Bears Ears is back — but don’t celebrate just yet

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk unpacks the deeper implications — and limitations — of Biden’s monuments proclamation.

On Friday, the Biden administration announced it will reverse the Trump administration’s reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, a series of sea canyons and mountains off the New England coast. The decision arrives four years after the Trump Interior Department reduced the protected area around the Bears Ears region by 85%, upsetting many tribal leaders and citizens who have stewarded the area since time immemorial. 

Among those leading the charge to reinstate the Obama-era protections was Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a citizen and former head councilwoman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Lopez-Whiteskunk has delivered her message to Washington, D.C. for decades now, pushing U.S. elected officials to listen and consult with the tribal nations affected by this series of back-and-forth designations. On Friday morning, Lopez-Whiteskunk spoke with High Country News about the Biden administration’s decision, her grandmother’s and her family’s ties to these lands, and what a long-term plan for Bears Ears could potentially look like. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: What was your immediate reaction to hearing the news — and did you know it was coming down before it was officially announced?

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk: I didn’t know prior to the announcement. It was a little bit of a surprise. I had been, relatively speaking, kind of in this little mode of thinking that the administration was going to draw it out until the very last moment.

My emotional reaction was almost disbelief. It’s funny — even though I like to credit myself as being educated and knowledgeable of the different systems that we live with today, I still have distrust. I still have that gut feeling like, “I’m not gonna celebrate until I actually see it on paper and hear a proclamation, then I will believe that it actually has happened.” And I think that that kind of comes from that historical distrust between the federal government and a lot of Indigenous groups in this country.

HCN: This fight was one that was personal for so many. I know we’ve interviewed you about this before, but your grandmother grew up in the Bears Ears region. Could you explain for our readers what it means to have this area protected again from that familial perspective?

RLW: In this fight, I was really surrounded by a lot of the knowledge and experience of my elders and ancestors. And that was my tie; the politics came later. What was close to my heart was hearing my grandmother share childhood stories, and speak of her watermelon garden, and missing family when she was forcibly taken away to the boarding school. When she ran away from the boarding school, where did she go? She walked all the way back to where her family lived — in the area near Bears Ears. 

When you see our elders humble themselves before you with their tears and their emotion, that means a lot. And that’s exactly what she shared with me many times. And each time I would visit her and see her along the way, she would always remind me: She said, “Regina, always remember to come home, no matter where you go. Out there in this world, no matter what you do, always remember to come home.” As soon as I would come back from Washington D.C. or any other places that I would travel related to Bears Ears. I worked hard to make it a point to come back to her —specifically her —and let her know I am home, and I’m safe. Those tender guiding principles come from a place that is so sacred, and that place is directly connected to land. That’s home. And she shared a lot of that and really helped me to begin to grasp why this landscape is important. It was important for the immediate idea of family and connection to family and memories, but it also represented the life and times of our ancestors.

HCN: One of the main rhetorical devices employed by the state officials who hoped to see the Trump cuts upheld was that those seeking to restore the boundaries were “outsiders.” Now, you and I can both see the obvious absurdity in that statement. What has it felt like for you, mentally and emotionally, to have to engage in a political battle where this kind of erasure was so casually deployed?

RLWOne of the things that I have come to understand is that when we speak as Indigenous people, when we speak to history and to the past, we go all the way back to our origin stories. That’s the starting point of existence in these areas. And that’s validated through ceremony, through prayers, through songs. And one thing that I have identified pretty consistently across the board is a lot of those specifically speaking — and I’m going to just speak out on the opposers, especially within the state of Utah — when they speak of time and their so-called entitlement to these areas, it’s all based in a very current time, which is when a lot of the cities, the towns and communities were established. The activities that were tied to a lot of these establishments were things like gold mining and building the railroads. And it was about developing the land that, at the end of the day, brought some sort of revenue or reward to people.

When you look at the spectrum of time how Indigenous people look at it, the non-Native people of this area have only been in this neighborhood for a very short amount of time, in comparison to how we’re taught we came to be in these places. It’s something that, I think, really speaks to a lot of the guiding principles that our elders have always taught us — to not be greedy, to be open and sharing with people and animals and all the living beings that are out here. Homesteaders came and began to occupy the land and began to conduct these mining activities and such — it’s only been very recently that they’ve been here.

“We’re not saying we’re entitled to these lands. We’re saying we want these places protected because this is where life has always occurred for our people.”

