Journey to Bears Ears National Monument

~ written by NACF President/CEO Lulani Arquette

Envision an expanse of land in southeast Utah that five tribes call their ancestral homes where they have preserved their cultures and ceremonial practices for centuries. Imagine these lands being proclaimed as a national monument to protect the precious natural resources and water. One elder many years ago said it clearly, “We call this our ancestral land and our forefathers have walked and placed their footprints on these plateaus, canyons, washes, mountains, and they are still imprinted into our mind.”

I was able to visit this very special place just over a month ago. My first excursion took me to the top of Moki Dugway, a sandstone mesa in Southeastern Utah. While winding to the top, I encountered hairpin turns and steep drop-offs with no guardrails, which contributed to some jitters in the stomach and even increased heartbeats for some of our group. Once at the top, the ride up was forgotten!

Before me stretched a horizontal expanse of the mesa that continued for miles and towered almost one thousand feet above the Valley of the Gods. The vista was a surreal display of magnificence created from natural formations of the Earth Mother for over millions of years. These sandstone masterpieces are part of a landscape that overwhelms, not just by its majesty, but by its sheer size. The high desert landscape with its pinnacles of rock is surrounded by miles of deep sandstone canyons, mesas, forested highlands, and the Bears Ears National Monument’s namesake twin buttes. At the top of the mesa overlooking the Valley of the Gods, two elders, Mary Benally and Jonah Yellowman, shared stories with our group of the spiritual significance of the ancestral lands and their cultural importance. One elder pointed out the medicinal and edible value of the shrubs and plants that were abundant on the mesa. I learned that this entire area is one of the most photographed places on earth, and also encompasses Monument Valley, which is considered the 8th wonder of the world by some.

I was invited to meet the wonderful staff and board of Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), a nonprofit Native American land conservation organization that works toward healing people and the earth by supporting the Native communities of the area. UDB was created in 2010 after the Native community in San Juan County, Utah, were asked to participate in the public land management process of the Bears Ears region. The Native community welcomed a chance to provide input concerning oil and gas, uranium and other extractive development, and the preservation of ancestral lands. Concerns were brought forward about the ravaging and looting of many archaeological structures that are important ancestral gravesites.

After years of collaboration between UDB and Native communities, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was founded in 2015 representing a historic consortium of sovereign tribal nations united in the effort to conserve the Bears Ears cultural landscape. UDB provides critical tools, training, and technical support to the five tribes — Navajo Nation, Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah Ouray Ute.

President Obama worked with the coalition to ensure that the affected tribes held management power related to stewardship of their ancestral lands. Management of Bears Ears National Monument was intended to engage tribal expertise, traditional knowledge, and continued access for tribes through collaborative land management. Utilizing the power of the Antiquities Act, President Obama took historic action to preserve the cultural landscape by designating 1.35 million acres as the Bears Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016.

As we continued the day’s excursion, we traveled across Cedar Mesa and ate lunch at Comb Wash while listening to more stories from elders about Diné, Pueblo, and Ute history. It was here that UDB staff rolled out a huge 4’ by 6’ map of the area on the dirt ground and shared the current status of Bears Ears National Monument.

On December 4, 2017 after a public review process that showed overwhelming support for the original boundaries and protections for Bears Ears, the current federal administration reduced Bears Ears National Monument by a staggering 85%, a decision that favors expanding oil, natural gas and the extraction industry over the traditions of Native people and protected sacred lands. This decision is currently being contested by Tribes, UDB, numerous conservation groups, businesses, non-profit organizations, and professional societies, who maintain that an Antiquities Act decision cannot be reversed. One UDB board member precisely summed it up in a past interview, “We don’t consider ourselves as stakeholders, we’re the landlord.”

What was so profound about the map was the glaring visual of the map laying on the dirt ground surrounded by all of this beauty. It showed a dark brown outline of the lands protected under the original Bears Ears National Monument designation, and then in blood red outline, one could see the areas that it had been reduced to under the current administration. It was an astonishing contrast and a travesty to the work that Diné Bikéyah and the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition had accomplished over the last seven years. The courage and commitment of all those involved to protect Bears Ears National Monument will not be extinguished. Currently, the battle to save Bears Ears continues through the courts.

We ended the day at sunset being served a Navajo dinner in a Hogan on the land of Cynthia Wilson’s family. Cynthia is the Traditional Food Program Director for UDB and her parents and she had prepared a delicious meal with indigenous foods. After our bellies were full, a Ute Bear Dance Chief shared stories and song. Upon leaving, I stepped out of the Hogan and beheld a sight that will remain with me forever. It was pitch black outside because these are such remote lands, at least three to five hours from any large town or major city. There is no light pollution at all. The vast, night sky radiated with what seemed like a million glittering stars. It was also stunningly quiet because there’s no noise impurity. It was a moment of silent awe to behold and made me think of all the Native ancestors who have made their homes here for thousands of years. I was grateful to be able to spend time with new friends and the Native peoples who reside under these skies, and to look up at this celestial vision and behold the grace and wonder.

NACF President/CEO Lulani Arquette was invited by Utah Diné Bikéyah to travel to Bears Ears National Monument as part of a gathering intended to help guests gain an understanding of the wisdom, rich history, and vision for the future of this place and Native American people.

Please follow the links to learn more about the work of Utah Diné Bikéyah and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Tribal members are invited to celebrate Native cultures!

Sign-up for the Bears Ears Summer Gathering 5k and 10k Run!