In May of this year, my mother and I received a unique opportunity through the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada: to travel to Washington, D.C. and advocate for the good care of all public lands – including and especially our national monuments. When our Bishop offered us the opportunity to speak as indigenous Christian peoples, I was unsure, but up for the task.
I read and prepared for my travels. I especially studied the Bears Ears National Monument, and connected with this place that is sacred to many different tribes, and which now may be reduced. I learned that the Bears Ears region contains more than 100,000 sites with archaeological, cultural and spiritual significance. The land supports indigenous traditional livelihoods, spiritual life and medicinal and cultural practices. While indigenous people are taught that all land and water are sacred, Bears Ears is even more significant to the surrounding tribes. This is where they perform their deepest ceremonies.
On our own reservation we have a lake that is sacred to our people. I cannot imagine someone coming in to harm or abuse the lake for lack of security or protection, and the effect it would have on my people if we were faced with what the Bears Ears tribes are facing now.
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So it is in this way I know that indigenous people must stand for one another to make sure voices are heard and actions are taken to keep what little land we have left. That is why I went to Washington: to let our leaders know what it means when they allow sacred land to be violated.
I have never experienced the process of meeting with national decision-makers before and I wasn’t sure how or if we were going to be heard at our meetings with the Interior Department, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Senators. “Who am I? Why will they listen to me? I am just one person.” All of these thoughts went through my head. One of my fellow advocates, Navajo writer and activist Mark Charles, helped me to shift my mentality before we went into the meetings. He reminded us that the Indigenous Peoples of this land are the host people of the land. We must be fully at the table when decisions about our homelands are made. We belong at that table and we NEED to speak up for ourselves. It is our right!
When we were in the meetings, we shared our concerns for public lands and monuments with a specific focus on Bears Ears. We talked about how the Trump Administration fast-tracked the stakeholder process by mostly having public communications online as an expedient way to go through the motions of an official process. They did not take into consideration that the local tribal members and the elders of those tribes near the monument do not all have Internet access and were not aware of the expedited process. These are Native peoples of the land that have for generations depended on the oral traditions. So the people most affected by any minimization of the national monument, the indigenous people of the land where the monument stands, were not heard.
These are the people who came together and formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. They are now part of the primary advisory body of the monument. The Trump administration did not give the Coalition enough time to be heard and to lay out their concerns. In this way the Administration acted in gross negligence against the Indigenous Peoples of the land.
Now, Secretary Zinke has given his interim recommendations on Bears Ears National Monument to President Trump. And there is no organized way for tribes to influence decisions as sovereign nations when land decisions go to Congress, and this decision is likely to go before Congress.
Bears Ears is a spotlight for how tribes need to have a pathway to influence decisions that affect our lands, religion and traditions. These are the lands on which we hold our ceremonies. We respect the archeological sites and the resources that come from the Earth. Above all we need to preserve the land for our children and their children.
Ultimately, all lands belong to our youth and that means all youth, no matter what their ethnicity or religion. We owe it to them to keep Bears Ears and other sacred national monument sites protected. What we do now determines their future. We must leave them a future that includes lands that are special and free from harm, so that they may enjoy and benefit from the lands as we all do now.
Loni Romo lives on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation in Nevada, 35 miles northeast of Reno and works as a Student Graduation Advocate for Native American students. She is an active member of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church.