‘On cloud nine’: Native American leaders in Utah react to Bears Ears, Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – For Native Americans in Utah, it’s possible that there may not have been a more exciting 96 hour stretch in quite a few years like the last four days.

On Friday, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation restoring two of the state’s national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, back to “full glory” after the two lands were significantly downsized by President Donald Trump.

Biden offered a second cause for celebration on that same day by issuing another proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day to be celebrated on Monday.

To Woody Lee, Utah Diné Bikéyah’s Executive Director, it’s been a whirlwind weekend and change.

“For our group and all of our supporters and all of the other five tribes and other tribes that had ties to Bears Ears so we were in spiritually celebrating mood,” Lee, a member of the Navajo Tribe, explains to ABC4.com. “For a person at the highest office in the country to acknowledge that and sign that is very rewarding. We’re all happy and even today you know, we are still on cloud nine.”

Getting the announcement that Bears Ears would be restored created a flurry of excitement for Lee and his group. Word reached him and other leaders of Diné Bikéyah, which has worked to preserve Bears Ears for its importance to the tribes who have called it home for generations, while they were out looking at a new office space in Salt Lake City. The message they received on Lee’s phone was so stunning, the group immediately stopped what they were doing and scrambled to book flights to the East Coast to be present at the signing.

Lee, who lives seven hours away from Salt Lake, had to make a quick shopping trip to get something a bit more formal for the ceremony, with no time to run home and grab a change of clothes.

“That was quite an ordeal,” he recalls. “At the same time, it was like hey this is no problem we just want to be there and enjoy the great news.”

Dustin Jansen, who works as the Director for the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, says that the recent motions made at the top of American leadership can go a long way in healing some of the scars that have been caused as a result of Native Americans’ painful history with the federal government. Biden himself acknowledged the government’s role in disrupting and destroying the Indigenous People’s way of life in his proclamation.

Some of those scars remain to this day, Jansen, also a member of the Navajo Nation, relates.

“I know there are people that struggle with that the history between the federal government and the United States federally recognized tribes, and even the state-recognized tribes, and all those tribes that don’t have any type of recognition at all,” he laments. “And we can see the lingering effects of that with people that that still have to reconcile with what happened.”

Having Oct. 11, which doubles as Columbus Day, as a day to acknowledge indigenous people, is a “ginormous step” in the healing process, Jansen says.

“So many times we concentrate on the development of this land as, as the United States government, and we forget the process that went about in becoming a United States government,” he states. “This land was covered with indigenous peoples within these tribes long before the United States was even formed.”

In addition to the proclamations by President Biden, local leaders have also sought ways to bridge the gap between the unpleasant treatment of the past, and a brighter future built on a better understanding of Native Americans.

For example, in March 2020, the University of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe signed a renewed agreement allowing the athletic department to continue to use the “Utes” nickname for another five years.

Jansen says the real takeaway and reason to celebrate that agreement is found in how the deal came to be.

“I think what’s important is understanding how they came to that agreement. They came to that agreement by communicating with one another, by sitting at a table together, and negotiating that agreement out,” he explains. “I think that’s a great way for the state and for tribes to work on consultation with one another to accomplish great things.”

And while restoring Native lands and recognizing the people with a proclamation at the top of government is a great “band-aid,” as Lee says, there is still more work to be done.

“We need to really demonstrate our sovereignty, and at the same time have our sovereignty accepted mainstream America,” Lee states. “That would be another way to really appreciate the holiday.”

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