Navajo council members say Biden didn't consult them before creating Grand Canyon monument

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Members of the Navajo Nation council are raising questions about the new Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, suggesting communities were not properly consulted and asking what proper tribal consultation should entail.

The monument is the fifth under President Joe Biden and spans 917,618 acres of forests and grasslands to the north of and south of Grand Canyon National Park. The monument has been applauded by tribes, tribal leaders and environmental and grassroots groups wanting to protect the area from future uranium mining.

Although Navajo President Buu Nygren spoke in support of the monument, members of tribe's Resource and Development Committee, one of the standing oversight committees of the Navajo Nation Council, expressed their discontent and concerns for Navajo communities located closest to the Grand Canyon, where the council members say residents weren’t properly consulted by the Department of Interior.

President Joe Biden signs a proclamation designating the Baaj Nwaavjo I'Tah Kukveni - Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument at the Red Butte Airfield on Aug. 8, 2023, in Tusayan, Ariz.
President Joe Biden signs a proclamation designating the Baaj Nwaavjo I'Tah Kukveni - Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument at the Red Butte Airfield on Aug. 8, 2023, in Tusayan, Ariz.

“Who is making these decisions on behalf of the Navajo Nation without consultation,” said Council Delegate Casey Allen Johnson, who represents Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Birdsprings, Leupp, Tolani Lake communities. “Because this was not brought before RDC (Resource and Development). Who is actually making this decision to sponsor the monument without consultation with Cameron, Bodaway, Tuba City, Coalmine?”

The Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., lobbied Biden to use his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument.

Biden signed the declaration in August at Red Butte.

President Joe Biden with Navajo Nation President President Buu Nygren and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on Aug. 8, 2023, at the historic Red Butte Airfield near Tusayan, Arizona.
President Joe Biden with Navajo Nation President President Buu Nygren and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on Aug. 8, 2023, at the historic Red Butte Airfield near Tusayan, Arizona.

Did Interior consult or seek consent?

In May, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland met with tribal leaders and the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition to discuss the monument. The coalition comprises the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Tribe of Paiute Indians, Moapa Band of Paiutes of Southern Nevada, the Navajo Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, and Pueblo of Zuni.

Anthony, along with the chair of the RDC, Council Delegate Brenda Jesus, attended the meeting with Haaland. He said the meeting was more like a consultation and not an opportunity for anyone to consent to the monument. He said he had spoken with community members and members of a medicine man association to ask if they were aware of the monument; they were not.

“I want to know who made the consent on behalf of the Navajo Nation,” said Johnson. “The issue now is 'consultation is consent,' there’s that question out there. To me consultation is not consent. Anything like this needs to be brought back to the community.”

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Jesus said she and Anthony were sent to the meeting in May but were never given a chance to speak on the matter. The perceived issue delegates are having with the monument comes only a few weeks after Haaland established a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.

“On the eastern side we have an issue with Chaco and now on the western side we have another issue,” said Jesus. “It all comes back down to proper tribal consultation. What do we mean? We have to understand we are in a three-branch government. I hope going forward the legislative (branch) would be informed of these types of positions."

The committee members said they had not known officially about Nygren’s support of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni prior to the designation, which also caused an issue. What also didn’t sit well was that Richard Begay, tribal historic preservation officer for the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Office, was “at the table” when it came to this monument.

“This is the first that the Resource and Development committee is hearing about, on record, the president's position,” Jesus told Begay during an August committee meeting. “And how you as a department manager have been sitting at the table when there is also leadership who has a responsibility, who have never been consulted or made aware of this issue. At the end of the day we are the ones who have to answer to our constituents and what do we say?”

Begay had been working on the monument effort at the request of Nygren. He said even though he knew the president’s office was in support of the monument, he wasn’t aware of whether the executive office informed the communities near the Grand Canyon.

“It had the support of all the tribes in Arizona,” said Begay of the monument. “We’ve met several times at the direction of the president's office and the Navajo Washington Office. At the request of President Nygren I did attend meetings in Washington in March with Deb Haaland. We also did provide some public testimony in Flagstaff in support of the monument. There were plenty of local Navajo people at the meeting to support the monument.”

