For Native American Activists Crossing The Nation With A Totem Pole, Sacred Lands Are Their Notre Dame

Two dozen Native American activists in 10 cars towing one totem pole across the country.

While this protest caravan may seem small, its message to Congress is outsized: Give Indigenous peoples a say before granting access to land that tribes consider sacred. The opposing argument: public lands are for everyone and the nation’s energy needs can’t be ignored.

Nowhere is that debate more heated than at Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, a striking archaeological and natural wonder that activists will reach Saturday.

Former President Barack Obama set aside 1.35 million acres for the monument in late 2016. Conservatives criticized the move as government overreach, and then-President Donald Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by 85% in 2017. Its fate is still in play.
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“Sacred places and public lands are under sustained duress from climate chaos and fossil fuel reliance, and we feel that under this administration we can change the role that the federal government plays in this equation,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, who spoke to USA TODAY as the caravan motored through Utah. “This is the political moment.”

Native organizers have been buoyed by the appointment of former U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, to run the Interior Department as well as President Joe Biden’s relaunching of the White House Council on Native American Affairs.
An aerial view of Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, which President Barack Obama sought to protect in 2016. President Donald Trump then greatly cut back on the size of the planned monument. Its fate is still undecided, but activists want an even larger swatch set aside.

Activists say the role Indigenous peoples played in the recent election should give them greater say in policies that can help support tribes with employment, education and healthcare.

“Native Americans must be at the decision-making table,” said LeBlanc, who belongs to the southeastern states’ Caddo Nation.

For most of the nation’s nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, land use and ownership is a top priority. While some tribes have had success on that front – last year the Supreme Court ruled half of Oklahoma is on Native lands, with resulting implications for court cases – most have spent the past years protesting against access to federal lands, many in Indian country, that the Trump administration granted to energy and mining companies.

From the Gila River to Bears Ears: Environmental activists renew push to protect Southwest US public lands amid shifting politics

The result, activists say, is deep concern over the despoiling of lands due to fracking and oil pipelines that often have deep historical and religious significance to Native peoples.

“Much like cathedral of Notre Dame is a structure of symbolism for Catholicism, these landscapes are our cathedral,” said Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Council, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We ask people to be in the same deferential mindset and show respect to this landscape as our people and tribal leaders do.”

Gonzales-Rogers added that while no sacred site is more important than another, Bears Ears, named for two towering ear-like buttes, is likely to test the power of the presidency when it comes to oversight of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which grants the president powers to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks.”
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a news briefing at the White House in Washington. Many Native American activists say they know the Laguna Pueblo native has a mandate to serve all constituents, but they hope her sensitivity to Indigenous issues will help their efforts to preserve sacred land and grow economic opportunity.

Bears Ears supporters say that is what Obama was doing when he made it a monument in one of his last gestures in office. Critics say the act is not designed to set aside such vast amounts of land, thereby potentially limiting access to a range of users.

“This act should be used to prevent acts of looting for the smallest area compatible,” said Jeffrey McCoy, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm that represented ranchers who said Obama’s declaration deprived them of access to land they had long used. That case has been stayed as Biden reviews the action of his predecessor.

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