This week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been on a “listening tour” across southeast Utah. Zinke is conducting the tour after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in late April instructing Zinke to review national monuments like Bears Ears. Bears Ears, which sits on Native American lands, was designated a national monument by President Obama in December 2016. Under Trump’s executive order, Zinke must decide whether to reduce the size of 1.35 million acres national monument or to reverse its designation entirely.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, Bears Ears has been a site of racial tension since the 19th century, and Zinke’s listening tour is a product of that tension even as the Interior Secretary refuses to acknowledge it. That was evident when, during a tour of Bears Ears, Native American activist Cassandra Begay asked Zinke if he was planning to meet with local tribe leaders. Zinke responded by putting a finger in her face and instructing, “Be nice, don’t be rude.” In a Facebook post, Begay, a member of PANDOS, a “Utah-based, Native and environmental rights organization,” said that Zinke is “not listening to tribes on this listening tour.”
Begay and PANDOS are not the only Native groups that have criticized Zinke’s listening tour, tribal leaders have also said that the Interior Secretary hasn’t taken the appropriate time to meet with them, and expressed disappointment in both Zinke’s tone and company. During a walking tour through a portion of Bears Ears, Zinke was accompanied by Republican politicians who all oppose Obama’s designation of the land as a national monument. According to the LA Times, Zinke told reporters that Bears Ears was worth protecting but “that the question was whether a monument designation was the proper status for all of it.”
The Interior Secretary reiterated a talking point from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch who came under fire earlier this month for saying that, “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.” Though Hatch’s comments were described as “racist” by Native American groups, Zinke seems to have settled on an iteration of them during his listening tour. Again, from the LA Times:
[Zinke] suggested that a monument designation potentially could deprive Native Americans of some of their traditional uses of the area, such as collecting herbs for medicine.
Though this assertion is not true, judging from the video, Zinke appears to have no interest in hearing from Native American activists. Instead, Zinke puts his finger in Begay’s face and demands respect and kindness even as he offers none. Begay described the exchange as “very condescending, demeaning and belittling demeanor to say the least.” “I’m in shock about how rude he was,” she added. “Certainly not what I expected from the Interior Secretary who is here on a listening tour.”