Our people teach us not to think you can own air, water and land – that we serve these resources. We do our best to help from overharvesting, we have our own unwritten management plans that are embedded in principles and embedded in the stories — embedded in our culture, our ceremonies and our dances. But it’s very difficult to look at the spectrum of time in both worlds. And that’s what I want people to understand. We’re not saying we’re entitled to these lands. We’re saying we want these places protected because this is where life has always occurred for our people. I speak that in a broad sense, whether you were Navajo, Hopi, any of the pueblos, Ute, Paiute — it didn’t matter. We were out living on this land, but we never staked or claimed entitlement and/or paid for these places. We serve these places, and we were very respectful of where we were.

Cultural site above Cedar Mesa panorama in the Bears Ears National Monument.Photo courtesy Tim Peterson

Now, enter the reality we live in, where there’s ownership and entitlement of land. Now, water has a price tag on it. It’s just really hard for us to shift between both worlds. It’s really hard to explain those differences in the thought of trying to pursue commonalities.

HCN: Obviously the outcome was the one you were hoping for, but I’m curious to hear about how you felt the Biden administration performed in terms of consulting the appropriate Indigenous parties on this matter over the past 10 months.

RLW: I was rather on the disappointed side with the administration. When (Interior Secretary) Deb Haaland came out to the Southwest to visit Bears Ears and met with the tribes and the coalition, it really was an opportunity for our federal government and other organizations to determine how these conversations were going to transpire. I was really starting to lose confidence, and I’m still not sure where I’m at. And so that was kind of the sentiment I was starting to come to terms with, because as time marched on, we weren’t really getting any indicators that anything was going to be done. Conversations were very isolated to specific groups. Granted, I get it — the tribal leaders have the capacity to have those conversations. But we’re forgetting what type of space this is that we’re talking about. It’s public land. And we are the public, whether I’m an elected official right now or not.

Consultation is largely based in theory. When you look at consultation, there is really no decision-making mechanism; there is no weight of what traditional knowledge is versus scientific or political values of these areas and discussions. We’re also in a time of COVID, and that has kind of dissipated public engagement. Consultation should be with tribal leaders, but again — that’s in theory. Consultation in practice is so blurred and nonspecific. Consultation in different federal agencies may mean something as minimal as making contact with someone in that or of that Indigenous group. And that does not outline whether that’s a decision maker, an elected leader or just Joe Schmo off the streets. That demonstrates the lack of seriousness that I often spoke to when I was an elected leader, because we want to be taken as any other elected official in the world, because we are sovereign voices for our tribes, our groups, our nations. But we are taken very lightly because of the whole theoretical world of consultation.

HCN: Regarding these monuments, we have a situation where Trump reversed Obama’s designation, and now Biden has reversed Trump’s. Are you concerned about the fragility of these protections — this being something that could easily change depending on the administration? What’s a better way to ensure long-term protections for this area, and other areas, waters and sites that so many in Indian Country are working every day to safeguard?

RLW: I do have a concern about it appearing to be a ping-pong kind of situation. My concern is that the only reason that this is being responded to at this time is because it’s almost throwing the bone to the — I hate to say it this way — it’s throwing a bone to the little Indian people. “Maybe you all can be happy, we’re gonna do this.” But it’s also on the doorstep of what some communities still celebrate as Columbus Day. You’re telling me that that’s not on purpose?

The Valley of the Gods is a popular spot for hiking and camping within the Bears Ears National Monument.Photo courtesy Tim Peterson / LightHawk

If we’re going to truly come to equitable, inclusive issues that we can solve together or feel good about, then let’s make substantial changes to where this doesn’t become a change today, and then a new administration comes on, and they change it by throwing the Utah delegation a bone, because they’re one of the sponsors of the infrastructure legislation. (Bears Ears) shouldn’t be a negotiating factor. It shouldn’t be something that is throwing any group a bone. It should be something that truly means something. We’re only talking about public spaces; we’re only talking about the earth beneath our feet; we’re only talking about areas that are tied to Indigenous people. 

When the government takes things like Bears Ears away from Indigenous groups, that’s an act of genocide. We’re so afraid to speak those terms, but we’re not afraid to use them as bargaining tools and negotiating factors to make a specific elected official feel OK or feel safe, so that he may be reelected — like a game of chess, so they’ll serve a purpose. But for how long will they serve that purpose? And how does this become more substantial? The next step is to solidify it within, maybe legislation in Congress, or maybe the next step is that these places begin to become national parks. As long as they are national monuments, they’re vulnerable to political change. So, are you really doing me a favor (with the designation), because whose time are you actually wasting?

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