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Native American Supporters Want To Tell Interior Secretary Why Bears Ears Monument Should Stick

Judy Fahys
Jonah Yellowman would like to show the new U.S. Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, why the Bears Ears National Monument should remain intact. His invitation has gone unanswered as Zinke prepares for a trip to southern Utah next week.

Utahns -- from Senators to local ranchers and archaeologists -- have been asking to show U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke the state’s newest national monument. He arrives Sunday to carry out President Donald Trump's recent executive order to review monuments, starting with Bears Ears in San Juan County.

One of the groups that hasn’t been granted a meeting is Utah Dine Bikeyah, nonprofit started by Navajos who had the original idea for a national monument that Native Americans would co-manage. Zinke never responded to their invitation. UDB leaders Mary Benally and Jonah Yellowman recently stopped by KUER studios to talk about what they'd hoped to talk about with the new Interior Secretary: why they believe the Bears Ears National Monument should be preserved.

Mary Benally: I don't understand why people are against it. They say we're taking their livelihood away. Our livelihoods were taken away way back 1843, 1845, when we were forced of the land. It was an atrocious act. And we were incarcerated in New Mexico. So people are saying and the politicians are saying: "This is our land. This is ours." This -- it doesn't belong to anybody. It doesn't belong to any particular group.

Jonah Yellowman: The way I look at it, you know, is it because we're at the table now? Are they afraid of something? We're not trying to take nothing. You know, it's there. Like Mary said, it's for everybody. The cows are out there grazing. It's still there, and firewood gathering is still there. And like medicine plants, what we need to use is still there, you know, everything. All we need is to protect. And that's the same idea that the ones that are supporting us think that way.

KUER: People don't understand why this is important to you. Do I get that right?

Yellowman: Nobody has come down to really actually talk with us down home. We want him to go down there, some of the leaders from Washington D.C., like Zinke. We want him to come down and talk to us and see what we're talking about. Look at the way we live.

Myself, you know, where I live I don't even have electricity. I don't even have running water yet. My great, great grandmother was born up in Bears Ears. My great, great grandfather, you know, Chief Manuelito, he was born up there. So that's my aboriginal land, our aboriginal land. And they don't see it, you know, but it's public land today.

You know, everybody' uses it. So, I want, you know, some of the leaders to come down and see -- actually look at and listen to us. We want to welcome them, you know, to our, to our land down there.

Benally: Maybe he'll see it the way we see it. I don't know. But when (former U.S. Interior Secretary) Sally Jewel came, she, you know, she realized what we were talking about. And like Jonah said, we talked (and) somebody listened to us in Washington, D.C., and they really listened. So they did what we wanted, declared a monument.

KUER: So how do you see things turning out?

Yellowman: Everybody's got to learn from this, I think. And there's a lot of education in there, you know, about this law system, how it works. And people are going to benefit from it. They're going to acknowledge more how we live. That's the way I look at it. Bears Ears National Monument became a law. You know, like it's signed by the president, and we want it to be honored. That's all we're asking. And we want everybody to, to enjoy that. We're not selfish. We never were.

Benally: Yes. They owe us. Why are they listening to the opposition? As a leader, I believe, as a leader, especially elected leaders, should be neutral to and listen to both sides of the story and not just listen to one side. And that's why we ask, ' Come down, come to us. Sit down and have coffee with us under the juniper tree and let's talk.

KUER: Well, Mary, Jonah, thank you for coming.

Mary Benally and Jonah Yellowman are board members of the nonprofit Utah Dine Bikeyah. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke never responded to their invitation to discuss the Bears Ears National Monument. Zinke is scheduled to arrive in Salt Lake City on Sunday.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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