Fight Over Bears Ears National Monument: Now Featuring Forged Federal Documents!

Just north of the Arizona border in San Juan County, Utah, copies of phony documents have been turning up at gas stations and post offices, aimed at local Native American tribes.

The bogus handouts are filled with false information related to an actual pending proposal to establish a 1.9-million-acre national monument around the Bears Ears twin buttes in southeast Utah, leading many to believe they're part of a campaign of disinformation meant to undermine tribal support for the designation.

Tacked to bulletin boards, the documents include a letter purportedly penned by Albert Holiday, vice president of the Navajo Nation’s Oljato Chapter, falsely claiming that tribes would be barred from collecting herbs and conducting ceremonies inside the national monument; a forged letter from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell saying the federal government is reducing the size of the Navajo Reservation by about 4 million acres; and a flyer announcing that Jewell and President Barack Obama will travel to Utah later this summer to christen the monument and inviting everyone to the celebration "except Utah Navajos."

Cynthia Wilson, community-outreach coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit group committed to preserving culturally significant areas for indigenous communities, tells New Times that she first saw the flyers while driving from her home in San Juan County to Salt Lake City about a week ago.

"I stopped at a gas station, and that's where I came across the flyers," Wilson says. "I took them down and went to the next gas station, and I saw the same flyers posted."

Suspecting there might be more, she drove to the nearest post office, in the town of Bluff, and saw the flyers posted there, as well.

Wilson calls the documents "misleading" and "racist," and says she thinks whoever put them up did so in order to erode support for the monument by convincing local tribal members that the federal government does not have their best interests at heart, and that establishing the monument would limit their access to sacred lands.

"I think the flyers are really out there to confuse people about what we're trying to do," she says.

Last year, five local tribes calling themselves the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition – the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni — formally asked the president to establish the Bears Ears National Monument on a parcel of land they say holds deep cultural and religious significance.

The proposed monument lies between Canyonlands National Park and the San Juan River in southern Utah, and includes the iconic Bears Ears Buttes, the Manti-La Sal National Forest, the Dark Canyon Wilderness area, and Cedar Mesa plateau overlooking the Valley of the Gods.
"This proposal is unique and wholly unprecedented," the coalition writes. "While historians, conservationists, scientists, archaeologists, and others have sponsored many requests for protection under the Antiquities Act, Tribes have never before petitioned for a presidentially declared national monument, much less one of the size and scope we propose here."

A recent public-opinion poll found that 71 percent of Utahans support the monument designation. But that hasn't stopped some lawmakers and others tied to the mining and oil-and-gas industries from launching an all-out campaign to stop it.

In mid-May, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a non-binding legislative resolution opposing the monument. Earlier this year, Utah state Rep. Mike Noel (R-Kanab) had formally asked the state Attorney General to investigate whether environmental groups are using the tribes as political pawns to secure the federal designation.

Noel's actions spurred "a witch hunt claiming the tribes have essentially been bribed into supporting a national monument [that] would protect their cultural heritage from being damaged by vandals and grave robbers," contends Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the conservation advocacy group Center for Western Priorities.

"The debate over a national monument in Utah has always been contentious, but it's recently been injected with an ugly undercurrent of racism," Zimmerman adds.

"We don't know exactly who is behind [the flyers], but I think they're trying to put fear in the minds of the Utah Navajos and kill our proposal," says Mark Maryboy of Utah Diné Bikéyah.

Maryboy explains that the opposition is telling people that a national monument would limit their ability to access the area for spiritual and recreational purposes – a notion, he says, that could not be further from the truth.

Like Wilson, Maryboy suspects that many local tribal members have never actually read the monument proposal, and he worries that these people will be swayed by the false flyers and forged documents.

Further complicating matters is a recent vandalism and looting spree that has seen the desecration of some of the 100,000 antiquities sites in the area.

"People have been trying to carve out some of the petroglyphs, there are gunshots on petroglyphs and rock structures, and a lot of Anasazi ruins in the area or grave sites of our ancestors have been dug up" by thieves intent upon stealing jewelry, Cynthia Wilson reports.

Under the monument proposal, local tribes will have more authority to help protect, preserve, and co-manage these cultural artifacts – another reason Wilson and others are urgently pushing for the designation.

"I am afraid that if the vandalism continues, most of these sites will be completely ruined," Maryboy says.

When it comes to monument designation, he adds, "Time is of the essence. We don't know what's going to happen with the election coming up, and for that reason, we believe our best approach is to concentrate on getting President Obama to designate the national monument."

For months, the Obama administration has been tight-lipped on this and other monument proposals, but at an April event celebrating National Park Week in April, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that she will visit Utah this summer, generating speculation among locals that the president is strongly considering the Bears Ears designation.

While Jewell didn't address any specific monument proposals, she did acknowledge that "there are communities across America who believe that President Obama should act to protect more special places. Places that help tell a more complete story of America. Places with incredible antiquities at risk of looting or development."

See the three bogus flyers circulating in southeastern Utah:

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser