US Politics

The Native Americans suing Trump over their sacred national parks


Two members of the Navajo people are running for office at the US midterms amid the fight to save the Bears Ears monument.

Rugged and remote, with immense tablelands punctuated by sandstone buttes and breathtaking canyons, there is no denying the beauty of the Bears Ears National Monument.

At more than 400,000 hectares, the sacred area in south-eastern Utah is also an important source of food and place of worship for the Native Americans who call it home.

But its shrinkage has been a big political divider in the past year.

Bears Ears
Bears Ears National Monument, Utah.
Kirsty Johansen

Despite being home to more than 100,000 archaeological sites, US President Donald Trump announced in December it would be reduced by 85 per cent, the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history.

Native Americans were told the reduction was to make way for oil, gas and mining companies, in order to boost the economy.

Mary Benally and her daughter Tara are Navajo members but also of Hopi descent. The Benally family spans more than five generations in the area and their ancestors date back thousands of years.

Mary has not been able to bring herself to visit Bears Ears since the monument was reduced, until today. She agreed to take us back to her favourite part.

Mary Benally
Mary Benally returns to Bears Ears.
Kirsty Johansen

Looking out over the canyons at ancient ruins dating back around 13,000 years, she tells SBS News the situation is heartbreaking.

“This is just so beautiful. This is my land. I feel like someone just ripped you apart and tossed your body parts here and there.”

This is my land. I feel like someone just ripped you apart and tossed your body parts here and there.

- Mary Benally

Former President Barack Obama had declared the area a national monument just before leaving office and Mary and Tara are now leading a fight for the Navajos, along with four other tribes, in suing Mr Trump.

Mary says no matter what happens she is determined not to let her ancestral history be forgotten.

“Mining companies might win to extract but it’s going to be the same for me. It’s going to be sad to see that if that happens … people coming … doing extraction of oil, gas and uranium which we are against, but you know, the land is still here,” she said.

Mary and Tara Benally
Mary Benally and her daughter Tara.
Kirsty Johansen

Tara has been rallying support from the Navajo community to try and make change in San Juan County which encompasses Bears Ears.

“The last 12 months have been heart-wrenching but I get up every day to pray for my people to say ‘got to do this, got to do this’.

“I have to make this happen, somewhere, somehow something’s got to give and I want to be there when that happens.”


The state of Utah has given its electoral votes to the Republican ticket in every election year since 1968 and has a majority Mormon population.

But for the first time ever, San Juan County could have two out of three commissioner seats filled by Democratic Navajos in the midterm elections on 6 November.

In 2016, a federal judge ruled the county was racially gerrymandered and the districts unfairly emphasised the voting power of white residents over Navajos.

Mary says shifting the power dynamic on a local level is just the start.

“We’re hoping that two Democrats, which are both Navajos, hoping that if they get the seats on the Commission that would shift a lot of things that have been going on before,” she said.

But the Republicans are standing firm.

Current San Juan County commissioner and Republican Phil Lyman is running for the Utah House of Representatives in the state’s largest district. He says Bears Ears should never have been made a monument.

“I would have preferred he [Donald Trump] rescinded the monument completely,” he said.

Phil Lyman
Republican Phil Lyman is running for the Utah House of Representatives.
Kirsty Johansen

Mr Lyman says he spearheaded the campaign to reduce Bears Ears because that is want 80 per cent of the community wanted.

“It’s a huge marketing thing. You talk about corporations or mining companies, talk about industrialised tourism,” he said.

“You people, they form B corporations and they do stunts with celebrities to try to show that we really care about the environment. They are destroying the environment, they are destroying this area, and they are doing it for money, period.”

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining says it has not received a single permit application for a plot within Bears Ears since the monument was rescinded.

While the remote region contains several minerals as well as oil and gas, the logistics of moving material in and out are also tricky, and the only resource that has the real potential of luring explorers is uranium. But as uranium prices are depressed it squelched interest in opening new mines.

When SBS News visits, Mary and Tara meet with a group of foreign investors who want to build a sustainable green city on the Navajo reservation, similar to Dubai or Singapore.

Joel Galuego from GlobalTouch Development Corporation says it is the only way to pull the area out of an economic recession and protect it for future generations.

“We are coming in. You will let us know. You give us your wish list and then we will follow your wish list but we want you to take responsibility on that because we want them to improve their life, their status,” Mr Galuego said.

Mary says she likes the idea but she now has to convince other Navajos taking control is the only option.

“It’s an ideal concept. We really do need to move forward to improve economy in our area, we really need revenues coming in to establish some kind of industry or institutions or education.” 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch