What Protecting Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument Has to Do with Religious Freedom

Two distinctive twin buttes rise up out of the southeastern Utah landscape that are collectively translated in each of the local Native languages as “Bears Ears.” It’s remoteness leaves visitors with a sense of awe: brilliant starry nights and deafening silence in one of the least developed areas in the contiguous United States. It’s a region not only distinguished by its natural beauty - over 1.9 million acres of canyonlands, mesas and rock spires - but also by its rich cultural context and significance to the regional Natives. As President Obama wrote in his 2016 proclamation designating Bears Ears as a National Monument, “Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes.”

The cumulative cultural value of Bears Ears is significant: it contains over 100,000 ancestral Puebloan archeological sites and millions of artifacts. For a long time the natural beauty and historic relics of Bears Ears were protected by its sheer remoteness, with primarily Native tribes and locals returning to the region for ceremonies, hunting, and gathering of herbs and medicines. Unfortunately, in recent years as tourism to the site has increased, so has vandalism, looting, and even grave robbing of these sacred sites. In response, five local tribes united to form the Bears Ears Commission, which petitioned the federal government to protect the region by designating it as a national monument. President Obama granted their request in December 2016, using his presidential power through the Antiquities Act to designate 1.35 million acres of the land as a federally protected national monument.

However, the new monument quickly faced opposition from state officials and corporations wishing to use the lands for its energy potential. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Interior worked throughout 2017 to determine the mining potential of the various monuments, and specifically met with uranium mining company Energy Fuel Resources Inc., which has mines adjacent to the Bears Ears monument. The lobbying efforts of these energy companies resulted in the Trump administration’s announcement in December 2017, only a year after its creation, that the Bears Ears National Monument would be cut by 85 percent, to the dismay of the local Native tribes that advocated for the monument’s original boundaries. A coalition of tribes and environmental groups are currently contesting the cuts to Bears Ears National Monument in court, arguing that President Trump does not have the power to revoke or reduce national monuments, only Congress does.

While the current court battle is legally complex and nuanced, there is a larger issue at stake that must first be considered. The dramatic cuts to Bears Ears National Monument are about much more than protecting the land for the sake of its historical or cultural value; it’s about honoring the religious freedom of Native Americans.

What Makes a Place Sacred?

This isn’t the first time economic interests have come in conflict with Native sacred sites. In 2016 Native tribes protested the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock because of the pipeline’s potential to  jeopardize the tribes’ water supply at Lake Oahe. Many Native religions view land and water as sacred spaces. As Chelsea Langston Bombino explained in a previous Shared Justice article, “For Native American ‘water protectors,’ advocating against a pipeline which could harm their water supply is a deeply spiritual act, motivated by a sacrosanct duty to protect the earth and the interconnectedness of everything.” Alfred Lomahquahu, Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, made a similar argument for Bears Ears:,“It’s not just because it’s land. It’s our heritage, it’s our elders. We’ve created a family based on trust. We’re working collaboratively now. It’s not just for each tribe, it’s for everyone, for next generations, for what we leave for them.”

People of all faiths, including Christians, should be among the first to advocate for the protection of Native peoples’ religious freedom, whether their exercise of religion looks different than many Western religions or not. As Langston Bombino goes on to explain, “Religious freedom is often framed in terms of the capacity of individuals to worship, pray, or engage in explicitly religious acts in the privacy of their homes or traditional houses of worship...Yet these images alone do not encapsulate the expansive diversity and creativity of what a person or a group's exercise of religious freedom looks like.”

American Christians in particular have their own heritage of advocating for religious freedoms. Pilgrims, Puritans, Jesuits, Quakers, Mennonites, Protestants and Catholics alike fled Europe for America in the hopes of being able to practice their religious beliefs in freedom without fear of persecution. It is from this heritage of belief that the modern day church should stand up for our Native neighbors who are fighting for those same rights in their homelands. In the case of sacred lands, these spaces are both irreplaceable and priceless.

The dramatic cuts to Bears Ears National Monument are about much more than protecting the land...

As the battle over Bears Ears continues, how should we think about the role of government?

As a government founded on principles of religious freedom, all three branches (executive, legislative and judicial) are similarly tasked with protecting the right to practice religion. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Because the First Amendment prohibits establishing a certain religion as the official religion of the country, all religions and their subsequent religious practices are to be protected by the government, so long as those practices do not violate the law.

A public justice framework invites us as citizens to consider the right roles and responsibilities of diverse individuals and institutions in our pluralistic society. We are called as Christians to consider how to work with diverse actors, including government, faith organizations, and other civil society institutions, to protect the freedoms of all people. This is especially applicable to groups like Native Americans who have faced historic structural injustices. We are also called as Christians to pursue innovative and unlikely partnerships with those whom it may be difficult, including government, corporations, and people of diverse or no faith. While we may not agree with Native Americans’ religious beliefs, we can still advocate for their freedom to enjoy the land their ancestors walked, to perform the ceremonies of their heritage in the same locations they have been performed for centuries, and to admire the ancient Puebloan sites and artifacts of their ancestors.

The legal battle over Bears Ears is incredibly complex and will likely be a lengthy one. It’s vital that our lawmakers and other key decision makers in this case recognize and affirm principles of religious freedom and do not desecrate land that is both sacred and integral to Native Americans’ ability to practice their faith.

-Lauren Berg is a freelance writer and journalist in New York's scenic Hudson Valley.