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Professor: National monument reductions follow history of land theft in US

Last week, President Donald J. Trump announced plans to reduce by 85 percent Bears Ears National Monument—land that was given protective status in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama. According to Nicholas Brown, associate teaching professor in Northeastern’s Urban Landscape program, the decision was tantamount to a “direct attack on native sovereignty, among other things.”

Trump also announced last week that he would be reducing by half another Utah national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was classified as protected land by former President Bill Clinton in 1996.

In both cases, the administration said the move was intended as a “response to decades of federal overreach that have sometimes starved communities of revenue and autonomy,” The New York Times reported.

Brown studies the relationship between social justice and the built environment, and is also a scholar of indigenous history and politics. He said the decision to shrink the federally-protected land at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante raises questions about environmental justice as well as native sovereignty. “They’re inseparable,” he said of the two.

He defined environmental justice as “the uneven distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.”

Indeed, unlike other national monuments and federally protected lands, Bears Ears is a tribal monument, Brown said. Five indigenous peoples—the Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe, and Navajo Nation—formed the Bears Ears Coalition in 2015 to fight for the protection and recognition of Bears Ears as sacred land.

Late last week, The Washington Post reported that a uranium company had launched “a concerted lobbying campaign to scale back” the monument in order to gain easier access to buried uranium deposits in the area.

“You can take the long view that Bears Ears will always be indigenous land, and nothing will change that,” Brown said. He added that the action to reduce the size of the federally protected lands “follows a long history of land theft in this country.”

Though Trump’s action is indicative of a “well-documented history of anti-Indianism,” Brown said, he is not the first president to impinge upon native peoples’ rights.

It’s time to start “thinking about settler colonialism as ongoing and not just something that happened in the past,” he said. “Bears Ears is a great example of understanding it as a continuation.”

The Trump administration invoked a law called the Antiquities Act to reduce the size of the protected lands in both cases. The law grants presidents the authority to set aside landmarks with the caveat that the protection should be limited to the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management.”

In both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, Utah lawmakers have argued that the actions of the previous presidents abused the law by exceeding that limit.

Still, five American Indian tribes have filed federal lawsuits over the current administration’s move.

“That sense of these five tribes coming together to protect this land, and the work that went into establishing it as a national monument, isn’t something that can be undone, even if the protection isn’t upheld in the courts,” Brown said.