’s going to succeed,” Lomahquahu says. “The only way it’s going to fail is if we start thinking that we’re doing it on our own.”
Next in the Series: San Juan County has a blueprint for economic growth. Will anyone embrace it?
Stephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Header photo of rock layers, Lockhart Basin, Utah by Stephen Strom. Photo of Rebecca Robinson by Peter Crabtree. Photo of Stephen Strom courtesy Stephen Strom.