The Biden administration has reached a historic agreement to give five Native American tribes more say in the day-to-day management of a national monument in Utah, marking a new chapter in the federal government’s often strained relationship with the tribes.
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service on Saturday signed the cooperation agreement with five tribes that have inhabited the area surrounding Bears Ears National Monument for centuries: the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Ute Tribe Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Zuni Pueblo.
“Today, instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral lands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future,” said Carleton Bowekaty, co-chair of the Bears Ears Commission. and lieutenant governor of the Pueblo of Zuni, said in a statement.
Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement that the agreement is “an important step as we move forward together to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional perspectives remain at the forefront of our joint decision-making for the Bears Ears National Monument”. “
The move comes as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the first Native American to serve in cabinet — works to mend the federal government’s relationship with the tribes, which has been tarnished by cases where federal officials have expelled indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.
Humans have inhabited the southeast corner of Utah for 13,000 years, carving arrowheads in stone, growing corn, painting pictures on rocks, and creating communities on mesa peaks. But in recent years, Bears Ears has been at the center of a political battle over public lands.
In 2016, President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument, named after a pair of tall mounds that look like the top of a bear’s head looking over a ridge. Its proclamation recognized the “deeply sacred” significance of the land to many Native American tribes.
Eleven months later, in December 2017, President Donald Trump reduced Bears Ears by more than 1.1 million acres, or about 85%. As conservative lawmakers cheered the decision, activists demonstrated outside the White House and in Utah.
In October 2021, President Joe Biden used executive orders to protect 1.36 million acres in Bears Ears – slightly larger than the original border established by Obama.
The orders also reversed Trump’s cuts to the 1.87 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. They re-established the Bears Ears Commission, which includes an elected officer from each of the five tribes.
Federal officials, including at the Department of the Interior, have often had strained relations with the 574 federally recognized tribes across the lower 48 and Alaska. In the late 19th century, federal authorities evicted Native Americans from their ancestral lands, including Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park.
In 1983, then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt blamed the problems at American reservations on Native culture.
“If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don’t go to Russia,” Watts said. “Come to America and go to the Indian reservations.”
Haaland, a Pueblo de Laguna member, has sought to address that troubled legacy since taking over as Interior Department head last year.
In May, she announced plans to meet Indian boarding school survivors across the country on a tour called “The Road to Healing.” Native American children who attended these schools were forcibly removed from their families to be “assimilated,” and those who died were often buried in unmarked graves.