Well-known Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams wonders in a recent New York Times piece about the Trump administration’s executive orders and National Monuments. “Will Bears Ears Be the Next Standing Rock?” she asks.
|Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition
Terry’s piece ran a couple of days ago. Two friends, one local and one in California, wanted to be sure that I saw it. I did.
My first thought was… good for Terry. She has the national reputation and the local knowledge to get the NYT to listen—and maybe to shake a few boots in Congress (this is not her first run at that noble body). But…
my second cynical thought was that the Indian voices she raises will soon be drowned out. In the normal course of events, Indian stories and claims, even stories explosive or important enough to get immediate national press attention, move quickly to the back pages (if that even works as a metaphor anymore), and then out of everyday consciousness altogether.
More importantly, this series of front to back to nothing has repeated itself endlessly in the course of American history, so the sad legacy that precedes today’s story gets little attention. Maybe we in the majority do not want to see that history, or we have seen enough and think “not again” and go on to other thoughts.
For example: Never, with all the hoopla at Standing Rock—which made national news on and off for months—did I see analysis of the entire string of events going back to the Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 and through the endless and most often futile-for-the-Indians historic interactions between Indians and the numerous federal agencies that led up to the crisis.
Reporters and politicians should have been required to read “Coyote Warrior,” Paul VanDevelder’s 2004 book about the government takeover of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara homelands upstream from Standing Rock on the Missouri River. Rick Bass called it “Intense, heroic, patriotic… uplifting, wise, and instructive.” John Nichols said “compassionate and important.” Vine DeLoria Jr. said “this book captures the modern struggle for Indian rights.” But 2004 is a long time ago, the Mandan and Missouri a long way—well, a few hundred miles—from Utah and Bears Ears.
About Bears Ears, Terry Williams says that “After seven years of organizing, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition — made up of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni Nations — played a key role in securing the protection of 1.35 million acres surrounding Bears Ears from development and resource extraction just before President Obama left office.”
So here again—in Utah—we have Indians dealing with the federal government for decades over sacred ground. When the Obama administration does something—designates land already in federal hands as a National Monument—there is immediate reaction by oil and mineral interests, and the “locals” who see their way of life upended by more tourists or fewer tourists or whatever— upended by putting Indian claims ahead of their own. My cynical take is that no matter what the outcome, the Indian story surrounding Bears Ears will move to the back pages quickly. We will get the story quietly from the oil and mineral interests if they win, more vocally from the Sierra Club and environmental interests if the Monument designation stays. Patient tribes will adapt—as they have for centuries, hoping for eventual vindication from the American public and the law.
We can and I do hope that with the good work of Terry Tempest Williams and others, Utah tribes will get their sacred lands secured before they are desecrated or flooded. That they won’t have to wait for the flood and 40 years for legal and financial compensation as did the Mandans and Arikaras and Hidatsas; that they won’t get rolled over by Presidential politics as did the Sioux at Standing Rock.
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