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‘The earth holds so much power’: Deb Haaland visits sacred site Trump shrank 

The interior secretary, Deb Haaland, paid a historic visit on Thursday to Bears Ears national monument, the Utah site sacred to Native Americans that was downsized by President Donald Trump.

Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first indigenous cabinet member, and her trip came amid calls for the monument to be recreated in its original form, or even expanded, by Joe Biden.

On Thursday morning, Haaland stood in the Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears and wrote: “The earth holds so much power. We must all work together to honor it.”

Biden outlined a 60-day process to review the reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in an executive order signed on his first day in office. On her trip, Haaland met with tribal and state leaders, including Senator Mitt Romney, to help formulate her recommendations to Biden.

But the visit was also a symbolic moment in the nation’s narrative. Biden’s appointment of Haaland as interior secretary stands in stark contrast with the department’s history. One early interior secretary, Alexander Stuart, once declared the United States’ mission was to “civilize or exterminate” indigenous people.

At a gathering of Pueblo leaders on Tuesday, Haaland called her visit the beginning. “I believe that we have the opportunity of a lifetime to protect our environment and our way of life to give our children opportunities and to build economies for generations to come,” according to a report in Indian Country Today.

The indigenous-led conservation organization Utah Diné Bikéyah said in a statement to the Guardian that “as the first Native American woman as Secretary of the Interior in this country’s history, [Haaland] is one of many Indigenous women leaders since time immemorial”.

“With that spirit of solidarity and ancestral connection to the land, we are looking forward to her Indigenous perspectives in decision-making.”

President Barack Obama’s 2016 designation of Bears Ears national monument was the result of a years-long grassroots movement led by tribes under the leadership of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Subsequently, in 2017, Trump drastically reduced the boundaries of the monument – from 1.35m acres to 201,397 acres.

Utah’s governor, Spencer Cox, Haaland, the lieutenant governor, Deidre Henderson, and congressman Blake Moore at the Bears Ears national monument. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

Reporting later revealed his administration placed access to oil and gas reserves at the center of the decision. And a uranium-mining company led by the soon-to-be-appointed Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Andrew Wheeler, lobbied the Trump administration to reduce the monument so it could mine uranium within the original boundary.

Since the shrinking of the monument, it has been overrun by motorized vehicles and tourists, threatening significant cultural artifacts.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has consistently called for Biden to not only restore the monument to its original size, but to further expand it to the 1.9m acres the coalition originally proposed to President Obama.

During a press conference on Thursday in Blanding, Utah, Haaland said: “My message is really very simple. I’m here to listen. I’m here to learn.”

Her trip included a visit on Wednesday to the ancient Sand Island petroglyphs, which are estimated to be between 300 and 3,000 years old. “[T]hese images are located in an area that was part of the original Bears Ears Monument designation,” she said in a tweet.

At a press conference, Haaland acknowledged the weightiness of the question before her. “I know that decisions about public lands are incredibly impactful to the people who live nearby. But not just to us – not just to the folks who are here today – but people for generations to come,” she said. “So it’s important that the president gets this right.”

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