Bears Ears

CountryUnited States
Report By
Fiona McLeod
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Lee Wayne Lomayestewa, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui
August 8, 2019

In 2015, five Native American tribes submitted a proposal to President Barack Obama for federal protection of more than one million acres of the greater Bears Ears area in southern Utah. In this region, redrock canyons, stone monoliths, wooded mesas and dry river beds hold the landscape through booming afternoon thunderstorms and blustering winds. Cryptobiotic soil grows open and exposed on the sandy floor of undisturbed areas––a living layer of lichen, algae, fungus and moss that stores moisture and protects the arid earth from erosion. Ancient village sites and cliff dwellings that were built and inhabited by indigenous peoples thousands of years ago remain. Granaries and underground kivas blend organically and delicately into their surroundings, petroglyphs and pictographs adorn the canyon walls, and shards of pottery and other artifacts lie unprotected on the surface of the dry soil.

The historic Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition––composed of representatives from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Pueblo of Zuni––was formed to protect and defend the sacred land around Bears Ears. In 2016, during the last month of his presidency, President Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument. With this designation came protection of thousands of ancient Native American village sites, burials, artifacts, trails and sites of spiritual significance.

In 2017, however, President Donald Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent. Due to this dramatic rollback, the region is once again under constant threat of environmental and cultural desecration, including oil and gas drilling, uranium mining and illegal looting of artifacts. As Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch describes, the fight to protect Bears Ears is “all about culture, spirituality, protecting traditional knowledge, and ensuring that our people can continue to perform these ceremonies and these prayers into the future. Seven generations, fourteen generations, forever.” [i]

The Land and Its People

The greater Bears Ears area encompasses more than 1.9 million acres and is saturated with geological, cultural, spiritual, ecological and archaeological diversity. Located in the southeastern corner of Utah, the region is defined by two 8,000-foot mountain buttes that rise above the landscape, twin plateaus resembling the ears of a large bear peeking over the northern horizon. The Hopi Tribe calls this land Hoon’Naqvut; for the Navajo, it is known as Shash Jaa’. For the Ute Tribe it is Kwiyagatu Nukavachi and for the Pueblo of Zuni, Ansh An Lashokdiwe. In each language the words translate as “Bears Ears.”

Many archaeologists agree that the earliest evidence of human presence at Bears Ears dates to between 11,000 and 6,000 BCE, though many of the tribes in the region trace their ancestral ties to Bears Ears to time immemorial. [ii] For thousands of years, native people created and used a large variety of pottery, constructed stone houses, granaries and kivas, built large cliff dwellings and villages, and painted their stories on vertical redrock walls throughout Bears Ears. Each one of the tribes represented in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has a unique history within, and relationship to, the vast Bears Ears landscape.

In 1864, Colonel Kit Carson led the U.S. Army in a violent raid on Navajo––or Diné–– villages throughout the Colorado Plateau, during which the aggressors burned down Navajo homes and destroyed their villages and agriculture. Over 8,000 Navajo people were removed from their homes and hundreds died as they were forced to march to present-day New Mexico, where they were imprisoned at Bosque Redondo. [iii] During the forced removal, now known as The Long Walk, Navajo resisters fled the military incursion, sought protection in the Bears Ears area, and escaped confinement. [iv] According to Navajo/Hopi filmmaker, anthropologist and activist Angelo Baca, “The landscape is so rugged that the U.S. military couldn’t follow us. They didn’t know where they were going, and it was too hard on their horses, too hard on them. They’d just give up half the time.” [v] The centrality of Bears Ears in the Navajo’s history of suffering and resistance to settler-colonial invasion is part of what makes it such a culturally and spiritually significant place for the tribe. As Baca reflected, the Bears Ears is “the place that keeps you safe. For us, it’s still that. It’s still a place of refuge.” [vi]

Bears Ears is also an important part of the migration history and spirituality of the Zuni Pueblo. Like other Ancestral Puebloan groups, the Zuni, or A:Shiwi, are able to identify their ancestors’ presence in Bears Ears through rock art, cliff dwellings, and plants traditionally used in ceremonies. Carleton Bowekaty, Zuni councilman and Co-Chair of the Bears Ears Commission, describes how the tribal migration history of the Zuni people is not solely a story of physical or geographic movement, but it also represents “a growth in our people,” a spiritual journey that led the Zuni to “balance out what we feel is our place in the world.” [vii] Bowekaty says that the Bears Ears landscape “identifies our path in life.” [viii]

