During this week’s Rock Your Mocs, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proudly showed his support for the worldwide Native American and indigenous peoples cultural celebration, sporting a pair of beaded moccasins over star-spangled socks.
But Native American tribes in the West remain upset over a larger Indian symbol that the secretary plans to rock to its foundation: the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Zinke compared the future size of the monuments, which President Trump is expected to shrink based on his recommendation, to that of Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.
The two parks total less than 185,000 acres combined. Zinke said the monument’s future footprint will still be larger — though that could mean a contraction of more than 80 percent.
The paper’s report coincided with remarks by Ron Dean, an assistant to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who told state lawmakers that he expects Bears Ears to be no larger than 100,000 to 300,000 acres after Trump orders it reduced.
Additionally, Dean told the Legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands that the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the southern part of the state could be cut to between 700,000 and 1.2 million acres, a reduction of as much as 40 percent.
Dean did not respond to a request for comment, and the Interior Department brushed off his account. “Respectfully, Hatch’s staff does not work for DOI and does not speak for the secretary,” spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement. “Additionally, the Secretary did not provide any acreage or implication of acreage in his conversation with the Tribune.”
Dean’s comments carry weight, however, because the president personally called Hatch, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, to tell him he intended to follow Zinke’s recommendation to reduce Bears Ears. When Trump signed an executive order calling on the Interior and Commerce departments to review certain monuments, he handed the pen to Hatch and said he planned to give the federally protected land back to Utahns.
Outraged representatives of the tribes involved with Bears Ears said Friday that they will lose a key part of their cultural heritage if the monument, designated last December by President Barack Obama, is reduced to a small fraction of its current size.
“If Mr. Trump shrinks our national monument, we will lose our culture and our traditional way of life as Native people,” said Evangeline Gray, a Utah Diné Bikéyah board member and local leader in Westwater, a reservation community just outside Blanding. “We live in a holistic way that people don’t understand. … Those areas are where we pray, we go to the mesas to do our offerings and do our ceremonies.”
Other supporters of Bears Ears used Zinke’s moccasins to mock him. “He’s not rocking his mocs. He’s putting them on display, which is a form of cultural appropriation,” said Angelo Baca, cultural resources coordinator for the Utah Diné Bikéyah. “He is using it as a vehicle for his own political ends.”
Not all Native groups, however, felt that way. The Bureau of Indian Affairs thanked Zinke for sharing in the celebration.
In southern Utah, other residents have cheered Trump’s vow to Hatch. “We’re tickled to death,” San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams said the day he made it last month. From discussions he’d heard, Adams said he believed Trump would to downsize Bears Ears “to two or three small areas that protect specific objects.”
Zinke bills himself as a friend of Native Americans, particularly groups that rely on one of his favorite energy resources, coal. The Crow Nation of Montana, his home state, won his support for its cultivation of coal as a fuel, and the Navajo Nation in Arizona won his backing for its continued operation of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country.
But Zinke also wholeheartedly supports Trump’s proposed cuts to Indian programs for health care, housing and education. Alaskan Native groups and tribes nationwide suffer from significant health and education disparities. In Alaska, where shores are eroding because of climate change and Native houses have fallen into the sea, communities are struggling to move because the federal government hasn’t provided adequate funding.
Criticism has also followed Dean’s comments about Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was designated by President Bill Clinton. Nearly 600 businesses sent a letter to Gary Cohn, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, asking him not to alter current national monuments because it would hurt local economies.
“As head of a chamber representing 49 businesses, I can tell you that since the protection of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, our local tourism industry in Escalante has grown and is thriving,” said Suzanne Catlett, board president of the Escalante & Boulder Chamber of Commerce. “Thanks to our national monuments, people want to live here, and new home construction is at an all-time high.”