In December 2016, President Obama approved the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument. The former president made the unprecedented move of giving tribal governments the authority to manage the 1.35 million acreages of land. Debates quickly took hold over Obama’s decision to reserve such a vast stretch of tribal ancestral land.
Since the label, racial tensions have been brewing on both sides of the aisle in this isolated corner of Utah.
However, the tensions are nothing new.
In the late 1800s, Mormon pilgrims invaded regions where Native Americans had lived for centuries. The new settlers quickly set up roadways and asserted that Native American children should learn English.
Bears Ears is also home to numerous artifacts and burial sites. The vast Canyonlands were eventually looted and vandalized and illegal trading of Indian relics quickly spiraled out of control.
In 2009, the government intervened and conducted numerous raids and arrests in suspects’ homes. Three suicides were noted and many locals believed the raids were an overexertion of power by the federal government.
Native Americans, on the other hand, claimed the raids were poetic justice for the defilement of their land.
Residents on both sides have expressed outrage on who exercises the right to control public land, the State of Utah’s rights, as well as the environmental effects of such a designation. Both parties, however, agree that the debates all boil down to race.
Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, conducted a local tour of the area in hopes that it will help him decide whether to reverse or preserve the designation. Another consideration in the works is to reduce the designation’s size from 1.35 million to a more agreeable term.
Zinke also believes that the monument title would restrict locals’ use of the land for herbs and medicines, however, supporters claim this is a misconception.
Utah republican, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, has condemned the designation by President Obama. Hatch suggested that Native Americans were strong-armed by environmental organizations and do not have a detailed understanding of the ripple effects of the designation:
“The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness.,”
Native groups retorted that the remarks were condescending and demanded an apology from Hatch. They also revealed that prior to showing support for Obama’s decisions, a group of experts were called in to analyze the terrain, including anthropologists, doctors, economists, and many others.
President Trump caught wind of the controversy and issued orders to review the labeling of Bears Ears, along with other national monuments.