Willie Grayeyes: Preserving our shared public lands

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 3:12 a.m. MDT

Ruins in San Juan County, Utah, from the air. (Adriel Heisey, Deseret News archives) Ruins in San Juan County, Utah, from the air. (Adriel Heisey, Deseret News archives)

The Navajo, and many other Native Americans, hold a deep connection to the lands in southeastern Utah. Several distinct civilizations over thousands of years have made this their home, and their uniquely intact archaeological record is sacred and of great significance to American history.

Today, we continue to rely on and utilize these public lands for practicing our ceremonies, gathering herbs, firewood and cedar poles, hunting for game, rejuvenating our spirits and caretaking of our sacred places. Our oral traditions, our stories, spring from the canyons and mountains of San Juan County, Utah. These important places need to be protected in such a way that will both protect the animals, water and plants while allowing traditional and current uses to continue.

The Navajo are among the ancestral residents of these sacred public lands and today represent the majority of the population of San Juan County. This is why in 2010, the Navajo Nation with the Utah Diné Bikéyah initiated the Navajo San Juan Conservation Initiative to develop and implement a conservation strategy, informed by traditional knowledge and Western science.

Over the past four years, we have conducted many meetings, gathered supporting resolutions, identified and mapped our important cultural areas and incorporated ecological data to produce the Diné Bikéyah conservation proposal. Since we know what it is to be a minority, in 2012, the Navajo Nation reached out to other county residents and with the San Juan County commissioners entered into a memorandum of agreement to explore joint planning discussions. Despite significant challenges and even though we have experienced racist and entrenched perspectives, we remain hopeful that we can foster respectful dialogue on public land management in San Juan County.

This Mother’s Day weekend there was to be a very important event along the San Juan River and in the canyons of Cedar Mesa. Over two dozen American veterans, many disabled from combat, service-related physical and psychic trauma, were traveling to these sacred lands. This program, sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management and Sierra Club, was created to offer an opportunity for healing. Members of Utah Diné Bikéyah and other Navajo citizens were to perform ceremonies on behalf of these veterans. Unfortunately, however, this opportunity for healing, to help these men and women, has been postponed due to the threats of illegal activities by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman on behalf of those who desire to drive their ATV toys through the sacred ruins of others.

Contrary to the beliefs of many, southeastern Utah was not an empty place that no one wanted but just waiting to be inhabited by European settlers or discovered as a recreation playground, but rather it was and remains our home. We have and still do cherish these lands. We were physically forced off these lands. Our grandmothers and grandfathers were killed trying to stay in their homes on this land. It is time that we, all American Indians, be recognized as American citizens, as part of the public, with the same rights to speak on behalf of our public lands.

We remain hopeful that a time of healing created by our own renewed involvement for these lands may be upon us. Preserving our shared public lands will require that we come respectfully together and work constructively. We look forward to working with elected officials who are willing and able do this.

Willie Grayeyes is chairman of the Utah DinÉ BikÉyah.

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