The Ute, or Nuchu, identify themselves as the oldest inhabitants of Colorado. Today, the seven bands of Ute make up three sovereign tribes: the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Southern Ute Tribe. Both the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe joined the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015, identifying the landscape as an important part of their ancestral past and contemporary existence. Some Ute elders who are still alive today grew up within the greater Bears Ears area, and the Ute continue to maintain strong cultural and spiritual ties to the area. [ix]

The Hopi, another Ancestral Puebloan tribe, migrated to their current villages in northern Arizona by way of the Bears Ears region millennia ago. As Hopi researcher Lee Wayne Lomayestewa explains: “In Hopi, we say that where we live today––the three mesas––this is how a Hopi village is established. This area is just the plaza, it’s the plaza where things happen now. Outside of that is where all the people have lived, and that’s the whole Southwest, the Four Corners states, where the Hopis have established their footprints, making their homes, putting petroglyphs on the walls and breaking their pottery, and also establishing trails in the area. That’s how we look at the whole landscape: right here, in this area, is the plaza, and outside of that is the rest of the village––and that includes Bears Ears.” [x]

Many ancestral Hopi clans migrated through and made homes in the Bears Ears area before they reached the village of Oraibi, which is the oldest permanently inhabited settlement in the United States, located on the present-day Hopi Reservation. For the tribe, Bears Ears embodies the footprints of the different Hopi clan migrations, as evidenced by the burial sites, villages, petroglyphs, pottery remains, and spiritual shrines still present in the area today.

Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts

Efforts to protect the greater Bears Ears area began more than 80 years ago, but grew in intensity and visibility over the past few years, as a Native American-led movement became the central element in discussions surrounding tribal-federal relations, indigenous sovereignty, resource extraction, cultural desecration and public land conservation. Bears Ears is now at the heart of an ongoing struggle in which Native American tribes are fighting to protect sacred land from both environmental degradation and cultural desecration.

When President Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, tribal members and their allies rejoiced, for it represented one of the first instances in which indigenous perspectives of sacred land and traditional, ecological knowledge were substantively acknowledged and explicitly honored at the federal level. President Obama’s proclamation guaranteed protection for the culturally, ecologically and spiritually significant Bears Ears landscape and established a unique land management plan, the defining feature of which was collaboration between five sovereign tribes and U.S. government agencies (primarily the Bureau of Land Management). By designing a land management plan centered around indigenous ways of knowing, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition reoriented the conventionally accepted forms of land management practiced within the United States to account for the sacred alongside the secular. In this historic effort, native people challenged the supremacy of settler-colonial knowledge systems within public land management, approaching environmental conservation as an important element of protecting and defending the cultural and spiritual values of a sacred landscape.

In the two years since President Obama’s designation, however, the landscape has once again become a hotbed of contest and unrest, with conservative policymakers treating this sacred place like a political football. On December 4, 2017, President Trump reduced the size of the monument by a dramatic 85 percent. The 201,397 acres that remain of Bears Ears National Monument were divided into two non-contiguous units: Indian Creek in the north and Shash Jaa’ in the south.

President Trump proclaimed that the culturally significant artifacts and objects that President Obama’s monument had protected are not “unique to the monument,” are not “of significant scientific or historic interest,” nor are they “under threat of damage or destruction.” [xi] He wrote, “it is in the public interest to modify the boundaries of the monument to exclude from its designation and reservation approximately 1,150,860 acres of land that I find are unnecessary for the care and management of the objects to be protected within the monument [emphasis added].” [xii] Under Trump’s modifications, motorized vehicle use and livestock grazing are permitted within the monument, and all of the previously protected lands have been reopened to mineral leasing and mining operations. Trump also revised the Bears Ears Commission, renamed it the Shash Jaa’ Commission, and restricted tribal representatives’ advisory role to the Shash Jaa’ unit alone. He announced his modifications at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, at which time he also reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by roughly 1 million acres. [xiii] Combined, this was the largest cutback of previously protected public land in United States history. [xiv]

