Haaland visits Bears Ears

A historic moment 

Jonathan P. Thompson
Apr 9

This week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited southeastern Utah in order to “listen” and to “learn” about Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The visit, which included meetings with tribal leaders, the Utah congressional delegation, and local and state elected officials was part of the Biden administration’s review of the monuments, which were shrunken dramatically by the Trump administration. 

A cynic might see the visit as political theatre, and there was some of that. But that shouldn’t take away from the historical significance of the Bears Ears visit. Here was the first Indigenous person to serve as secretary of the Interior, traveling through the first national monument to be conceived of and proposed and fought for by five tribal nations with deep roots in the land in question. And Haaland, herself, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, also has ancestral ties to the region. 

(Much has been written about these ties, but for a quick overview I strongly recommend this piece by Lyle Balenquah, a Hopi archaeologist and artist. He’s talking about Hopi connections, in particular, but the ideas extend to the Pueblo people, in general. And here’s another about ties to Grand Staircase-Escalante.) 

Unfortunately, that deeper significance is often lost amid the political posturing and squabbling over the monument, “land grabs,” “local control,” the extent of the Antiquities Act, and the like. It is lost among the overblown assertions that a battalion of drill rigs will descend upon the Bears Ears, themselves, without a monument and, similarly, that the place will suddenly be thronged with millions of visitors, a la Zion National Park, as soon as it becomes a monument. I’m not going to rehash all of that now (for more of my thoughts read The Meaning of Monuments, the Mega-monument that Almost Was, and this piece on Industrial-scale Tourism). 

Instead, I’m going to ask that everyone slow down, forget about these arguments for or against monument designation, and consider the meaning of this moment in which five sovereign tribal nations—some of whom were historically at odds with one another—saw that their ancestral homeland and their culture was threatened, came together, and over the course of years formulated a proposal that could not only protect some of that culture, but also maybe give the tribes a little more say over how it is managed and interpreted. That is a big deal no matter how this all turns out. 

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