SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders and members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition are demanding newly appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stand by the promise he made weeks ago at a Senate committee meeting when he said tribal sovereignty should "mean something."
The coalition held a news conference Wednesday morning at the National Press Club in the nation's capital, where leaders complained their meeting requests with Zinke over the new monument in southeast Utah have been ignored.
"If you want to come talk to me, I am right across the hall," said Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe, noting that many Native American leaders are in Washington, D.C., to attend the 2017 National Tribal Energy Summit.
The coalition, along with environmental groups and conservation organizations, pushed for the creation of a 1.9 million-acre monument to protect lands and artifacts they say are sacred. In December, over objection of Utah's elected leaders, then-President Barack Obama designated a 1.35 million-acre monument in San Juan County.
In the ensuing controversy, monument opponents have vowed to see the Bears Ears monument status rescinded, reduced in size or even defunded — accusing outside interests of co-opting tribes for their own environmental agenda.
Robert Holden, the deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, soundly rejected that claim during the news conference and called for the federal government to live up to its promises.
"We are asking the Trump administration to stand with us at this time. … Be a native of honor," Holden said.
The Trump administration has directed Zinke to conduct a 45-day review of the Bears Ears monument designation and come up with recommendations. The Bears Ears review is part of a larger probe of monument designations going back to 1996, which would include the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument declared by then-President Bill Clinton.
As part of that review, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said Zinke has promised to visit Utah on Monday and Tuesday to tour the remote and rugged region in both geographic footprints of the two monuments.
Zinke met with commissioners Tuesday, eliciting a sharp rebuke from the coalition who say the secretary is falling down on his promises.
"I don't think (Zinke) has done me any good," Chapoose said. "I am willing to forgive if he works with me now."
Navajo Nation Councilman LoRenzo Bates said the "few" local Native American supporters of overturning the monument have been "cherry picked" to advance a cause contrary to the coalition's goals.
Chapoose specifically accused Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, of being a good "storyteller," based on Bishop's assertions in a Tuesday congressional subcommittee hearing that he knew of no local Native Americans who supported the monument.
Some of the divisiveness among Native Americans over the monument surfaced this week with a commentary offered by Darren Parry, vice chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone.
Parry said tribal support of the monument was given in June 2016 by another member who did not speak on the tribe's behalf.
"The great American lie is that all tribes are for the Bears Ears National Monument," he wrote. "They are not!"
In an interview, Parry said he objects to the geographic footprint of the monument. He stressed he is only speaking for himself, although his letter states the entire band is in opposition to the monument.
"I am appalled that something of that size was announced. The sheer size is just craziness," Parry said. "I actually feel like we need to protect some of it, but not to that extent."
For the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, the land where the Bear River Massacre happened in Preston, Idaho, is sacred to members, he said. They want to purchase about 500 acres to set aside for generations.
Parry compared the Bears Ears National Monument with the Shoshone instead wanting to get land — 20 miles in width — from Logan to north of Pocatello beyond those 500 acres.
"We support our tribes, but not with something like this," he said. "What saddens me is we have lost the ability to compromise over the last several years, and that is troublesome to me. It is either all or nothing, and that bothers me."
While the Shoshone understand the desire to protect sacred sites and stand with tribal leaders south of them, Parry said he hopes compromise can work its way into conversations.
At the news conference, coalition co-Chairman Carleton Bowekaty said Native American monument supporters want to work in collaboration with federal land management agencies to assure protection for sacred sites, regardless of what happens.
"We need to make this work. It is the future of our people," said Bowekaty, a Pueblo of Zuni tribal councilman.
Tribal leaders have vowed to take the matter to court if the monument is overturned.