Native American governments are calling Trump but he won’t pick up the phone

The White House is picking a costly, long fight in Utah, tribal leaders say.

A family watches the sun set over Indian Creek in the newly minted — and already threatened — Bears Ears National Monument. CREDIT: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr
A family watches the sun set over Indian Creek in the newly minted — and already threatened — Bears Ears National Monument. CREDIT: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are ignoring the sovereign Indian tribes they are required to collaborate with on public land management decisions, tribal representatives said Wednesday in Washington.

Zinke is one week into a rapid-fire review of dozens of national monument designations, including the 2016 decision to create Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, under an executive order from the president.

Representatives from five different tribal governments tied to the 1.3 million acre monument area in southeastern Utah have tried repeatedly to get Zinke to talk to them, they said, but the secretary has not responded.

“We respectfully request Secretary Zinke to meet with us nation to nation, and to uphold the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument,” Navajo Nation councilmember LoRenzo Bates said.

Yet Zinke has held meetings with others, bypassing the sovereign Indian nations and their governments to talk with county and state officials of the U.S. government.

“As elected leaders, there is a government to government requirement. We are supposed to engage in a process. That has yet to happen,” said Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Tribe Business Council. “This action threatens decades of work between the United States, sovereign Indian tribes, and local stakeholders.”

Astroturfing The Desert

Instead, Zinke has entertained the input of San Juan County Commission leader Phil Lyman, who strenuously opposes the monument designation. Lyman cuts a controversial figure in local politics; he once reportedly declared tribal input wholly irrelevant because they “lost the war.”

Lyman has also aligned himself with the radical land-control politics of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the small but noisy “sovereign citizen” movement, leading an illegal ATV ride through protected canyonlands in 2014 to promote calls for the federal government to devolve public lands management to state and local actors. Lyman was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 3 years probation for organizing the illegal protest ride, a penalty he appealed without help of a lawyer.

Zinke’s decision to meet with Lyman while ignoring tribal entreaties over Bears Ears runs counter to pre-confirmation hopes that his background as an outdoorsman would incline him to evenhanded dealing between government, business, and tribal stakeholders. The secretary’s choice “is further proof that Zinke’s so-called review of national monuments is rigged,” the conservationist group Center for Western Priorities said in a statement.

The tribal representatives also expressed concern that Zinke’s choice to consult with Lyman and his ilk rather than directly with tribal governments could lead to him being misinformed about the Indian perspective. Federal and local officials in the San Juan County area of Utah where much of Bears Ears lies have been swift to hold up minority dissenting opinions from individual Indians who do not speak for any tribal government, they said.

“By cherry picking a few Navajo people from San Juan County, you are undermining the clear position of the Navajo Nation tribal government,” the Navajo Nation’s Bates said, noting the council has voted unanimously more than once in support of the monument designation.

Lyman claims that Zinke has accepted an invitation to come tour Bears Ears early next week —but on horseback, not by ATV. Such a visit would allow the county commissioner to stage manage the Interior Secretary’s impressions of local opinion on the monument designation.

The apparent push to undermine Indian governments and erase tribal perspectives on Bears Ears is ironic given the history of anglo-Indian relations in Utah, Chapoose said.

“Mormons know what it’s like to be persecuted,” he said. “When they showed up on the Wasatch Front, you know who helped them through that first winter? My people. My ancestors.”

“Everybody Thinks We’re Always Wanting To Fight”

All this kabuki around Zinke’s formal review of Bears Ears and dozens of other monument designations could already be moot.

Despite Zinke’s protestations to the media that his monuments review is open-ended and open-minded, Trump seems to believe he has given his secretary clear marching orders: Start rescinding monument designations and handing over public land to people like Lyman.

“It’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we’re going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place. This should never have happened,” Trump said at the signing of his executive order mandating the review. Zinke’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, the president declared that he was “directing Secretary Zinke to end these abuses and return control to the people.”

If Trump believes he has tasked Zinke with unwinding monuments protections and shrinking federal authority over western lands, then all the rest of this is just window dressing. Zinke, who rode a horse to his Washington, D.C. office on his first day as Secretary, is familiar with political stagecraft.

As for the report that Zinke plans to saddle up again to survey parts of Bears Ears, Chapoose said it might fit the secretary’s self-styled cowboy image — but the tour itself would illustrate exactly why tribal governments need Zinke to answer the phone and talk to them about preserving their ancestral lands.

“If you’re going to ride a horse through [Bears Ears], you gotta always be conscious that there are artifacts littered all through there,” he said. “It may look noble, but cows and horses are just as destructive.”

The Trump-Zinke-Lyman axis may believe it can score a quick win by rapidly rescinding the monument designation hammered out over years and years of negotiations. The fuel and mining companies that would ultimately win out financially might celebrate.

But any short-term victory pursuant to Trump’s executive order would likely send this whole fight into court for years of litigation, the tribal government representatives said.

One of the major advantages of the slow, collaborative approach to land management espoused by the Obama administration was that it helped all sides — tribes, civilians, and multinational corporations alike — avoid protracted legal battles. The Trump-Zinke sprint toward an industry-friendly administrative ruling would put everyone involved back onto a war footing that imposes costs on all parties.

“Some of us don’t want to say it, but it will become a legal fight,” Chapoose said. “We don’t get to shoot arrows anymore and they don’t get to shoot bullets at me. The way we’re gonna fight this is to go to court. And we’ll spend a lot of money to probably get to the same place we could’ve gotten to if we just talked.”

For all his wry invocations of old stereotypes, though, Chapoose sounded weary of being cast as the belligerents in a renewed fight over Bears Ears.

“Funny thing about Indians is, everybody thinks we’re always wanting to fight,” Chapoose said. “But look at what we fight for. It’s never to take something. It’s always to protect something.”