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In light of President Trump’s reported plans to downsize Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) in southern Utah, it is worth recalling that many national monuments rightfully belong to Native Americans. In the interest of justice and a respect for tribal self-determination, it is past time that tribes be granted the authority by the federal government to manage their sacred sites.

The relationship between Native American tribes and the various federal agencies that manage their sacred spaces reinforces the history of disregard for Native American property rights. A polycentric approach to land management, which would share decision-making authority with tribal governments or tribal nonprofits, would create a more inclusive and equitable system for managing many national monuments. It would also have the added benefit of improving the management of these federal lands. As a recent anthology from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) puts it: “tribes have demonstrated that when they are afforded more control over natural resource management, the result is often better management and higher output.”  

A shift towards allowing tribes to administer their own sacred sites is not unprecedented. In a recent report, National Monument Alternatives: Innovative Strategies to Protect Public Lands, PERC outlines how four National Park units are already cooperatively managed by tribal partners and the federal government. One example is Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Northeastern Arizona, where the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service work together to preserve natural resources and sacred spaces on the canyon floor. The Navajo Nation has the authority to restrict access to certain areas and conducts its own tours of the area.

Another PERC report, Two Forests Under The Big Sky, details how in 1995 the Slaish-Kootenai Confederated Tribes (SKCT) entered into a pact with the federal government that enabled the Confederated Tribes to manage the forests on the Flathead Reservation. Under the management of SKCT, the forests earned $2.04 for every dollar spent on timber management. By contrast, the federally managed Lolo National Forest, which neighbors the reservation, receives only $1.11 for every dollar spent.

In 1996, President Clinton signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to “accommodate” sacred sites. But the language in this executive order failed to grant any decision-making authority to tribes to manage that land. A sacred space is federally recognized as a “specific, discrete, narrowly delineated location” on federal land that is religiously or ceremonially significant to Native Americans. These spaces commonly include areas such as ancestral hunting grounds, canyons, rock formations, and petroglyph art. They may also include areas with ancient structures, pottery, or other artifacts.

When President Obama designated Bears Ears as a National Monument in 2016, he also created the Bears Ears Commission to solicit input from five tribes. However well intended, the Bears Ears Commission merely pays lip service to tribal authority by accepting only “guidance and recommendations.” This further demonstrates that when it comes to federal land management, the norm is either to ignore tribal concerns altogether or else to grant tribes opportunities for input without giving them any real authority.

Last April, Trump signed an executive order instructing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review over two dozen National Monuments. The interim report by Secretary Zinke recommends that the president seek congressional authority “to enable tribal co-management of designated cultural areas” within BENM. These recommendations hint at a potential shift in the tribal-federal relationship.

Trump’s executive order sought the review of 27 National Monument sites, but the controversy over who has decision-making authority of Native American sacred sites is not limited to these sites alone. For example, the All Pueblo Council of Governors recently called for a moratorium on oil and gas permitting and leasing within New Mexico’s Greater Chaco Canyon Region. This call for a moratorium comes from 20 Pueblo tribes and the Navajo Nation who worry that Trump’s desire to increase energy production on public land poses a threat to the region. The resolution calls on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management to ensure the protection of traditional cultural properties and sacred sites before issuing permits for oil and natural gas extraction. However, since the tribes lack any decision-making authority, this resolution is merely a recommendation to federal authorities.

Zinke has claimed that he will do everything in his power “to ensure respect to the sovereign Indian Nations and territories.” If the Department of the Interior is serious about a renewed focus on tribal self-determination, self-governance, and empowerment, then allowing tribes to manage their own sacred spaces is a small but necessary first step.

Ruben Pacheco is an advocate for Young Voices and policy analyst from Albuquerque, NM. He has worked at think tanks in Washington D.C., Albuquerque, and Austin. Follow him on Twitter at @RPachec4.

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