GOP senator says ‘the Indians’ should ‘just take my word for it’ on sacred tribal lands

Not only was Sen. Orrin Hatch condescending, he was also wrong.

Sen. Hatch at a Donald Trump rally in Utah last November. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Sen. Hatch at a Donald Trump rally in Utah last November. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Speaking alongside Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the Trump administration’s order to review — and potentially shrink or eliminate — nearly 30 national monuments, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said Native Americans were “manipulated” into their support for the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument southeastern Utah.

“The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness,” Hatch said on Sunday. “Once you put a monument there, you do restrict a lot of things that could be done, and that includes use of the land… Just take my word for it.”  Hatch’s dismissal of native voices is not only condescending, it is incredibly inaccurate in the case of Bears Ears. Protections for Bears Ears were nearly 80 years in the making. Most recently, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, which brought together five tribal nations, pushed for the protection of the Bears Ears region. After the group received no substantial response from the Utah Congressional delegation about protecting the area, the group opted to propose that President Barack Obama should create a national monument, which he did in December 2016.

Hatch’s comments come amid Zinke’s trip to Utah where he will conduct a review of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments and provide recommendations to shrink or rescind the monuments. Native American tribes, who consider Bears Ears to be their sacred ancestral land, are well aware of what the monument’s creation entails and consider the national monument review to be an attack on those lands.

“It is offensive that some people think that Native Americans do not have a will of their own,” said Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, in a statement. “Native American people understand the special and sacred landscapes at Bears Ears National Monument better than anyone. We have stewarded these landscapes for thousands of years and we are very pleased with the language used in the proclamation that protects the things we care about and gives us a voice in our future. It is no surprise that Senator Hatch does not understand what he is working so hard to take away from us.”

“It is no surprise that Senator Hatch does not understand what he is working so hard to take away from us.”

Furthermore, Hatch’s indication that the monument puts restrictions on tribal use of the area is false. It is explicitly written in the monument proclamation that traditional tribal uses should continue as they had. The proclamation reads that the Interior Department will “ensure the protection of Indian sacred sites and traditional cultural properties in the monument and provide access by members of Indian tribes for traditional cultural and customary uses… including collection of medicines, berries and other vegetation, forest products, and firewood for personal noncommercial.”

But variations of Hatch’s argument have been routinely made by critics of the national monuments — namely, Republican politicians in Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has long purported that a national monument would get rid of critical tribal activities, such as firewood gathering. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) similarly stoked fears that the federal government would seize native American land for the monument. Utah state legislator Mike Noel (R), who is looking to join the Trump administration, launched an investigation into the tribal support of a Bears Ears National Monument, calling it a “charade.”

These accusations are part of a continued misinformation campaign targeting tribal members that started during the lead-up to the monument designation. In the summer of 2016, flyers meant to antagonize local Navajo were found posted around towns adjacent to the now national monument. One of the flyers impersonated an Interior Department press release that claimed the government would be taking over four million acres of Navajo reservation land. Others suggested the national monument would ban firewood gathering and Native American access.

A recommendation from Interior Secretary Zinke’s review of Bears Ears is due in June, 45 days after Trump issued the executive order.

Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.