How uranium mining ban helped win tribal support

Begay said the main concern and reason for creating the monument was to prevent further uranium mining claims, especially in the Kaibab National Forest. There are at least 400 permit requests for uranium mines, even after a 2012 moratorium on uranium mining was put in place, said Begay.

“That to me is my understanding why President Nygren supported the designation, to prevent further mining in the area,” said Begay. “Associated with mining is the fact of mine waste and the uranium transportation would have to go through western Navajo. This was a big concern for the president from my understanding, the transport of possible mine waste through the Navajo Nation.”

The New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation is discussing proposed uranium waste cleanup alternatives for the Quivera Mine Site, located in the Churchrock Chapter area, which includes transporting radioactive waste from the site to a proposed Red Rock Facility near Thoreau, N.M., off the Navajo Nation. Removing the waste and transporting it to the proposed Red Rock Facility will take three to five years.

The Red Rock Facility is located on landfill property, not on trust land, and will be permitted by New Mexico. Transporting the waste on state route 566 through Church Rock and on Interstate 40 is considered the safest and least disruptive route, and community members have been voicing their concerns and objections to the plan.

Committee member Danny Simpson, who has also been outspoken against the Chaco Canyon buffer zone, said when consultation is requested from the federal government, the practice is to go straight to the president’s office and leave out the council entirely.

“We have to be clear to let them know there is a '106 consultation' and then there is the consultation of getting consent. We need to make clear that there are two distinctions.” said Mike Halone, director of Navajo Nation Natural Resources. “I think if we were at the table for all of this we would’ve said ‘ok, we support you, but you have to pull back that Grand Canyon Enlargement Act that you imposed years ago that we never consented to.”

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires tribal consultation in all steps of the process when a federal agency project or effort may affect historic properties on tribal lands, or when any Native American tribe or Native Hawaiian organization attaches religious or cultural significance to the historic property, regardless of the property’s location.

“Hopi, Paiute, and neighboring tribes will always go against us,” said committee member Otto Tso, who represents Tuba City. “We have to advocate at the national level to get our fair share. We are a treaty tribe. There are only seven treaty tribes in the United States that's left.”

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Committee plans to seek clearer information

In a broad explanation, legislative counsel said the Navajo president's authority is in the Navajo Nation Code and it states the president shall represent the Navajo Nation in relation to governmental and private entities and create favorable public opinion and goodwill toward the Navajo Nation.

"There is nothing that particularly spells out who has the responsibility to be recognized by the federal government with regards to the 106 consultations," Mariana Kahn, an attorney with the legislative counsel told committee members.

The committee plans to draft legislation spelling out the difference between a 106 consultation with the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior and having tribal leaders present and involved. They also look to have the Navajo Historic Preservation Office report to the committee when it pertains to any actions with federal or state agencies that would be related to the Resource and Development Committee.

"We as delegates were elected to represent the people and hear the voices," said Simpson. "We're the ones that have to explain why this was done by the federal government. It's not good for us to say we were not consulted with. We should be a part of all these discussions. Be sure that what is conveyed to our Navajo people is done as one voice."

Navajo Nation delegates aren't the only one who are unhappy with the monument. Arizona Senate Republicans said they intend to sue the Biden administration over the monument designation.

"The blatantly unconstitutional move of confiscating nearly a million acres of land within Coconino and Mohave Counties to designate as a "national monument" is nothing more than a publicity stunt to appeal to his radical environmental base, while in tandem creating dire consequences for the livelihoods of our citizens, Arizona's economy, as well as our nation's energy supply," stated in a news release.

Johnson asked if the monument could be rescinded should former President Donald Trump, who is currently campaigning for the 2024 presidential election as well as dealing with an extensive list of legal issues, be re-elected.

"The question here is when President Trump becomes president can it be reversed?" emphasized Jesus to Begay of the controversial monument. As the committee laughed, Begay responded he couldn't answer that for certain.

Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Grand Canyon monument talks may have excluded Navajo council members