A huge crowd of more than 1,400 people poured into the tiny southeastern Utah town of Bluff on Saturday to attend a public meeting hosted by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.
Volunteers handed out 1,000 Protect Bears Ears t-shirts to enthusiastic citizens flooding into the meeting grounds before running out. The overwhelming support for a monument was clearly visible by the broad swaths of people wearing light blue t-shirts, which dominated the audience.
The crowd included Native Americans and others from the Four Corners region and beyond. New and long-time activists alike swarmed to Bluff to stand in support of the tribal proposal to protect Bears Ears as a co-managed national monument.
In cloudless 100 degree heat, people packed into the 400 person community center, squeezed knee to knee on seats set up beneath an expansive shade pavilion, crammed into shifting pockets of shade or simply stood for hours in the sun.
For three and a half hours, Interior Secretary Jewell and a panel of other high-ranking Obama administration officials listened attentively as person after person spoke passionately about the future of the Bears Ears region.
Top leaders of the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Ute Tribes made powerful statements about the need for a monument proclamation to protect their ancestral homelands from looting and other destructive activities. Navajo President Russell Begaye called the Bears Ears area a “place of healing and spirituality” and said that “Navajos relate to the Bears Ears area as other people relate to their relatives,” and through these relationships facilitate healing.
Tribal leaders emphasized that co-management authority offers a rich opportunity to bring together the wisdom of traditional Native American knowledge with western science.
Tribal leaders also stressed that the Public Lands Initiative still fails to address their concerns, and that the process failed to incorporate their voices. Malcolm Lehi, Ute Mountain Ute Councilman, said, “For far too long, native people have not been at the table. We are not invited to the table. So we are here today inviting our own selves to the table.”
Others speaking in support of monument proclamation and against the PLI included several Utah elected officials, professional archaeologists, rock climbers, local business people, and both long-time residents and visitors to southeastern Utah.
One archaeologist described how “it’s like a giant vacuum cleaner came and sucked up the artifacts,” saying the Bears Ears area “should have been proclaimed a national monument 25 years ago.”
A local outdoor enthusiast said that “I have spent the best times of my life climbing, backpacking, hiking and camping in this region. We need a monument proclamation to keep it as it is for the future.”
A local Bluff business owner said that “As a business person, I believe a monument will bring good to this community.”
State legislator Joel Briscoe, who described himself as a descendent of Mormon pioneers —including one “who was part of the super-human feat of Hole in the Rock” trek (which passed through the Bears Ears area) — stressed that “we cannot understand this land if we won’t listen to the spiritual power of the land. It is my prayer that those making decisions will all listen to the spiritual power of this land.”
Speakers also included people opposed to a monument who raised a variety of concerns about how that designation could affect their interests. But the conversation remained civil, and a common theme across almost all speakers was how much they loved the land and wanted to see it protected in some way.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell also spent several days before the meeting with members of the Utah delegation, visiting with local community leaders and touring sites in the Bears Ears. On Friday afternoon, she visited the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Summer Gathering at Bears Ears Meadow and met with tribal leaders.
SUWA thanks everyone who was able to carve out the time to make it to Bluff and stand in support of the tribes for a Bears Ears National Monument. Each individual who came – just by showing up — helped to create the amazing and impressive throng of Bears Ears supporters. This extraordinary demonstration of widespread public support is critical to encouraging the President to take action. You are all awesome!
We also thank everyone who has weighed in on Bears Ears in all the other ways we ask you to do. Every expression of support makes a difference!