In an apparent attempt to intimidate and mislead members of the Navajo Nation, a forged government news release has appeared on bulletin boards across Southern Utah.
The falsified release claims the Department of the Interior will take over four million acres of Navajo reservation land. It, along with two other phony documents, are presumed to have been created and distributed by people opposed to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, in an attempt to divide tribal support for the monument.
One particularly inflammatory flyer invited the public to a party celebrating “the New Bears Ears National Monument,” noting that “Everyone is invited except Utah Navajos.” Another fake document suggests that Bears Ears National Monument would ban firewood gathering and Native American access to the land for sacred activities. In reality, the monument designation proposal would protect and prioritize such activities.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — led by the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe — has proposed a 1.9 million-acre National Monument in Southeastern Utah to protect cultural and archaeological sites on the Colorado Plateau. Though Utah’s federal and state delegation has opposed a national monument, the proposal has received wide support among Utah voters, and particularly among Native American tribes.
“This is a clear attempt to turn people against a Bears Ears National Monument by spreading lies, inciting racism and impersonating federal officials,” said Cynthia Wilson, a community outreach coordinator for Utah Dine Bikeyah, a Native American-led nonprofit that works to protect cultural uses of public lands by tribes. “These tactics are despicable and likely criminal. Utah Navajos and Tribal Governments have been working in good faith to protect Native American traditional uses through a Bears Ears National Monument and we are holding up a vision and a solution, not a weapon intended to harm anyone.”
The accusations in these fake documents are similar to claims made by some Utah state legislators, county commissioners, and members of Congress who are opposed to the monument designation.
The inter-tribal coalition, which had originally participated in Utah Republican Reps Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop’s Public Land Initiative bill — a legislative attempt to find a compromise between development and protection of public lands in southern Utah — revoked its support after stating that its concerns were being repeatedly ignored. After reviewing a draft of the Public Lands Initiative bill, Utah tribes said it “adds insult to injury.”
This is only the most recent example in a long line of offences against Native Americans and cultural landscapes in San Juan County, Utah. A timeline, created by the Center for Western Priorities, lays out several of these injustices.
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In 2011, the Navajo Nation sued San Juan County following what they said was a “racially motivated” redistricting that resulted in extreme gerrymandering to disenfranchise Native Americans. Claiming the county violated the 14th and 15th amendments, the latter of which ensures that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged … on account of race,” the judge recently ordered the county to redraw the lines.
The Navajo Nation sued San Juan County again this February over claims that it violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the 2014 general election. The lawsuit says the 2014 voting system — which required voters to use mail-in ballots in a region of limited postal delivery and provided few oral translation services (Navajo is traditionally an unwritten language) — “unreasonably hindered” the Navajo people’s ability to vote.
San Juan County’s own County Commissioner, Phil Lyman, told Native American advocates of the Bears Ears proposal that the tribes “lost the war” and have no right to comment on public lands issues. Lyman is known for leading an armed ATV ride through San Juan County’s Recapture Canyon in 2013. Recapture Canyon is the site of many archaeological sites sacred to local tribes and is closed to motorized vehicles due to the sensitivity of the cultural resources there.
While Utah leaders repeatedly ignore tribes’ efforts to protect Bears Ears as a national monument, incidents of looting and vandalism of Native American treasures have surged in southeast Utah. Between October 2011 and April 2016, the Bureau of Land Management investigated 25 cases of looting in the Bears Ears area alone. A monument designation under the Antiquities Act would help protect these important cultural sites.
“The Navajo Nation is asking President Obama for a ‘Bears Ears National Monument,’” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Walter Phelps in a statement. “This is the first time tribal nations have come together to propose a national monument to protect our cultural life-ways, and we are optimistic that President Obama will respond to the proposal.”
Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland. Lucy Livesay is the Policy Coordinator at the Center for Western Priorities. Follow her on Twitter at @lucy_livesay.