In the first weeks, if not days, of his administration, President Joe Biden is expected to restore the boundaries of two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. But tribal leaders say that returning millions of acres should be only the beginning of Biden’s commitment to protect more public lands — and that tribal nations should be leading the charge. It’s more than just the threat of degradation, they say; Indigenous voices are long overdue in public-land management.
While Biden’s nomination of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior has given Indian Country reasons for hope, tribal leaders and advocates say she should be only one of many Indigenous people working with or inside the new administration. Biden has pledged to work toward protecting 30% of the country’s land and oceans by 2030. Tribal nations and communities have always asserted that their ties to and knowledge of the land should be consulted when land-management decisions are made. That’s a notion likely familiar to Biden.
The Biden transition team has been in conversation with the Zuni’s legal team since December, Bowekaty said, in stark contrast to the relationship between the tribe and the federal government under the Trump administration, which routinely failed to work with tribal nations as respected sovereign governments. Bowekaty remains hopeful that Biden will put the same energy into rebuilding the tribal coalitions that were formed by President Obama. “Now, under this administration, we can address the bigger picture and make sure that there’s no further desecration. There’s no further looting. There’s no further negative effects from people visiting without being educated.”
For many, like Clark Tenakhongva, even if Biden restores both national monuments in Utah, that’s just the beginning of the conversation. “Then what happens after that?” Tenakhongva said. Like other tribal leaders, he wants some reassurance that land protections can no longer be so easily diminished. “I would like to have a permanent, formal legislation that — no matter what other president comes in 20 years from now, 40 years from now — would not undo what work we have sacrificed our lives basically for.”
Public lands in southern Utah are more contested than any other place in the nation. At the core of these problems are still continuing battles over who the land and history of the area belong to? Many white Utah residents just don’t believe that the Indians have those rights. In a place with a strong settler culture that is intensified by Mormonism, there’s a history that makes the land there’s to do with as God pleases and since God is believes in capitalism, there you have it. If you are Navajo or Ute or a member of another tribe, your history goes back far earlier than the arrival of whites and long-standing claims to the land and culture that derives from that land are very real.