This past weekend, the drums beat out a familiar rhythm. Dust rose beneath our feet as we repeated steps learned in childhood. The fringe of our shawls swayed to the sound of songs taught to us by our elders, songs they learned from their grandparents, and they from theirs, going back even deeper than our wisdom-keepers know.
The event was the annual Bear Dance, performed every year by my people, the Ute Mountain Ute, whom I am elected to represent as tribal councilwoman. The bear is very important to us, which is why we hold the Bear Dance on our ancestral lands within the Bears Ears region. In performing this complex, beautiful dance we seek to create harmony in our surroundings, with one another, through our lives. The Bear Dance embodies our reverence for the spirit of the bear — a protector and symbol of strength.
This year, the spirit of the bear is infused with even more meaning as our tribe is joined hand-in-hand with four other sovereign tribal nations calling in one voice for protection of the Bears Ears cultural landscape. Our unprecedented Inter-Tribal Coalition is led by the governments of Hopi, Navajo, Uintah Ouray Ute, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute nations. As sovereign nations, we represent the Native Americans who live adjacent to Bears Ears. From the grass roots to the heads of government, we are respectfully requesting that President Barack Obama designate Bears Ears National Monument to protect our ancestral lands from looting, desecration and exploitation.
For the first time in U.S. history, we as Native American people are invoking the power of the Antiquities Act to protect our sacred sites for future generations of all people. In so doing, we are asking Obama to create the first-ever truly Native American national monument.
Unified native support for Bears Ears
Let me make one thing very, very clear: Native people are overwhelmingly unified in our support for designation of Bears Ears National Monument. Twenty-five regional tribes, the entire National Congress of American Indians, six of seven Navajo chapter houses, and every council member from my tribe have approved formal resolutions of support for Bears Ears National Monument.
Grass-roots Native American support for Bears Ears is equally deep. Over 1,100 Native Americans who live next to Bears Ears have sent handwritten letters and notes to Obama, asking him to invoke the Antiquities Act. Among proponents of monument designation is Malcolm Lehi, councilman for the White Mesa community of Ute Mountain Ute, whose members gather firewood, hunt and graze cattle inside the national monument. The Navajo Nation — including all three council delegates representing Utah Navajos — unanimously endorses national monument designation for Bears Ears.
Ideological opponents of Bears Ears have worked hard to manufacture dissent and plant confusion among local native people. Anonymous naysayers even went so far as to draft and publicly post forged documents claiming to be written by elected leaders and federal officials. Misinformation has circulated claiming that national monument designation would somehow cut off traditional access and activities at Bears Ears, when in fact tribes have crafted our national monument proposal to protect precisely those uses.
The path toward healing
As tribes, we speak and act for ourselves with the blessings of our elders. State and local officials cannot speak for tribes. Our five tribes have spoken on Bears Ears and we have chosen this path forward that will lead to healing our relationships with the federal government and others.
Today we must find new tools to conserve our important landscapes and our way of life because Congress is not willing or able to get the job done. We are asking Obama to use the Antiquities Act, which was enacted exactly 110 years ago to stop looting of ancient artifacts from our homelands in the Four Corners region. This is the first time Native American tribes have ever called upon a president to use the very tool designed to protect our histories.
We are preparing for the next seven generations, to ensure that our descendants will continue to have access to these lands for traditional activities like hunting, firewood gathering and ceremonial practices. We are the voice for the spirit of the land, water, air, animals and, most importantly, our ancestors and their final resting places. We have assets within the proposed national monument including allotment lands, water and grazing rights, and burial sites. We want to ensure that all these things are protected.
Why protect Bears Ears now? So that our children may continue to collect teepee poles, willows and herbs at Bears Ears. So that our grandchildren may trace the steps of the Bear Dance on lands where our ancestors still reside. And so that our great-grandchildren may have reason to continue to celebrate the spirit of the bear — our protector and strength.
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is co-chairwoman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and tribal council member, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.