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Opinion: It’s time to deflate the Bears Ears political football

Today, we have pushed the reset button, erasing atrocities of the past. These are sacred lands. These are not places to be argued over.

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The Bears Ears of the Bears Ears National Monument are pictured from the air.

The Bears Ears of the Bears Ears National Monument are pictured from the air on Monday, May 8, 2017.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Bears Ears National Monument was restored last week. Thank you, President Joe Biden, and thank you five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Today, we have pushed the reset button, erasing atrocities of the past. It’s time to deflate and put the “political football” away forever. These are sacred lands. These are not places to be argued over. We are collectively tired of the power struggle. It’s time for the adults on the landscape to walk and talk together for the first time in our shared history.

First and foremost, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox should meet with tribes and listen to the reasons why Bears Ears was created. You should discuss what its future holds as a sacred landscape to Native people. We are in the midst of a pandemic, a drought, an awakening to the past and current injustices committed against the original inhabitants of this land.

When will state officials allow tribes to exist on ancestral lands and exercise our individual and collective rights as humans and as Indigenous people? Today, the restoration of Bears Ears is an opportunity for a new start. A chance to finally end the psychological and physical genocide against Native people. We are all one species. Today is a chance to go out onto the land and discuss our shared future with those who are intimately connected to this earth that we all share.

Bears Ears was founded on three major principles that all Utahns can stand behind.

First, it was community-led by Native American citizens who live in Utah and rely on the natural resources of this place. The reason why community leadership matters is because local people know the land best. We understand the land from a historical standpoint, and community leadership will become even more important as climate change impacts are felt in our forests and our communities.

It will be local people who restore, replant, and repair these places.

Second, the 1.36-million-acre Bears Ears boundary used the best available information about the land and the important landforms and objects it contains. The boundary was created in a transparent way, using the wisdom of Native elders and the best tools of conservation biology.

This proposal is data driven and explicitly names the values and locations in need of protection in ways that can be seen, discussed and prioritized. This was never a political proposal, but one designed to support the cultural-use needs of Native American people who live in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

Third, collaboration was the original intent of the Bears Ears conservation proposal. So it is surprising that little effort was made by former Gov. Gary Herbert, Cox or anyone from the Trump administration to understand the cultural values on this land or even request field visits with any of the hundreds of traditional hunters, medicine men, herbalists, basket-makers, firewood collectors or oral historians who know this land and wrote their cultural activities into this proposal.

Native people invested years of painstaking work into this proposal beginning in 2010 because they did not want to be dismissed and told their ties to the land are not real. Unfortunately, this happened, anyway. Herbert, former Sen. Orrin Hatch, and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz ignored this proposal in 2013, fought it, and have continued to criticize it.

It is time to end the war against tribes in Utah, once and for all. It is time for the state of Utah and Utah congressmen to fulfill their government-to-government role and listen to sovereign tribal nations. It is time to create space in our state for Native people to emerge on their own terms, and with all of the rights, respect and privileges of every other American citizen, as well as the right to self-determination, and the rights negotiated in their treaties.

This is a small request given the lands, the water, the wildlife and the consequences to our planet that have resulted from ignoring us. Tribes certainly got the raw end of treaty deals, but we were guaranteed certain privileges in exchange for the legalized theft of our lands, water and wildlife.

It is time that tribes have a seat at the planning tables whenever public land, water, wildlife, air, climate and shared resources are at stake. Nobody has ever persuasively explained why Bears Ears should not be protected as requested by tribes. Is it for politicians to decide that uranium’s value to uranium companies is more important than the health and well-being of sovereign tribal nations and the natural environment? Who is harmed by protecting Bears Ears and why do Utah politicians care so much about ensuring that tribes hold onto nothing that was not guaranteed through treaties?

Bears Ears is a sacred place to tribes, and the boundary announced by Biden does not even capture all that is important. Anyone who looks at the data will see that there is no basis for shrinking this monument, or for wasting more taxpayer dollars trying to do so.

Indigenous people had no intention for Bears Ears to be a political football, as Utah’s state and federal elected officials frequently call it. This is an insulting way to be undermined by those who have political muscle, and that’s not how we view our connection with the land.

We are merely protecting and stewarding what’s left of our homeland.

It is time to put the political football away and walk together on the land to understand its well-deserved protection.

Woody Lee is executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah