Cassandra Begay, student, community organizer, Navajo

Cassandra Begay in Salt Lake City

“It’s offensive and insulting that he would not sit down at a table with five sovereign nations.”

Cassandra Begay calls Bears Ears National Monument her “chill space.” As a member of the Navajo Nation she goes to Bears Ears to hike, recharge her spirit, and focus the stridency she brings to her work as a business student and community organizer.

It became, however, the place where she rose to national prominence. In May 2017, she tried to ask Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke a question. He had come to Bears Ears in the company of some of its most outspoken opponents to be given a tour. His choice of exclusive company led credence to a growing belief that the national monuments review he was conducting for President Donald Trump was a sham.

Begay asked Zinke why he wasn’t meeting with tribal leaders. Five tribal nations had led the years-long effort to protect the landscape that culminated in it being declared a national monument. Zinke ignored her. Begay again asked why he wasn’t listening to tribes. Again, Zinke ignored her. Tribe members populated the crowd of protesters who had gathered in the red-sandstone empire of southeast Utah to demand no reductions to Bears Ears.

Begay asked Zinke why he wasn’t meeting with tribal leaders … Zinke ignored her.

After Begay asked a third time, Zinke spun around and strode at her. He admonished her to “be nice” and not to be “rude.” The scene went viral on YouTube.

“He shoved his fingers right down in my face, and keep in mind he towers,” Begay, a petite 32-year-old, said of Zinke, a former Navy SEAL. “But I wasn’t there to be nice, I was there to hold him accountable, because he works for us.”

On Dec. 1, Begay joined around 5,000 national monument supporters at a rally in front of the Utah capitol building. In two days Trump was scheduled to land in Salt Lake City and proclaim that he was removing protections for 1.1 million of Bears Ears’ 1.35 million acres. Begay saw Trump’s executive order as extreme amplification of the truculent condescension shown to her by Zinke. With reverberations across a wide-reaching landscape that Trump has never seen, and a native culture he has never tried to know.

“These guys are just so offensive,” said Begay, wearing an eagle feather in her hair.

“It’s offensive and insulting that he would not sit down at a table with five sovereign nations.”

But beneath all the dismissive bluster, Begay senses a pricked nerve. After her reaction with Zinke, for example, Begay was left with the feeling that he had seemed, just, “sensitive.”

“Like, when people lie and you catch them they get defensive,” she said.

To help native communities, she works with the group, Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue & Organizing Support in her hometown of Salt Lake City. With them, she puts to use her natural poise in encounters with the powerful.

She showed it in the fall of 2017. She found herself face-to-face with another high-ranking politician with an oversize impact on Bears Ears — former president Barack Obama, who had who established it. As Begay began to ask Obama a question about leadership, he commented that her traditional Navajo rug dress was beautiful.

“Yes, it is,” she said, and continued.

When she climbed the steps of the Utah capitol to fight for Bears Ears, she wore the same dress.

Watch more local reactions to Trump’s proclamation here.