MEXICAN WATER – During a meeting Monday between U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, and Navajo Nation leadership, President Russell Begaye urged the congressman to withdraw H.R. 4532, which would congressionally ratify the unlawful Trump revocation and replacement of the Bears Ears National Monument.
The Curtis Bill would reduce the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, leaving two smaller monuments (Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument) in its place. Combined, the two smaller monuments would amount to no more than 201,876 acres.
Despite being described in the legislation as creating “the first Tribally managed national monument,” the bill would greatly limit true tribal engagement. The Bears Ears Commission, established through consultation with the five tribes that advocated for the Bears Ears National Monument, would only have input on management of the Shash Jáa National Monument. Under the Curtis Bill, new Management Councils would replace federal agencies as the primary management authorities for the new monuments, and the tribes would have no say in the selection of Management Council members.
“Our people have always dealt with repercussions of decisions made on our behalf without our input or consultation,” President Begaye said. “We are asking Congressman Curtis to withdraw this bill and to listen to the concerns of our people.”
The meeting with Rep. Curtis, held at the Mexican Water Chapter House, was the first time the congressman consulted with tribes on the Bill. The Nation was represented at the meeting by President Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, Honorable Delegate Davis Filfred, Honorable Delegate Tom Chee, and Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch. Representatives from the Navajo Utah Commission and the board of the Utah Diné Bikeyah were also in attendance. Mexican Water Chapter President Kenneth Maryboy opened and managed the meeting.
With the exception of the congressman, the overwhelming majority of those in attendance spoke against the bill.
“I don’t think anyone represented here supports moving this legislation forward,” Attorney General Branch said. “We are asking you to withdraw your legislation. Sit down at the table with us and let’s discuss how to proceed from here.”
Delegate Filfred spoke to the cultural implications of the bill. Reducing the size of the monument would disturb protections of a region that Navajos use to gather medicinal herbs.
“The Nation has many legislations opposing this bill,” he said. “Our medicine men have gathered to talk about this and we would like to talk with you to share our views about this.”
The Navajo Nation this year commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of 1868. Vice President Nez emphasized the treaty’s importance in establishing the Navajo tribe as a sovereign nation entitled to government-to-government relations.
Vice President Nez said that while Native people have always honored their treaties, tribal nations often have to remind their federal counterparts to live up to their obligations.
“In the treaty, the Navajo said they would peacefully put down their arms and work in tandem with the federal government,” he said. “We seek your leadership as a voice of reason and fairness to help advocate for local needs. We have the same rights as any other U.S. citizens. We’re asking you to work across organizations to secure our rights and basic equity.”
Attorney General Branch stressed the importance of protecting the region and seeking input from tribal leadership.
“On the Navajo Nation, we have over 520 abandoned uranium sites,” she said. “Much of our territory has been greatly developed in terms of extractive resources. Protecting the region and the pristine resources at Bears Ears is important because of this.”
Despite the many requests to withdraw his bill, Curtis asserted that he doesn’t intend to withdraw his bill.
Having listened to the concerns of the leaders, Rep. Curtis said he was concerned with how the tribe and state might find middle ground on the bill.
“My purpose in being here today was to hear suggestions about the bill, and thus far I haven’t heard any,” he said. “That’s my concern. I want to make this bill acceptable to you. We need to close the gap.”
President Begaye noted that originally the Nation pursued a national monument designation of 1.9 million acres to protect the Bears Ears, but were willing to accept the 1.35 million-acre designation as a compromise.
“When you visit the Bears Ears National Monument, it rejuvenates you,” President Begaye said. “It’s powerful to be on the mountain. We want to protect this land. Listen to the people and withdraw the bill.”
Notably this was the first time in recent history a sitting member of Congress held a meeting on the Navajo Nation with Utah Navajo constituents.