Thick red mud clung to Jonah Yellowman’s boots as he sidestepped down the embankment into a narrow valley of sagebrush. When he spotted perfect stems — not too dry, not too long — he snapped them from the waist-high bushes.
Every few months for much of his life, the 66-year-old Navajo spiritual leader has trekked from his nearby home to this slice of land in southeastern Utah, not far from the base of the Bears Ears buttes, to gather sage. Throughout the year, he uses the plant in ceremonies, often sharing it with people seeking wisdom or health, or as a way to offer thanks.
“This is our land and our herb,” Yellowman said. “It has to be protected. It’s all we have.”
Last year, President Trump signed proclamations slashing the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and neighboring Grand Staircase-Escalante by about half, the largest combined rollback of federally protected land in the nation’s history.
With several lawsuits set to be decided early next year, the decision — a recommendation by outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose short tenure included opening millions of acres of public land for drilling — struck critics as a clear example of what they characterize as a larger attack on indigenous communities. The scaling back of Bears Ears, they say, feels especially targeted, since it was a coalition of tribes that had lobbied to have the land designated as a national monument.
In December 2016, President Obama signed a proclamation protecting 1.35 million acres of land as part of the newly created Bears Ears National Monument, named for the distinctive buttes that resemble a bear peering over the horizon.
“The land,” Obama’s proclamation read, “is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes.”
So a year later, when Trump opted to shrink the monument to about 200,000 acres, potentially opening hundreds of thousands of acres to mining operations, many tribes took it as an affront.
Of the nation’s nearly 130 national monuments, Bears Ears was the first one that Native American tribes had proposed and fought for, said Natalie Landreth, an attorney representing several tribes that have filed suit to reverse Trump’s action.
“This is the first monument Trump attacks,” Landreth said. “That is no coincidence — it’s a direct assault on the exercise of tribal sovereignty that resulted in the monument, and an assault on the cultures the tribes are trying so desperately to protect.”
In court filings, the Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, as well as the Navajo Nation and several environmental groups, assert that Trump does not have the power to shrink Bears Ears. The Antiquities Act, they say, grants the president the authority to create national monuments, but not to rescind or reduce them.
Shrinking the monument, the suits argue, would threaten hundreds of historical rock art panels, artifacts and kivas. Other presidents have made adjustments to national monuments, the last major reduction coming when Woodrow Wilson cut Mount Olympus National Monument — currently a national park — by almost half in 1915. But until now, no reduction has been challenged in court.
Under Trump’s downsizing, the symbolic buttes, as well as some cliff dwellings, remain protected land. But much of the land that was a part of the original monument is now unprotected.
While legal back-and-forths play out in courtrooms in Washington, D.C., Yellowman and other Native Americans here wonder about what lies ahead: Will their grandchildren gather juniper and pine along the red rock mesas? Will there still be sage?
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Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name. Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa Enjoy this article? Become a patron and support independent, Indigenous media!