MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now let's talk about what could be one of President Obama's last major decisions before leaving office. The president created two new national monuments using his executive authority under the Antiquities Act. There's Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Together they total more than a million-and-a-half acres. Tribal nations celebrated the news as their efforts to protect Bear's Ears goes back to the 1930s but others, including Utah governor Gary Herbert, expressed outrage at the decision. Our NPR colleague Ari Shapiro spoke with the governor last week.
So for additional perspective, we called Russell Begaye. He is the president of the Navajo Nation, which includes areas of New Mexico, Arizona and Southern Utah near the newly designated Bear's Ears National Monument. He was kind enough to join us from his home office in the middle of a snowstorm, no less. President Begaye, thank you so much for joining us and happy new year.
RUSSELL BEGAYE: Well, happy new year to y'all. Thank you for doing what you do, services that you provide to the nation. And also happy new years to all of our Indian nation across North America, both U.S. and Canada. We're well connected to our Canadian brothers up there, and also my own Navajo people. So good to be on the air with you, thank you.
MARTIN: So how did news of the designation of this monument reach you, and what went through your mind when you heard?
BEGAYE: Well, we were not certain whether this was going to be the one selected by the president because there were a number of other considerations that was on the president's table. I've had some last minute meetings a few days prior to the designation where I began to feel just a little comfortable that maybe Bears Ears might be one of those.
MARTIN: Could you tell us briefly why is this area so important that you feel it requires this designation as a national monument?
BEGAYE: Back in the 1860s when Navajos were being rounded up and taken on a long walk out to a imprisonment camp, some of the chiefs, especially Chief Manuelito, he took his family up to Bear's Ears for protection. So quite a number of them lived up on top of Bears Ears surrounding areas there in those years when Navajos were at Fort Sumner. And so it's always been a place of protection, plus it's very significant for ceremonial reasons so Bears Ears has always been a part of who we are as a nation.
MARTIN: To that end, I understand that other tribes other than the Navajo also supported this designation. Why is that?
BEGAYE: For them, it's - this is where their tribal members go to gather herbs. They do have sacred sites in the area like the Ute, the Ute Mountain, the Southern Ute, the Zuni people from further south of us where the Navajo Nation is. There's a number of tribes that are in the region that have always taken on regular basis trips up there for ceremonial purposes for prayers. It's always been a part of who we are as a nation in the region.
MARTIN: And yet there's been a substantial outcry from some elected leaders in Utah, including Governor Gary Herbert who spoke to our colleagues at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - Ari Shapiro - earlier this week. He called this designation an abuse of executive power. He vowed to try to repeal that designation, although that's never been done before. I just want to play a short clip from my colleague's conversation with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GARY HERBERT: Those people inside Utah which ought to have some consideration have been ignored. It's not a matter of do we want to have protections, how we're going to provide the vehicle of protection. This is 1.35 million acres. Delaware's 1.6 million, this is about the size of Delaware.
MARTIN: So what's your response to that?
BEGAYE: This is all about Indian leaders wanting to preserve this land that we've always been very drawn to, been a part of, been attached to. To me what this whole fuss is about is taking authority away from Native Americans to have had long historical attachment to the land way before the state was even formed or before the formation of the United States of America. So we have always had this longstanding attachment to Bears Ears. And this gives us an opportunity to have a voice at the table through this collaborative management agreement. So that's what this thing is about.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, looking back over the past year, what do you think is the significance of 2016 from your perspective as the leader of the Navajo Nation? I mean, the developments at Standing Rock and now the successful designation of the Bears Ears National Monument, does it seem as this was some kind of a turning point in the relations with the tribes to the federal government, and do you feel it will last?
BEGAYE: Well, we hope that it will last. In working with the Trump administration, we are going to really work as hard as we can, help them understand that we want to maintain the government to government relationship, that we need a voice at the table of decision making, and hopefully that we will maintain this strong government to government relationship that we've established under the Obama administration.
MARTIN: That's Russell Begaye. He's the president of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the United States, and it was one of the five tribes that petitioned President Obama to create the Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah. President Begaye, thank you so much for speaking with us and happy new year to you.
BEGAYE: Well, thank you so much.
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