Public LandSocial Justice

These Monumental Lands: Why Native American Communities Demand National Monuments Remain Protected

In April, President Donald Trump ordered a review of National Monuments designated from 1996 to 2016. Two of these happen to be in Nevada, and two others lie next door in Utah.

Below the fold, we’ll dig deeper into what this fight is about and why Native American communities are fighting to defend these Monuments.

Last Thursday, Native American and environmental activists gathered at the Las Vegas Paiute Colony to discuss the Trump Administration’s actions on public lands. They were joined by a very special guest: Utah Dine Bikeyah Chair William Grayeyes. He plays a very active role in the Navajo-led coalition to defend the designation of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended Trump reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument. In anticipation of this, Chair Grayeyes described how the Trump Administration has (not) consulted with local tribal communities. “According to Trump’s executive order, Zinke is required to contract state and local officials, including tribes. We have yet to be contacted by Zinke.”

Photo by Andrew Davey
Why do Native Americans care so much about these public lands?

For Grayeyes, this is about respecting the land and respecting the people who call this land home. Before designation, areas like Bears Ears were easy targets for vandalism and other forms of degradation. “We had no control. There was a lack of enforcement under the federal agencies.” Bears Ears is not only home to ancient Native American artifacts, but also has resources used by contemporary Native American communities for hunting, fishing, herbal medicine, heating fuel, and basket weaving.

If Zinke had met with Grayeyes, what would he have recommended to the Interior Secretary on Bear’s Ears? “Frankly, just leave it alone. […] It’s our ancestral land. Native Americans have interest.”

The bottom line for Grayeyes and Southwestern Navajo communities? “We want protection and preservation.”

What does this mean for Nevada?

For Las Vegas Paiute activist Fawn Douglas, everyone is connected to these lands, “We’re all connected. What happens to one monument happens to all of us. It’s more important now than ever before that Native American communities stick together.”

Nevada is home to two National Monuments included in the Trump Administration’s review: Gold Butte and Basin and Range. Fawn Douglas used the tradition of salt songs to explain the significance of these two monuments and Bear’s Ears to Nevada’s Paiute and Shoshone communities. “Those songs remind the spirit how you get home. These have been part of our tradition since forever.” Like Bears Ears, Gold Butte and Basin and Range are rich in petroglyphs and other ancient Native American artifacts.

Douglas then explained another reason for Basin and Range’s protection, one that prevents a key existential threat to the State of Nevada. “Nevadans do not want nuclear waste in our state. If they don’t support nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, they must support Basin and Range.” The National Monument includes the proposed rail route to send nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain repository.

What comes next for the monuments, and for Native American communities?

Though Ryan Zinke issued a vague recommendation to reduce the size of Bears Ears, the Interior Department has yet to issue a final report to Donald Trump on this and other National Monuments. Zinke was invited to attend Thursday’s meeting in Las Vegas. Not only did Zinke decline to attend, but ultimately no one from the Interior Department attended the meeting.

Even though U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) has promised to fight against any attempt to move nuclear waste into Yucca Mountain, he has thus far refused to endorse the very National Monument that stands in the way of that nuclear waste being transported to Yucca Mountain. Heller did send a representative to the Las Vegas Paiute Colony event, but he refused to speak to Heller’s opposition to Basin and Range as a National Monument when we asked.

Photo by Andrew Davey

During the event, William Grayeyes described Bears Ears and the other Western monuments as sacred ground. “This is our church. This is sacred ground to us.” Would Donald Trump or Dean Heller ever deface a church? Would they place an oil rig or nuclear waste in a church? That’s what’s at stake for Bear’s Ears and Basin and Range.

The Trump Administration ended public comment on Bear’s Ears May 26, but will continue to collect public comments on all other monuments through July 9.

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