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Home    |   Print Edition   |   Tribal Co-Management: A Monumental Undertaking?

Tribal Co-Management: A Monumental Undertaking?

Mar 15, 2022

Emma Blake

Volume 48 (2021) - Issue 2

After seven years of organizing, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition— made up of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni Nations—secured the protection of 1.35 million acres of federal public land within the boundaries of the state of Utah. The land included the twin Bears Ears buttes, which rose to the south above Cedar Mesa, a cultural landscape sacred to these five Native Nations and many others. President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate the region as “Bears Ears National Monument” just before he left office, in December 2016. One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to order the Department of the Interior to review the size and scope of all national monuments established under the Antiquities Act since 1996. He called these monuments, including Bears Ears, a “massive federal land grab” that “unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control.” In reality, however, President Obama’s creation of Bears Ears National Monument was a moment of unprecedented historic importance. Bears Ears was the first national monument proposed by a coalition of tribes. Before President Trump’s executive order, it stood to become the first national monument co-managed by a coalition of tribes and the U.S. government. “Bears Ears is all about Indian sovereignty,” said Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation. In December 2017, President Trump gutted Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and opened the lands to oil and gas development, including fracking and mining. In short, President Trump turned what had been an affirmative act of Native nation-building into yet another site for resource extraction. President Joe Biden has an obligation—moral and legal—to correct this wrong. Restoring the original boundaries and protections of Bears Ears National Monument is a necessary step but an insufficient one. President Biden must go further. The Antiquities Act can get him there. The Antiquities Act allows President Biden to protect vast swaths of the federal public lands as national monuments, co-managed by tribes and federal agencies in accordance with principles of Indigenous ecological knowledge and land stewardship. These new “Native” monuments should honor Indigenous peoples’ connections to their ancestral lands and restore their authority to access, use, and make decisions about those lands. In this way, President Biden can build on President Obama’s work with Bears Ears to transform the Antiquities Act—a statute with a long history of oppressing Indigenous peoples—into an instrument of Native nation- building. If President Biden expressly describes his actions as affirmative expressions of the federal Indian trust doctrine and the doctrine of inherent tribal sovereignty, he could start to set a precedent for broad interpretations of the two most foundational doctrines in federal Indian law.