This Week in Activism is an issues-based series elevating the voices of women making an impact in their community and the world at large.
As allied tribes in the Southwest challenge the recent actions of President Donald Trump to shrink the lands of the Bears Ears National Monument, many indigenous people throughout the country respond in solidarity. This story is dreadfully familiar.
Since my childhood, I have watched passionate battles unfold for lands and lifeways that indigenous people hold dear. At the age of 10, I participated in my first political demonstration outside of the headquarters of our tribal government offices on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in northern Nevada and southern Idaho, home to the Shoshone and Paiute Tribes. At the time, the tribal government and grassroots community members were disputing the use of our sacred lands as a practice bombing range for the U.S. Airforce.
Without the consent of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, cultural lands just north of the reservation were designated as a practice bombing range for the Mountain Home Airforce Base.
As fighter jets pierced through the sky over the area, sonic booms shook our homes, sometimes knocking pictures off the wall.
But this wasn’t the only damage that would come with the bombing range. The lands where the practice bombs were to be dropped were lands full of rich tribal history and spiritual significance- lands full of wildlife, cultural artifacts, petroglyphs, and rock cairns.
In 1993, while representatives from the state of Idaho and the U.S. Airforce came to the reservation for a public hearing, a collection of tribal members gathered in demonstration outside of the tribal government offices.
I remember that I held up a protest sign — I don’t remember what the sign said, but I know what I was there to protect: our beloved and ancestral homelands.
Today, tribes throughout the North American continent continue to face similar struggles, and on repeat, as resources in tribal lands are identified, or as private or government interests squelch the interests of indigenous people.
The reduction of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments represent a continuation of settler colonial assaults on indigenous lands and cultural traditions. Yet with fidelity, indigenous people continue to defend and protect all that they—all that we—hold sacred.
After President Donald Trump announced in Utah that he would be drastically shrinking the protected public lands of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, tribal leaders and indigenous people responded immediately with purposeful action.
That same day, five tribes filed suit against Trump and his administration for an action they say that he does not have authority to implement. Several conservation and environmental groups also filed suit for actions they see as “unlawful” and exceeding authority under the US Constitution and the Antiquities Act.
The Antiquities Act, signed into law in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, authorized presidential power to create national monuments on federal lands. The first monument Roosevelt established: Devils Tower in Wyoming. After Roosevelt, every President thereafter, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, used this power to designate a number of national monuments. What the Antiquities Act doesn’t state, however, is that the president has the power to undo a national monument designation.
To the five tribes that filed suit against the Trump administration— the Hopi, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe, and the Zuni Pueblo—Bears Ears is a sacred cultural landscape.
In December of 2016, Bears Ears was given national monument designation just before President Obama left office. This designation came after years of lobbying from the tribes who eventually coalesced as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
Eric Descheenie, Navajo Nation tribal member and member of the Arizona House of Representatives, co-founded the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015 with Hopi Vice Chairman, Alfred Lomahquahu, Jr. “As Indigenous Peoples, we used our love for one another and for our aboriginal lands to drive forward the achievement of the Bears Ears National Monument,” Descheenie said.
The Bears Ears Monument, which consists of 1.4 million acres of public land, is home to more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites. These sites are dated to be at least 700 years old, with some sites estimated to reach back as far as 12,000 BCE. Yet even beyond the scientific dating, indigenous people have been tied to this land since time immemorial. Creation stories and oral tradition plant their roots deeply in the land.
“Tribal people depend on the Bears Ears region as both their medicine cabinet and their pantry — for food, shelter, and healing, as well as for their spiritual sustenance,” says the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition on their webpage.
For the dozens of tribes with historical and current ties to the region, the land is so much more than the breathtaking landscapes enjoyed by the thousands of guests who pass through each year. The rich lands throughout the region carry the very essence of their existence.
Today, many tribes continue to visit Bears Ears for ceremonies and to connect with their ancestors. Yet by opening up the protected lands to private interests, the threat of oil and gas drillers, coal and uranium miners, and off-road vehicles jeopardize the very landscape that indigenous people have fought for years to protect. Indigenous access to those pristine lands and their connection to the world their ancestors once knew could be distorted beyond repair.
But wait. There’s more.
The Trump Administration, under the direction of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, aims to reduce even more public lands, targeting more national monuments, like Gold Butte in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and California, for starters. Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante are just the beginning.
As the attacks on indigenous lands intensified with the most recent actions of President Trump, I was compelled to ask my dad about the time that our tribe, the Shoshone Paiute Tribes, fought to protect our sacred lands from the Airforce bombing range, and won.
“How did it all end, Dad?” I asked. “How did we win?” My dad was a tribal leader at the time. “Allies,” he responded.
Much like the five tribes who filed suit against Trump for shrinking Bears Ears, in the case of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes in the early 1990s, the tribe filed a lawsuit while a companion lawsuit was filed by environmental groups.
We worked together.
In the end, we protected our sacred homelands and negotiated the bombing range away from its original course. But none of this happened because we were against anyone, or any entity, my dad clarified: “We just didn’t want them to destroy our sacred ground.”
In the matter of protecting indigenous lands and lifeways, our deep love for the land, the water, and all of creation is not going anywhere—and neither are we.
(Featured photo by Bob Wick, BLM/Flickr)