Every day when I wake up, as is the tradition in my culture, I step outside and face east to greet the sun and pray. From my home on Paiute Mesa I can see the twin buttes of the Bears Ears and the ancestral homelands of my people stretching between and beyond. I pray for this landscape. Why? Because our elders’ spirits dwell in each rock face and canyon, each slope and stream. Because as Native Americans we rely on the Bears Ears region for spiritual well-being and cultural teachings to pass on to our children. And because right now its future — and our future — hangs in the balance.
The movement to establish 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument began more than six years ago when a legislative process called the Bennett Land-Use Bill posed the question, what should be done with public lands in San Juan County? Grass-roots Native Americans living in San Juan County came together and asserted our right to hold a seat at the public lands planning table. Our need to participate in this discussion was without question — these are our aboriginal lands.
We approached this land-use bill and later the Public Lands Initiative (PLI) process in good faith, presenting a plan to protect the area based on interviews with more than 70 native elders in Utah who have gathered, hunted and performed ceremonies in the Bears Ears region their entire lives. Unfortunately, our voices were ignored.
Despite the fact that 64 percent of all comments from local residents favored the native-led plan over all others, our plan was kicked back to the reservation by San Juan County commissioners. When San Juan County refused to listen to the local, grass-roots Native Americans who make up the majority of the county, we turned to our tribal governments for help. They hit the same walls.
Fortunately, everyone agrees that the Bears Ears region deserves protection. Everyone also agrees that the PLI failed to live up to its promise both as a collaborative process and as a step forward. That is why tribes have asked the president to create the Bears Ears National Monument through the Antiquities Act.
Congress has already failed us in San Juan County, and we see a bright future when tribes will actively co-manage this sacred landscape alongside the three existing federal agencies. We envision a future of respect in this government to government relationship. We also recognize the importance of active local participation by all public land users. Unlike the PLI, we see this as a positive step forward for everyone in San Juan County and throughout Utah.
At the heart of the Bears Ears request is preservation of our aboriginal lands. Native American people of diverse tribal backgrounds have dwelled in the Bears Ears landscape since time immemorial, and we continue to rely on these lands today for subsistence and ceremonial purposes. We relate to this land as sacred ceremonial grounds, similar perhaps to temple grounds.
Yet, for over a century, we have watched the desecration of our sacred cultural sites at the hands of newcomers. Mining companies have extracted radioactive uranium from the area, and are currently proposing expansion of a uranium mine that threatens local drinking water in the White Mesa community of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Potash developers are eyeing the area. Looting also continues to take a terrible toll on our history. In 2016 alone, the BLM opened major investigations into six individual looting incidents within the Bears Ears region. For us, these acts are like tearing down our cathedrals brick by brick. Once the artifacts are gone they can never be restored.
The tribe-led Bears Ears National Monument proposal, on the other hand, is a gesture of healing. The tribes’ proposal focuses on human relationships to the land through ceremony, teaching and sustaining our culture. Bears Ears reminds us of who we are as a people. Moreover, our proposal is a grass-roots initiative led entirely by an unprecedented coalition of five tribes: Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and Uintah Ouray Ute. As the proposal has taken on more urgency, other voices have naturally followed, but it is the tribes who are beating the drum. As we maintain our traditional practices on these lands and help oversee how this area is used, we will also honor the public land status of this area by inviting all Americans to learn from this incredible landscape.
The Bears Ears National Monument proposal offers a holistic, culturally informed and economically sustainable plan for managing San Juan County’s public lands. It creates an opportunity for our communities to thrive economically through celebrating our deep connection to the Bears Ears landscape. As a San Juan community, we must avoid the boom and bust cycles that will rob us of our pristine lands and clean water. At the same time, we must maintain our local culture and strong character that we embrace as Utahns.
We invite you to read the tribes’ proposal for Bears Ears National Monument and hold it in your thoughts as we respectfully request protection of this sacred area and healing for all. Join us in honoring Utah’s rich Native American history and our future— by protecting an area that we all care deeply about.
Willie Grayeyes is chairman of Utah DinÉ BikÉyah.