Ink hit paper last weekend, and the five tribes that successfully won a battle with the federal government to create Bears Ears National Monument have it in writing that their interests must be part of land management plans going forward.
President Joe Biden issued a proclamation in October that preserves more than 1.36 million acres in southeastern Utah and creates a monument that people from the Zuni Pueblo, Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Tribe, and Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray say is a sacred site.
The agreement signed Saturday means that the five tribes will work cooperatively with the federal Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, “by coordinating on land-use planning and implementation, as well as the development of long-term resource management and programmatic goals,” according to the intergovernmental agreement.
“Instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future,” Zuni Pueblo Lt. Gov. Carleton Bowekaty said. “We are being asked to apply our traditional knowledge to both the natural and human-caused ecological challenges, drought, erosion, visitation.”
A key part of the agreement is to also create educational programs and opportunities for tribal youths from the five tribes to learn and practice cultural traditions at the site that are part of their heritage going back thousands of years. These programs are already running, led by organizations such as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which brought together the tribes in 2015 to create this plan.
Executive Director Patrick Gonzales Rogers said the coalition wants to see federal funding to boost these youth programs and that they continue to build off the shared knowledge between the different tribal communities.
Finding that common ground between the various tribal interests was important for any success by the coalition. Rogers said leaders had to practice pragmatism that recognized historical differences but also generational battles.
“The conflict and tension between Pueblo tribes and Navajo have been outstanding for almost 1,000 years,” he said. “And so the ability to kind of quash that and have a sense of humility, that’s the bigger picture. This is powerful, because this is something that they were willing to do despite these really long-standing historical differences.”
In 2016, the group successfully petitioned then-President Obama to preserve Bears Ears, but that was quickly reversed by the Trump administration. The victory by the coalition in 2021 not only restored the monument, it also increased its size.
The signed agreement is a win for the tribes, and the deal is distinguished by how the federal government will work with local tribal communities on land restoration and preservation. BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning went so far as to say in a statement that the co-managining agreement “will serve as a model for our work to honor the nation-to-nation relationship in the future.”
Federal money will also go to the individual tribes to hire staff members who can help lead these discussions.
While the coalition shares the excitement, Gonzales Rogers says without an act of Congress codifying protections at Bears Ears, it’s still unclear if this agreement can be reversed by a different administration with protections suddenly removed again as with Trump. The group is also trying to bridge some understanding with the state of Utah, which is preparing a legal fight against Biden’s order by the Utah Attorney General’s Office.
“To this point, they have not been what I would call incredibly successful, but the tribes remain in a posture to talk about these things in a way that collaboration toward these issues would be the premium,” he said. “But we’re not at that point as we talked today.”
The federal deal could provide greater strength for the sovereign nations when going against state laws, he said.
While the legal issues could take years to resolve, the land agreement is still a victory for the five tribes and a future toward more tribal nations collaborating.
In a statement, Bowekaty asked, “What can be a better avenue of restorative justice than giving tribes the opportunity to participate in the management of lands their ancestors were removed from?”