SALT LAKE CITY — Jewell James, a Native American totem carver from the Lummi Nation in Washington, has been delivering totems around the country to help people in the midst of hard times since 9/11.
When Bears Ears National Monument was reduced in 2017, James and his organization, the House of Tears Carvers, wanted to extend a gesture of unity to the native tribes in Utah and started carving and painting a bear totem.
"We've been battling for sacred sites and places, and we see the Bears Ears was being attacked, and on the potential list for being cut, and so we consider that a message," he said.
"All of us as indigenous people use symbols and colors, and the way we put them together can tell a story of our relationship with the earth," he said Thursday during a ceremony at the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City as he presented the totem to about 40 community members.
"We're in a battle to save the earth. And so if we can find a log and dedicate that tree's life to some cause, then that's what we believe in," James explained.
The colorful, earth-toned totem stands over 9 feet tall and weighs more than a ton, according to Utah DinéBikéyah, a nonprofit group of native tribes fighting to protect Bears Ears.
In April, the group appealed to an independent expert with the United Nations Human Rights Council to order the United States to respond to what it sees as ongoing human rights violations happening at Bears Ears National Monument, including grave robbing and looting of cultural artifacts.
Thursday evening, the smell of smoke hung in the air as the giant bear, which remained at rest in a pick-up truck, was blessed in a reverent ceremony in the center's parking lot. Representatives from a few tribes gave remarks about what the totem symbolizes.
James said the totem symbolizes tribes' unity.
Braiden Weeks, a descendent of the Ute tribe who is a part of Utah DinéBikéyah, says he traveled with the Lummi and the totem. During that travel, he felt a sense of "unity" and "coming together."
He said in San Juan County there are tensions between Native American and non-Native American residents.
"I'm hoping that this will bring the medicine, that it will bring the unity to both," he said.
He said conflict over the Bears Ears monument is only a "symptom" of tensions between groups. "There's much deeper conflict going on there, and I'm hoping this will help the sides come together and find a way forward together."
According to James, "All the indigenous people of North America are connected."
"We might call ourselves by a different name, we might be in a different environment. Song, dance, legend, myth, symbols are woven into our life. And they weave our teachings together," he said.
James said while the carvers were working on the bear, something miraculous happened.
"When we heard about Bears Ears and when we were carving this totem, for the first time in decades, we had bears come to Lummi. They actually came to Lummi … all during the time we were carving this … they were all over the reservation," he recalled.
He said it had been 60 years since they had seen a bear in the area. "We take it as a sign that we're doing the right work," James said.
Alan Naumann, a supporter at the event and lover of Bears Ears, said he enjoyed James' story about the bears showing up while he was working on the totem.Comment on this story
"It's the similar philosophy of what you put your attention on, you get more of," he said. "And that's what impressed me the most. You think about bears, you want bears, you want Bears Ears, you'll attract bears and other people interested in bears. And it just goes together logically. … It feels more possible," he said.
The bear totem will stop again at the Bears Ears meadow during the 2018 Summer Gathering before it makes its way to the Southern Ute Museum in Ignacio, Colorado, where it will reside until it finds a permanent den.