Some Native leaders are demanding an apology from Republican Senator Orrin Hatch for allegedly racist remarks he made at a press conference with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke during a tour of Bears Ears and other national monuments in Utah.
“The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness,” said Hatch, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, though he declined to name any specific activities that would be curtailed by a monument designation.
“That’d take too much time right now,” he said. “Once you put a monument there, you do restrict a lot of things that could be done, and that includes use of the land…. Just take my word for it.”
Native leaders and advocates responded immediately.
“It is offensive that some people think that Native Americans do not have a will of their own, or if they do take a position that their position is influenced by a non-native person,” said Willie Grayeyes, Chairman of the Board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit indigenous advocacy group, in a statement.
“Native American people understand the special and sacred landscapes at Bears Ears National Monument better than anyone,” Grayeyes said. “We have stewarded these landscapes for thousands of years and we are very pleased with the language used in the proclamation that protects the things we care about and gives us a voice in our future. It is no surprise that Senator Hatch does not understand what he is working so hard to take away from us. If he would just listen to us he would stop fighting against what we stand for because it is not a threat to him or anyone else.”
The remarks offended more than the Native leaders.
“Utah’s senior senator put his foot very firmly into his mouth Monday by attacking the intelligence and the integrity of the five Native American nations whose elected leaders joined together to work for and, in the final days of the Obama administration, win national monument status for 1.35 million acres in southeast Utah known as Bears Ears,” The Salt Lake Tribune said in an editorial. “This patronizing, condescending—if not downright racist—theme has been a constant throughout the debate over the monument plan. The five nations, and their supporters from many other tribes, are cruelly dismissed as dupes, pawns, unwitting tools of far-away radical environmentalists who must be fooling the tribes, paying them off, or both.”
Zinke was touring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments as part of a mandate from President Donald Trump to review national monuments created over the past two decades of 100,000 acres or more to end what the President calls “another egregious use of government power,” as The Washington Post reported.
The Interior Secretary himself has called the designation of monuments an “effective tool” and said he was arriving in Utah “without any predisposition of outcome,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported. But for some, Hatch’s words were a direct insult that virtually counteracted anything Zinke could say.
“Sen. Hatch’s easy dismissal of our voice, of our highly-educated people, of our good faith efforts to work with the Republic Congressional Delegation, casts a long shadow over any work he has done in Indian Country,” said Moroni Benally, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters, in a statement.
The Utah League of Native American Voters demanded an apology “for his blatantly racist, misinformed, and condescending tone and words about Native American Nations in the state of Utah,” the group said in its statement on May 8. “Since 2011, Tribes have sent their best and brightest attorneys, medicine people, policy researchers, anthropologist, ethnologists, and economists to assess, evaluate, and make recommendations about the Bears Ears National Monument designation. These individuals informed Tribes, the State of Utah, the Utah Congressional Delegation, the White House, the Interior Department, and the Agriculture Department about the concerns of local residents, non-tribal members, and the outdoor and energy industries.”