Bear Ears Monument and the Theft of Navajo Land

The Navajo nation covers 27,000 square miles sprawling across northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Geographically, this remote area partially resides within the vast expanse of the Colorado Plateau: 130,000 square miles of wind and rain-sculpted canyons, desert sage, natural arches, Pinyon Juniper and Ponderosa Pine forests, cliff dwellings, weathered petroglyphs and other sacred Indigenous sites. Also within the Plateau and situated near the iconic, towering sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, is Four Corners Monument, the only site in the U.S. where four states’ borders are shared, intersecting in a single quadripoint, which is official marked by a granite disk.

For Indigenous peoples, Four Corners demarcates the boundaries between the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reservation. Officially, the Navajo Nation has existed since 1923 when the first tribal government was formed to help lease land to American oil companies. Elections followed fifteen years later. However, “Navajoland,” as the region’s more generally known among its inhabitants, has existed for centuries prior to Columbus’ arrival. If you ever visit, this land gives the impression of being one of the few remaining “frontiers” in the U.S.

Yet frontiers have a sordid history and genocidal track record as they have been historically shown to precursor violence executed in the name of civilization and “improvement” of the land. According to the writings of Classical political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume and others, land was “wasted” by Indigenous peoples who failed to cultivate it, enclose it, and render it profitable. Since waste is a cardinal sin to liberalism, those unruly populations who stood in the way of white settler colonialist land theft, or accumulation by dispossession, we’re justifiably executable and/or set packing on a “Long Walk” or Trail of Tears to their own carceral archipelagos, known as reservations. Differently put, the “founding” of the New World was a land grab of epic proportions facilitated by the genocidal logic of its architects who took ample notes from the luminaries of Western political economy.

Given its state of hegemony, Hobbesian understandings of humankind’s’ relationship to nature carry into the present neoliberal age. While operating under a more covert, though no less pernicious, (business)-friendly facade, the same rational that Hobbes and others used to justify the theft of Indigenous land persists under the current Trump administration. On December 4, 2017, Trump reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante by almost 50 percent, while Bears Ears National Monument was drastically cut by 85 percent, all by way of presidential proclamation. Alongside Western legislator’s intent on undoing the halfhearted environmental protections put in place under Obama, Trump idiotically believes they can improve upon or, more honestly, exploit hundreds of thousands of acres of southern Utah, such as Bears Ears National Monument and Grand-Staircase Escalante, by shrinking them; thus, opening up new spaces for oil, gas, and uranium development. As an LA Times op-ed columnist noted:

The president’s new monument boundaries purposefully pave the way for uranium mining and oil and gas drilling leases, according to documents uncovered through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, despite denials to the contrary by Trump and his cronies.

Indeed, public opinion sits in opposition to Trump and other politicians who sit in the pockets of extractive industries. In addition to overwhelming support for Bear Ears Monument during an open comment period in 2017, a coalition of Native Americans tribes, conservation advocacy groups, as well as the outdoor apparel giant Patagonia, quickly responded to Trump’s move with a lawsuit citing the presidents lack of “legal authority to reduce or extinguish national moments” – a power, they argue, only granted to Congress.

To legislatively sanction Trump’s proclamation, Republican Representative John Curtis of Utah introduced the Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act, which would not only make Trump’s boundaries permanent, but will also exclude Obama-era stakeholders within the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute and Zuni tribes from overseeing the management of Bears Ears as they would be replaced by a “county commissioner who supports the president, exclude[s] tribes outside Utah, and empower[s] the president to select most commission members.” Changes that would “fundamentally undermine tribal rights of self-representation and self-determination.”

Though the case is still being deliberated by a U.S. District Judge, there are many organizations actively resisting these attacks upon Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalate. Among them, groups such as Grand Canyon Trust’s Bears Ears Defense Fund, Bears Ears Coalition, and Friends of Cedar Mesa all deserve your monetary and/or volunteer support to fund ongoing litigation as well as educate those to the rich biodiversity and cultural significance of the region and what is at stake should these lands be opened up for development. Furthermore, simply spreading the word via social media can bring greater attention to this issue and mobilize increased public outcry and scrutiny over the environmentally-threatening actions taken by this administration.

Trump, Interior Secretary Zinke, and their money-grubbing friends in Washington and Corporate America need to be openly called out and castigated for their assaults upon Native peoples and their right to self-determination and sovereignty. And while we can never sufficiently atone for the sins of the past as a white settler colonialist nation, we can refuse to be complicit in the ongoing theft of Native and public lands alike.

Resources:

Bears Ears is waiting for a ruling: Will we protect this land or exploit it? By Joy Horowitz

Navajo History from Discovery Navajo

Is This Bear Ears’ Final Battle? By Chip Colwell

 

Nicholas Walrath is an independent researcher who examines issues revolving around policing, police power/war power, security, the political imagination and surveillance.

 

Article original from the Ecosocialist Issue of The Socialist. Check out the full issue here!

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