Despite what some people believe, southeastern Utah was not an empty place waiting to be inhabited by Mormon settlers or discovered as a playground for city people.  It has been home to Navajo people, as well as Paiute and Ute communities, for millennia.  Together we lived and thrived within the mountains and redrock canyons of Utah.

Each of our Tribes, and others like the Hopi and Zuni, occupied this land and to this day maintain strong ties to this region called San Juan County, Utah.  We have lived here since time immemorial, and some of these Native American civilizations built networks of villages that still stand today.  This uniquely intact archaeological record is a testament to the sophistication of the ancient ones and is considered sacred to all Native American people, and especially those who can trace their ancestry to this place of great significance to American history.

Cultural site in the Bears Ears region. Copyright Tim Peterson

Here, in Bears Ears, our spiritual traditions are rooted in the rocks, the trees, and the winds.  Today, we continue to rely on these public lands for practicing our ceremonies; gathering herbs, firewood, and cedar poles; hunting for game; rejuvenating our spirits and caring for our sacred places; and passing along our oral traditions, our stories, that spring from the canyons and mountains surrounding Bears Ears.

That is why, for the first time in the 110-year history of the Antiquities Act, five Tribes have come together to formally ask the president to use the act not only on our behalf but for the benefit of all people, by proclaiming Bears Ears a national monument.

A Plea from the Hearts of the People
But some may ask, where did this proposal to protect Bears Ears come from and how was it developed?  The answer is that it came from the grassroots, from the people: from our elders and our traditional and spiritual leaders.

Back in 2010, following the passage of the Washington County wilderness bill, former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett began a legislative process to resolve the debate over public lands and wilderness protection in San Juan County.  Ute and Navajo people understood that, because of the depth of our connections to these lands, our elders were afraid to speak out for fear of what might still be taken away.

My organization, Utah Diné Bikéyah (pronounced di-NAY bi-KAY-uh, which means “people’s sacred lands” in Navajo) emerged from local Utah Navajo elders’ and leaders’caring and concern for this area. We decided to take a seat at the planning table despite the risk and despite the unlikelihood of our being heard.

Over the next year, Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) interviewed Navajo elders and spiritual leaders within the seven Utah Navajo chapters in San Juan County to create a “cultural map” of the region.Later, we collected available wildlife habitat and other ecological data, and we catalogued the threats to those precious resources.  These were our tools as we worked with the Navajo Nation and consultants on our own indigenous land-use interest plan.

The First to Respond
In April 2013, after three years of data analysis, policy review, and decision-making by leaders at all levels of tribal government, UDB and the Navajo Nation unveiled the Bears Ears proposal to county, state, and federal officials.  Ours was the first government proposal on the table in Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative (PLI).  We were scheduled to see San Juan County’s proposal two weeks later, but it would be nearly two years before the county revealed its recommendation to the PLI. Eventually, despite the fact that the Bears Ears proposal received the support of 64 percent of the people in the county, the San Juan County Commission approved a recommendation that failed to address Native American interests to protect the Bears Ears region.

Inter-Tribal Bears Ears Coalition Leaders in DC
Bringing the Bears Ears proposal to Washington, DC. From left: Alfred Lomaquahu, Hopi Vice Chairman & Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair; Eric Descheenie, Special Advisor to the Navajo Nation President & Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair; Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Ute Mountain Ute Councilwoman; Phillip Vicente, Zuni Former Head Councilman; Malcolm Lehi, Ute Mountain Ute Councilman; Willie Grayeyes, Utah Diné Bikéyah Board Chairman. Photo by Gavin Noyes.

In July 2015, UDB asked the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—a formal partnership between the Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Uinta Ouray Ute Tribes—to take over the leadership of the Bears Ears proposal.  In October 2015, after months of hard work and further improvements to the proposal, the Coalition formally delivered it to the Obama administration, requesting the creation of a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, with an innovative form of collaborative management between Tribes and the federal government.  The National Congress of American Indians formally endorsed the proposal, and thus Bears Ears gained the support of 270 Tribes from across the U.S.

However, even as the Coalition delivered the proposal to the Obama administration, we continued to engage in good faith in Rep. Bishop’s PLI process. Finally, after numerous missed deadlines on the part of the Utah delegation, the Tribes formally walked away from the PLI on the last day of last year—December 31, 2015.  And as I write this in June, 2016, the PLI has yet to be introduced in Congress.

Our Hope Rests with the President
That means that unless Congress works a miracle, the power to protect Bears Ears lies in President Obama’s hands.  We are relying on him to act, because the management and care of these lands is integral to the future of all Native people’s belief and practice.  When our ancestral lands are degraded, Native Americans will also be degraded.  Under the Bears Ears proposal, Native Americans will have a role in protecting these lands.  Our involvement will improve their management through ancient stewardship practices, traditional wisdom, and reverence for the spirits who occupy this place.

The physical evidence of Native American history in the Bears Ears region is of global significance. It cries out for protection, which is loud and clear with all the negative impacts to the land and the native remains of the region.  The era of looting, vandalism, and grave-robbing must end.

We are hopeful that President Obama will proclaim a Bears Ears National Monument, and through his action promote healing for all—not just for Native Americans, but for all people and for the land—by retaining as much pristine condition for generations to enjoy.

—Willie Grayeyes, board chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, summer 2016 issue)