Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The bid for Bears Ears

...Bluff, population 400, is anything but quiet, however. Cars, including a silver sedan with #RuralLivesMatter soaped on the window, haphazardly line the dirt streets around the town’s little community center. Alongside a dusty, weed-choked ballpark is a row of shiny black SUVs with government plates. On the other side, hand-drawn signs jut from a chain-link fence like corn from a dryland field: “National Monument, Dooda, Dooda,” reads a yellow one, repeating the Navajo word for “no.” “PROTECT,” proclaims another, above a drawing of a bear’s head.

Over the next few hours, more than 1,000 folks trickle into the center’s grounds to give Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a piece of their minds. She’s here to gauge sentiment regarding five regional tribes’ proposal for a Bears Ears National Monument on 1.9 million acres of nearby federal land. As participants arrive, they’re offered color-coded T-shirts: Baby blue for monument supporters, brown for opponents. It’s a visual cue that demonstrates how the “Native Americans and environmentalists vs. white Mormon land-use militants” trope falls apart here. Local Utes and Navajos, as often as not, wear brown shirts, and many are also devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the hours before the hearing starts, folks congregate in whatever shade they can find and converse, sometimes spiritedly. A brown-shirted young Navajo woman, with a baby on her hip, confronts a group of baffled teen-aged blue-shirts, and outlines the reasons so-called traditional, on-reservation Navajos aren’t fit to manage any more land. One Navajo man says that a monument is the best way to keep the oil companies from ravaging the mesas and canyons that the tribe holds sacred; another warns that a monument will lock Navajos out of those same areas.

It is difficult to untangle all the threads of the debate, which has been raging in various forms for years here, and is reaching its climax now, during President Barack Obama’s final months in office. But listen for a while, and an underlying, constant theme is revealed: The notion of home, and who should have control over it when it happens to overlap public land.

“This is my home,” Brooke Lyman tells Jewell. “We aren’t vacationing here. San Juan County is America to me. For you to come in and make a monument and take our freedoms, it’s like taking America from me.” Brooke is the daughter of Phil Lyman, the local county commissioner best known for protesting “federal overreach” by leading ATV-riding protesters into the archaeologically rich Recapture Canyon a couple of years back. They, along with most other monument opponents, hold to the Sagebrush Rebel ideology of local autonomy, the belief that San Juan County residents — not environmentalists from Salt Lake City, not bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., not backpackers who trek through the canyons once a year — are the best stewards of this place. “Outsiders,” including Native Americans, shouldn’t be allowed to determine the land’s fate, which is why, when Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, wearing a suit in spite of the heat, tells Jewell that his people relate to the Bears Ears like an Anglo does to a family member, monument opponents respond with boos, and chant, “Go home!”

This story is featured in an upcoming package in our printed magazine that includes additional reporting exclusive to subscribers. Subscribe now to get the full package upon its release.

High Country News contributing editor Jonathan Thompson is a longtime resident of the Four Corners.

Monuments, Native American culture, FLPMA, Sagebrush Rebellion, Bishop's Public Lands Initiative...there's something of interest here to just about everyone.

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