President Biden responds to local outcry

Two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument are shown on Dec. 28, 2016, in southeastern Utah. With Joe Biden’s capture of the White House comes the likelihood that Utah’s two big national monuments will be restored to their original boundaries. 

Flagstaff City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the Biden administration to restore the Bears Ears National Monument to its original dimensions Jan. 19. An executive order from President Joe Biden Jan. 20 promised a review on the Bears Ears monument boundaries. 

The Bears Ears resolution proposed by councilmember Austin Aslan asked the Biden administration to fulfill campaign promises to protect sites of sacred and cultural importance around the Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. 

Former President Barack Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument Dec. 28, 2016 for archaeological and cultural significance. This proclamation protected approximately 1.35 million acres of land sacred to many Indigenous peoples in Utah and Arizona, and preserved historical sites such as the Lime Ridge Clovis site, one of the oldest archeological sites in Utah.

Less than a year later, former President Donald Trump released a proclamation Dec. 4, 2017 that reduced the Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and opened the land to uranium mining, despite public outcry. 

The resolution, councilmember Aslan said, is intended as an act of solidarity to Flagstaff’s tribal neighbors and the Colorado Plateau. 

“Hopefully those words will speak loud,” Aslan said. “And the action of us passing this today will be a clear indication to our tribal neighbors that we take their concerns seriously.”

The executive order from President Biden promised a review and report of landmarks like Bears Ears within 60 days, with recommendations on how to proceed with the monuments

The recent executive order followed Biden’s campaign promises to reinstate protections on many national parks, Indigenous land and cultural treasures that lost funding or status under the Trump administration. 

The former administration cited the Antiquities Act to justify the reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument from 1.35 million acres to 201,876 acres. 

Section two of the act states national landmarks should be confined to the smallest area possible that is compatible with protection efforts.

However, Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-founder and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives, Eric Descheenie said the smallest area compatible with protection efforts needs to be defined by the Indigenous tribes, not the United States government. 

“As the first inhabitants, the extent of care is up to Indigenous peoples’ interpretation,” Descheenie said. “You have to consider the use of a knowledge system that is unique to an Indigenous system.”

The Bears Ears Coalition, composed and supported by numerous Indigenous tribes, formed in response to the Trump administration proclamation. 

The coalition filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the former president did not have the authority to overturn a monument proclamation by a past president. The case was dismissed in October 2018, but the coalition continued fighting with court appeals. 

Darrell Marks, an Indigenous counselor at Flagstaff High School, said the reduction of culturally significant monuments like Bears Ears is not only harmful to the land, but also to the people who identify with it.

“Those areas hold significance to our cultural identity, our lineage, our bloodline,” Marks said.  “Some of our families come from there.”

Evidence of those bloodlines and Indigenous presence in Bears Ears and surrounding areas can be traced up to 13,000 years ago through tools and artifacts left by the Clovis people. 

The exploitation of these lands and cultural history, Marks said, show direct ties to the mental and emotional trauma plaguing Flagstaff’s youth, which lead to high rates of suicide, substance abuse and human trafficking, according to Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Marks said exploited Indigenous lands like Bears Ears are a common source of trauma for Indigenous youth. However, he points to another location closer to home. 

Marks and applied Indigenous studies professor Christopher Jocks spoke about the presence of Arizona Snowbowl on the San Francisco Peaks and the controversial use of reclaimed water on the slopes

Both Marks and Jocks compared the San Francisco Peaks to a motherly figure, a host of life and culture that has been monetized and desecrated by reclaimed water.

“The English language cannot capture what is at stake here,” Jocks said. “These are not sacred places — they are places where Indigenous people have relationships with those places and all things that inhabit those places.”

The land is an instructive presence that teaches Indigenous people generation after generation, Jocks said. He calls the desecration of Indigenous land like the Bears Ears reduction and Snowbowl’s use of reclaimed water on the San Francisco Peaks a source of deep wounds and distrust. 

The ski resort opened in 1938 and has been a controversial location since then. As a sacred location to 14 local tribes, Snowbowl’s profit off the peaks and NAU’s support of it is a painful topic for Indigenous groups.

“I would like for students at NAU to look at your billing,” Marks said. “That recreational fee is used for funding to [Arizona] Snowbowl.” 

The recreational fee goes to programs like SnowJack Express, a bus that takes NAU students to Snowbowl, among other things. 

While Marks and Jocks commend Flagstaff City Council for the Bears Ears Resolution, both agree that there is more work to be done for Flagstaff, for the San Francisco Peaks and the Indigenous communities that call Coconino County home.