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Op-ed: Bears Ears opposition is about denying Native Americans a victory

Published February 24, 2017 5:15 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There has been much talk, and much printed, lately about Bears Ears National Monument. The state Legislature is posturing, the Utah delegation is complaining and the governor did his best to talk a good game to ease the concerns of the Outdoor Retailers before they decided to leave our state with their $45 million conventions.

But where are the words of the governor when it comes to the namesake of our state — the Ute Indian Tribe? I see our signs everywhere — at the state's borders, on a college football team and on the Capitol. Now, as a founding member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, our voices are still being ignored. Utes have been protecting this land since long before Utah was a state. We've roamed this country from the beginning. Our creation story never begins any place else. But the governor does not even pay us the meager respect of the lip service he gave the Outdoor Retailers.

Allow me to give just one example. At American Indian Caucus Day at the State Capitol on Feb. 6, Gov. Gary Herbert came to meet with elected leaders from all of Utah's eight tribes. They brought a supporter of theirs with them — Rebecca Benally, a San Juan County Commissioner. She's a Native person, and she's been a vocal opponent of Bears Ears National Monument, but she is not a tribal leader. She is a county commissioner, elected to represent a political subdivision of the sovereign state of Utah.

But tribes are sovereigns, just like the state of Utah, and our meeting was closed to everyone but tribal leaders. I asked the governor to invite her to leave our tribal leaders meeting because a county commissioner did not belong there. She is not elected to represent her Diné Tribe. When he refused to do so, I left the meeting. It was the appropriate response to the disrespect we had been shown.

I wish I could say that this refusal to keep the meeting at the appropriate government-to-government level was uncommon in Utah, but it's not. If Utah elected officials had studied the U.S. Constitution, they would know that tribes are sovereign entities. Tribes have operating governments which provide social services for our membership, take care of our people and protect our way of life. Part of our way of life is our connection to and the protection of our ancestral lands like Bears Ears.

Only through sovereign governments can you have a government-to-government discussion, and that's exactly what the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition represents. For too long, Utah has not given Native American tribes the respect we deserve. Utah, after all, did not even allow Native Americans to vote until 1957.

That disrespect continues. While the governor tried and failed to smooth tensions with Outdoor Retailers, he is still silent on his mistreatment of tribes. Bears Ears National Monument came about as a result of our government-to-government relationship with the United States. The five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition requested protection for Bears Ears, and President Obama respected our voice, our value system and our sovereignty by granting our request. He had every right to do so.

Key understanding is missing from the Bears Ears discussion. We view things differently, and our value system is unique. What some may see as a weed, we see as a medicinal plant. Bears Ears National Monument isn't just about protecting artifacts, and it isn't just about protecting the rights of the indigenous people. It's a living landscape; it has a pulse, and it has a heartbeat. Bears Ears National Monument, through its protection of our traditional knowledge systems and our cultures, is actually a way for Indian and non-Indian people to better understand each other, and that's important.

So the governor can talk all he wants about how he loves public lands and wants to protect them, but his actions show a different truth. He's working to undo protections, as is the Legislature and the congressional delegation. This debate isn't about protection. It's about denying Native American Tribes a political victory and a seat at the table. That's the kind of misunderstanding we all need to move beyond. We're not adversaries, tribes and Utah politicians. Tribes are the history that predates Utah.

Shaun Chapoose is chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee of the Ute Indian Tribe, which is a member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.






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