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For Hopi vice chairman, Bears Ears National Monument restoration a ‘sigh of relief’

AP/Susan Walsh

Last week President Joe Biden hosted a signing ceremony at the White House restoring protections to hundreds of thousands of acres in Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. It was a hugely important moment for several Southwestern tribes who’ve long advocated for the reversal of former President Donald Trump’s 2017 order to slash the monument’s size by 85%. Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva was one of several tribal leaders to join President Biden for the signing, and spoke about its significance with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius.

Ryan Heinsius: What were your thoughts as you watched President Biden return protections to Bears Ears and the other monuments?

Clark Tenakhongva: For me as a tribal leader and as a cultural leader, it was very refreshing, I’ll put it that way, a sigh of relief, a breath of new air. In our tribal traditional ways, cultural ways we go by the number 4, and it took four long years for it to become a reality back to where I can actually witness a ceremony of this high caliber event happening before my eyes. Not very many people get to see or witness something that they have maybe worked tirelessly, endlessly throughout their life. For me personally, it hit me hard but at the same time I was very happy that it happened where I could personally be there to see it happening for the benefit of all people that will eventually follow in our footsteps.

RH: What does this redesignation mean to the Hopi people?

CT: We know it’s not the final journey, but it’s a restart to engaging back into what we believe is ancestrally always been part of Hopi’s life history to what we are here today. And hopefully it will be a permanent monument one of these days where we’ll be less worrisome of people vandalizing, continuing vandalizing the area, overusing the area, and especially should mining or any of the drilling should occur if this does not continue on.

RH: And how does this affect you spiritually?

CT: Every time I go back there to visit the place, whether in the form of a tribal representative leadership role, or just to culturally go back and reunify myself it’s always a connection back to what I call the uplifting of my spirits, my cultural way of beliefs and the way Hopi looks at life. We are different from other tribes, but yet we have all of our connections as far as the five tribes that engaged in the hard work to get this restored to where it is at today with the signing by the proclamation on October the 8th by President Biden.

RH: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was instrumental in returning protections to Bears Ears. Does it feel like tribes have a seat at the table when it comes to protection of public lands?

CT: Certainly. On this one monument I can honestly say the government recognized the significance and how we are part of America today, how the founding of America became what it is today. We are finally sitting government-to-government engaged in what is the first what I hope of many of the other cultural sensitive areas of monuments or areas that be declared under the Antiquities Act, is that we will be sitting at the table now going forth with what we call the land management. But we never gave up hope. We continued on out of our own expenses from the tribal monies to make sure we are committed to restore this monument to its full ability of being protected.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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