OPINION: Another Affront to Native Tribes in Utah

By Aaron Weiss

President Trump will travel to Utah on Monday to sign an executive order that removes protections for two iconic national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante. The president’s action will be the single largest elimination of protections for public lands and wildlife in U.S. history.

On a week when President Trump’s words have already deeply offended many Native Americans, his anticipated decision next week is another direct affront to five tribal nations — Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute — who worked tirelessly to protect the culturally- and spiritually-significant Bears Ears National Monument. The 1.35 million-acre monument in San Juan County contains an estimated 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites that have faced an ongoing threat from looters and vandals.

First light over Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo courtesy Earth Justice.

Upon President Trump’s election last year, Utah politicians opposed to the national monument vowed to work with the new administration and remove protections from Bears Ears. For the tribal nations, this is just another chapter in a long history of disenfranchisement and mistreatment in Utah and — especially — in San Juan County, Utah.

In just the last few years, the tribal nations have been told by Utah politicians that “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” (Senator Orrin Hatch); that “nobody really settled [in Southern Utah]” before Mormons (San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams); and that Native Americans “lost the war” and therefore should not have a say on public lands issues (San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman).

Commissioner Lyman also made headlines for leading an illegal ATV ride through archaeological sites in Utah’s Recapture Canyon — an area just outside Bears Ears National Monument. The illegal ride led to thousands of dollars in damages and Commissioner Lyman spent 10 days in jail.

Beyond racially-tinged and insensitive rhetoric, the state of Utah and San Juan County have systematically disenfranchised Native Americans. As background, here is a short timeline of tribal disenfranchisement in Utah and San Juan County over the last 60-years:

1957: Even though the federal government granted citizenship to all Native Americans in 1924, Utah did not fully recognize the right of Native Americans to vote until 1957. (ACLU)

1974: Native American students filed a class-action lawsuit against San Juan County, alleging a longstanding pattern of racial discrimination. The following year the county school board, in a consent decree, agreed to implement bilingual education programs beginning in 1976. As of 1995, those programs had not been implemented. (Deseret News)

1983: U.S. Department of Justice sued San Juan County for violating the Voting Rights Act, resulting in the establishment of county commission districts and the election of the county’s first Native American county commissioner. (Salt Lake Tribune)

1995: In a landmark ruling that some have called the “Brown v. Board of Indian Country,” a judge ruled that San Juan County must provide an equal education to children in the remote Navajo Mountain community. San Juan County had argued against constructing a high school in the community. (Illinois Law Review)

2011: During redistricting, the Navajo Nation urged San Juan County to consider changes in population in redrawing districts. Although the county is more than half Native American, districts were maintained in a way that ensured only one of three would be majority Native American. The Navajo Nation challenged this decision, alleging it violated the Equal Protection Clause. (Deseret News)

2016: Tribal members sued San Juan County over decision to close polling places, switch exclusively to mail-in ballots. Residents of the Navajo Reservation claimed that mail service is unreliable and Navajo is primarily an unwritten language, disenfranchising Navajo voters. (Salt Lake Tribune)

2017: Spike in recorded population of San Juan County leads to speculation that U.S. Census may undercount Navajo, which could have impact on redistricting and voting rights cases. (Salt Lake Tribune)

2017: After San Juan County redraws maps, a judge again ruled the boundaries of election districts in the county are unconstitutional, violating the rights of Native Americans who make up about half of the county. (Associated Press)

Aaron Weiss is Media Director for the Center for Western Priorities.

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