Navajo Nation, Bears Ears Commission Oppose H.R. 4532

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye testifies against a bill that would slash Bears Ears and limit tribal input. Photo courtesy of Navajo Nation Washington Office.

Published February 1, 2018

WASHINGTON — The Navajo Nation adamantly opposes a bill that would slash 85 percent of the land from Bears Ears National Monument and limit tribal input in management plans, President Russell Begaye told federal lawmakers Tuesday.

Navajo Nation President Begaye was one of five tribal leaders who testified during a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Federal Lands—the second such hearing this month. Leaders from the Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Hopi and Zuni tribes also testified, presenting unified opposition to H.R. 4532.

During his oral testimony, President Begaye challenged the legality of H.R. 4532, or the Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act, saying it undermines tribal sovereignty and endangers sacred sites. He also objected to the use of Navajo language in a bill that “stifles tribal voices.”

“The Navajo Nation was never consulted on H.R. 4532,” President Begaye said. “Nevertheless, the bill uses our language in its title. In addition to providing a misleading bill name to suggest that the Navajo Nation supports the bill, H.R. 4532 also misleadingly states that its purpose is to ‘create the first tribally managed national monument.’”

In fact, President Begaye said, “no tribe would have any input on the members appointed to the management councils. The tribal-management in this bill is tribal in name only.”

Also known as the Curtis Bill, H.R. 4532 seeks to nullify former President Barack Obama’s December 2016 proclamation establishing Bears Ears as a 1.35 million-acre national monument in San Juan County, Utah. The bill would codify President Donald Trump’s December 2017 proclamation that cuts the monument to 200,000 acres and divides in into two smaller monuments: the Shash Jáa unit and the Indian Creek unit.

The bill also limits the authority of the Bears Ears Commission, a planning entity comprising representatives from the five tribes with cultural, archeological or religious ties to Bears Ears. In his testimony, President Begaye spoke of contemporary and ancestral ties to the area as he called for the bill to be withdrawn.

“One hundred and fifty years ago, Navajo Nation leaders sat with federal officials at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and signed a treaty with the U.S. government that ended our exile and confinement of the Long Walk period,” he said. “Some of our people, however, never went on the Long Walk and instead took refuge at Bears Ears. …The Navajo Nation stands united with the other tribes of the Bears Ears Commission in opposition to this bill.”

President Russell Begaye and other members of the Bears Ears Commission meet with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (fifth from left) Tuesday.

President Begaye pointed to the 2016 designation of Bears Ears as a victory nearly a century in the making. Although individual citizens may disagree with the national monument, the Navajo Nation officially supports federal protection of the area.

“Our people have been working on protecting this area for a long time,” President Begaye said. “It’s been ravaged by treasure hunters over the years. Artifacts have been taken illegally. Our sacred area has been trampled on. H.R. 4532 fails to protect our cultural patrimony for our future generations.”

U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., urged his colleagues on the Subcommittee on Federal Lands to adhere to a “democratic process” and listen to the duly-elected leaders of tribal nations. He accused Republican lawmakers of “cherry-picking” acquiescent witnesses while ignoring tribes’ official voices.

U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said H.R. 4532 disregards tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government agreements that dictate how the federal government should communicate with tribes.

“We’re not listening to the people,” he said. “Tribal leaders could not be clearer. H.R. 4532 is not wanted.”

In a separate meeting Tuesday, the Bears Ears Commission met with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. In October, Durbin and 15 of his Senate colleagues wrote a letter to President Trump urging him to maintain current boundaries and management plans for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah.

Tuesday’s hearing came the same day Durbin, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and 16 other senators introduced legislation to protect national monuments from the Trump Administration’s attacks on public lands. The bill, called the America’s Natural Treasures of Immeasurable Quality Unite, Inspire, and Together Improve the Economies of State (ANTIQUITIES) Act, reinforces the Antiquities Act of 1906, which states that only Congress has the authority to modify a national monument designation.

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