Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as President Joe Biden announces the expansion of areas of three national monuments at the White House on Oct. 08, 2021, in Washington, DC. Haaland was instrumental in restoring lands held sacred by Tribes after the previous administration opened them to mining, drilling and development. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Tribal leaders in the Four Corners and across the country are ecstatic at the news that President Joe Biden signed proclamations this afternoon fully restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments that were both cut into by the previous administration by nearly 2 million acres total.
The All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents the 20 Pueblo Nations of New Mexico and Texas, stated today that the Council has long been calling on the federal government to recognize Tribal Nations’ sovereign right to protect sacred ancestral landscapes.
Chairman Wilfred Herrera Jr., a former governor of Laguna Pueblo, said with guidance from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna) and help from President Biden, the preservation of “our people and our beautiful songs, dances, and responsibility to steward our lands for generations to come” is being secured.
The area has traditional ties to Pueblo and Navajo communities. In 2016, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — comprised of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Zuni Tribe — petitioned President Barack Obama to protect the site.
Herrera said when Tribal leaders learned of President Obama’s actions during his final days in office, “We celebrated, broke bread, shed tears, and offered prayers for thanks to our Creator and our spirits for their guidance and strength that helped us achieve protections for a landscape so vital and important to our way of life.”
But the coalition would see President Trump reverse the decision and reduce the area by 85% less than a year later. Today’s news, Herrera said, brings that feeling back. “Once again, because of President Biden’s historic leadership, we are grateful to experience that same feeling of overwhelming joy.”
In a statement, the coalition said Biden is moving in the right direction. “President Biden will be recognizing the deep and enduring ancestral and cultural connections that Tribes have to this landscape and taking a step toward honoring his commitment to Indigenous People by acknowledging their original place in this country that is now our shared home.”
“The president’s protection of these three national monuments is among a series of steps the administration has taken to restore protections to some of America’s most cherished lands and waters, many of which are sacred to Tribal Nations,” the White House said in a statement.
In June, Biden sent Haaland to tour the area with stakeholders in southern Utah. She recommended Biden use the Antiquities Act to enlarge the monuments. According to the White House, new Bears Ears will actually be larger than the original region Obama designated.
Haaland praised Biden for the move.
“I am proud to stand with President Biden in restoring these monuments and fulfilling his commitment to the American people,” Haaland said. “The historical connection between Indigenous peoples and Bears Ears is undeniable.”
Our Native American ancestors sustained themselves on the landscape since time immemorial, and evidence of their rich lives is everywhere one looks.
– Interior Secretary Deb Haaland
Haaland’s recommendation is considered a “watershed” moment by Indigenous leaders in New Mexico.
“You’re starting to see the stewardship and the conservation that many of our tribal communities and Indigenous peoples have have had for millennia be turned into policy, good public policy that will support not just the wishes of tribal communities but generations of Americans to come,” said Keegan King, a board member with the conservation group New Mexico Wild.
King (Acoma) noted the living history that connects the tribes that exist within New Mexico, expanding across much of the Four Corners area, including Bears Ears.
“These places are still remembered in our songs, our ceremonies, our prayers, and so it’s very important that that living connection remains vital and that we sustain that connection to these places. There are burial grounds here, there are pilgrimage sites,” King said. “These are places that we still have names for and that we still visit and journey to, and that our traditional communities still, still invoke in our ceremonies and our prayers.”
Tribal leadership with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition said the decision creates a historic opportunity.
UPDATE: Oct. 8, 2021 at 5:30 p.m.
This story has been updated to reflect statements from the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
“The monument represents a historic opportunity for the federal government to learn and incorporate our tribal land management practices,” Ute Indian Tribe Business Chairman Shaun Chapoose said, “practices that we developed over centuries and are needed more now than ever. We battled for this monument because it matters.”
Hopi Tribe vice chairman Clark W. Tenakhongva thanked Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris “for upholding your commitment to restore Honmuru, which is the birthplace of many Hopi and other Native peoples,” he said. “Though this action, the history of our people, our culture and religion will be preserved for future generations.”
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