As It Happens

Native American tribes plan to sue Trump over shrinking of national monuments

Donald Trump has announced plans to reduce two major monuments in Utah. But Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Indian Tribe says he and others will fight the move in court.
Shaun Chapoose with the Ute Indian Tribe says U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments benefits 'a few powerful Utah politicians.' (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

Story transcript

Just hours after U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans Monday to significantly reduce the size of two national monuments, Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante, a coalition of five Native American tribes said they'd take the decision to court.

The group, which includes Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian, say the reduction of these sites will affect resources used by them for ceremonial purposes, such as rocks, cliff dwellings and pottery that are still buried in the areas. They also fear losing medicinal plants that grow in the region.

That's because the move will shrink Bears Ears, which occupies more than 1.3 million acres, by 80 per cent. Meanwhile, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will be be reduced by roughly 45 per cent.

Shaun Chapoose is the chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe business committee. He spoke to As It Happens guest host Jim Brown.

The Upper Gulch section of the Escalante Canyons within Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. On Monday, Trump announced he would reduce the size of it, along with Bears Ears. (Douglas C. PizacéThe Associated Press)

Mr. Chapoose, what do you think is behind this announcement that the size of these two national monuments are going to be reduced: the Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Bears Ears?

Well, I think it really had nothing to do with the monuments. It was more or less there were political deals being made at Washington, D.C. that require the Congressional delegation or the senator from Utah to support it. And it was known that the state of Utah were perturbed or upset when the monument was declared. So, I think the political climate of what the nation faces, plus the president needing the votes, created a perfect storm for the Utah delegation to do away with this monument because they've always had a desire to get control of that land.

And why did the Utah delegation want these monuments reduced?

In that part of the region, San Juan County, it's littered with artifacts, first of all. Plus it has uranium and the local community felt like they should be the ones who benefit from that resource. But once it got placed into a monument, restrictions would then be enforced that hadn't been enforced ... And it upset them even more that five Native American tribes were actually the ones who spearheaded the effort.

Chapoose says the Bears Ears National Monument should be protected because it contains several resources there used by various Native American tribes. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

You mentioned resources. You said there's some uranium on these sites. What other resources are we talking about here?

There's uranium. There's some potential for some oil, gas development. There's timber in the region. On the Tavaputs region in the Grand Staircase-Esclante ... that's got a real large coal deposit now.

There were some maps leaked last week that showed the Trump administration's plans to reduce these things by more than 80 per cent of the land that's there now. What will that cost the people of Utah?

Now all these resources are going to be at the whims of the local county officials and the state. And once these resources or archaeological sites get destroyed, they're done, they're gone, they don't exist no more. So basically, it's like losing a national treasure.

A supporter of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments dances with a headdress during a rally in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

When the Bears Ears monument was designated by president Obama, just shortly before he left office, what did that symbolize for Indigenous people?

It actually was a victory, in a way of saying, "Hey, you are relevant. You are part of North America." Because up until now, you've never had a Native American tribe or a group of tribes participate in the designation of any monument. And so when they were able to bring forth an effort to do this and actually be acknowledged and put into the proclamation in an advisory role, it was a moment for all tribes to say, "Hey, you know what? We have finally let the past be the past. And now we're moving into the future."

Trump speaks on his decision to shrink the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

What about Trump's announcement this week? What did that symbolize?

Basically, it just says, "Hey, Indian, go back and sit in your corner. We're the federal government. Citizens of Utah, the non-Natives, they're the controllers of this. And we'll decide what's in your best interest."

What about some local people who are making the argument that people might want to graze cattle there or mine for uranium or drill for gas or oil? This argument that this land is ours and it could provide economic benefit to us so we can use it as we want?

Well, that's not exactly factual either because the land itself is federal land. So it's public land. And, in the proclamation, it actually did set aside grazing rights, set aside oil and gas development. It basically addressed all of the things that they're saying all of a sudden were taken away. Nowhere in the declaration did it change anything that was already available to them.

Trump's move to shrink two large national monuments in Utah triggered another round of outrage among Native American leaders who vowed to unite and take the fight to court to preserve protections for lands they consider sacred. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

And in terms of San Juan County, their economic hardship is due to their own desire to keep themselves isolated. Because it's been proven, once you have monuments and areas like this, tourism dollars are also coming in and you get more people coming in, which creates business. And, if they were so concerned about the economics of the county, then they would be trying to balance the two. And the proclamation did do that. So they felt that, all of a sudden, they didn't have this big backyard that they were free to run around and pillage.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more, you can listen to our full interview with Shaun Chapoose​ above. 


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