Forged letters mislead Utah residents about Native American land proposal

Interior secretary did not say land would revert to US government, officials say, as flyers reject Navajos from party for proposed Bears Ears national monument

Forged letters and flyers appearing at gas stations and post offices in tribal lands in Utah are spreading false information about a proposal to create a national monument that protects Native American land.

The proposed Bears Ears national monument, named for the Bears Ears Buttes in south-eastern Utah, would cover up to 1.9m acres of land that is culturally significant to Native American tribes. The land is considered sacred to tribe members, and it contains more than 100,000 archaeological sites and structures.

Supporters of the monument say the fake documents are an attempt to misinform Native Americans and undermine efforts to safeguard the land. Posted on bulletin boards, the documents include a fake letter from Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, stating that about 4m acres of the Navajo reservation will revert to the federal government.

The Department of the Interior said last month that Jewell sent no such letter, and that President Obama has no intentions of reducing the size of the Navajo reservation.

The false documents also include a flyer announcing that Jewell and Barack Obama will travel to the area in July to attend a party celebrating the designation, but that no Utah Navajos are invited to attend.

Cynthia Wilson, community outreach coordinator for Utah Din Bikyah, a not-for-profit group working to conserve lands significant to Native Americans, said the documents were very misleading. She said she worried people would get the wrong idea of what the Bears Ears national monument designation would do.

Wilson first noticed one of the documents when she stopped at a gas station in the town of Mexican Hat and saw a flyer posted on a bulletin board. She suspected there could be more, so she drove to the nearest post office, in the town of Bluff, and saw more posted with printouts that people could take with them.

At this time, I have no idea who made up those false documents, Wilson said.

Crane Petroglyph, at the proposed Bears Ears national monument in Utah. Photograph: Josh Ewing

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities, said the documents certainly show disrespect toward the tribal leaders who are pushing for the national monument. But he said he was not surprised, given how much opposition was coming from the Utah legislature and how contentious the debate over the monument had become.

Last month, Utah lawmakers passed a resolution that opposes the proposed designation. They say they are afraid the protection would curtail the use of the land and that the region already has three monuments.

Some also argue that environmental groups, not tribal members, are the interests at work. As a result, a state panel recently asked the governor and the state attorney general to investigate organizations that are advocating for the monument. Governor Gary Herbert has signed a resolution opposing the monument.

Wilson said there was strong support for the monument among tribal members and pointed out that six of the seven Navajo chapter houses in Utah had passed resolutions supporting it. Its just that a lot of things, like these flyers posted, try to confuse people, she said.

The proposal for the monument was presented last year by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which is made up of five local tribes: the Hopi tribe, Navajo nation, Ute Mountain Ute tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian tribe.

A flyer advertising a party with Barack Obama and Sally Jewell for everyone except Utah Navajos. Photograph: Utah Din Bikyah

The proposal urges Obama to use the authority he has under the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to unilaterally designate national monuments.

Gavin Noyes, executive director of the Utah Din Bikyah, called the proposal historic. He said hes not aware of another time when Native American tribes have come together for such a petition.

This is the first time thats happened, he said. And its also probably the first time that this broad of a coalition of tribes has come together and united around a big issue such as this one. Weve not seen that before.

Noyes added that he worried many tribal members might be influenced by the false documents. He said he wanted to assure them that the national monument would not limit their use of the land. He said they would still be able to collect medicinal herbs, collect wood for ceremonial uses, hunt and visit sacred places.

Furthermore, Noyes said creating the monument would protect and preserve the land, which he said was threatened by rampant looting. He noted that grave sites were being dug up and the artifactstaken from them sold for pennies on the black market.

Map of the at the proposed Bears Ears national monument in Utah. Photograph: Handout

Jewell has so far remained quiet on whether the president will designate a new national monument this year.

In an April speech, Jewell announced that her cross-country trip this summer would include a stop in Utah, where she said there were a range of conservation proposals legislative and otherwise to further protect public lands. She did not specifically mention the Bears Ears national monument proposal, but supporters say they remain hopeful.

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