In a lawsuit filed on the same day as these reductions (Hopi Tribe et al. v. Trump et al.), the tribes contested the legality of Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument, arguing that the move exceeds his authority and violates both the United States Constitution and the Antiquities Act. The tribes assert that no existing legislation grants the president the authority to rescind, modify, revoke or replace national monuments designated by a previous president. [xv]

Two additional lawsuits challenging the president’s actions were filed soon after, Utah Diné Bikéyah et al. v. Trump et al .and Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. et al. v. Trump et al. [xvi], [xvii] Collectively, the plaintiffs represented in the three lawsuits consist of five tribal governments and 19 conservation organizations, including Friends of Cedar Mesa, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, Patagonia Works, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society.

According to Utah Diné Bikéyah, Trump’s decision “not only reduces protections for burial sites, ancestral ruins, and medicinal plants, but it also diminishes the healing power of this designation for all Americans.” [xviii] President Obama’s designation of Bear Ears National Monument was an immense step forward in honoring indigenous traditional knowledge at the level of the federal government and many people believe that “[Trump] went after Bears Ears intentionally, just to undermine tribal sovereignty.” [xix] The legal fate of the hundreds of thousands of acres of sacred land that President Trump excluded from federal protection awaits court action. In the meantime, Republican lawmakers are moving to reopen the area for oil and gas drilling, putting parcels of land up for lease to extractive industry corporations. [xx]

What You Can Do

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Volunteer Opportunities:

  • Utah Diné Bikéyah: host an event in your community, share photography or videos of Bears Ears, and spread the word on Facebook and social media.
  • Friends of Cedar Mesa: become a “Visit with Respect Ambassador” or help with service and restoration projects on public land.

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Endnotes & Sources

[i] Ethel Branch, keynote address at the 2018 Connecticut Law Review Symposium, “Regulating for the Seventh Generation: Tribal Nations and Environmental Law,” University of Connecticut, Hartford, Connecticut, October 26, 2018.

[ii] William D. Lipe, “Bears Ears: The Cultural Landscapes,” Archaeology Southwest Magazine 32, no. 1 (Fall 2017 & Winter 2018): p5.

[iii] Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, “Proposal to President Barack Obama for the Creation of Bears Ears National Monument,” Bears Ears Coalition, October, 15, 2015.

[iv] Rebecca M. Robinson,Voices from Bears Ears: Seeking Common Ground on Sacred Land (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018), p75, 365.

[v] Baca, interview by author, Blanding, Utah, January 10, 2019.

[vi] Baca, interview by author, 2019.

[vii] Robinson, Voices from Bears Ears, p208.

[viii] Robinson, Voices from Bears Ears, p208.

[ix] “Bears Ears National Monument Media Orientation and Cultural Sensitivity Sheet,” Utah Diné Bikéyah.

[x] Lee Wayne Lomayestewa, interview by author, Hopi Cultural Preservation Office; Kykotsmovi, Arizona, January 11, 2019.

[xi] U.S. President, Proclamation, “Modifying the Bears Ears National Monument, Proclamation 9681 of December 4, 2017,” Federal Register 82, no. 235 (December 8, 2017): 58081-59807.

[xii] U.S. President, “Modifying the Bears Ears National Monument.”

[xiii] Lee Davidson and Thomas Burr, “Trump greeted by cheers and protests as he visits Utah, trims 2 million acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 4, 2017.

[xiv] Julie Turkewitz, “Trump Slashes Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments,” New York Times, December 4, 2017.

[xv] Hopi Tribe, et al. v. Donald J. Trump, in his official capacity as President of the United States, et al., 1:17-cv-02590, (D.D.C. 2017).

[xvi] Utah Diné Bikéyah, et al. v. Donald J. Trump, in his official capacity as President of the United States, et al., 1:17-cv-02605, (D.D.C. 2017).

[xvii] Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. et al. v. Donald J. Trump, in his official capacity as President of the United States, et al., 1:17-cv-02606, (D.D.C. 2017).

[xviii] Utah Diné Bikéyah, Native Wisdom Speaks at Bears Ears: Will America Listen?, 5.

[xix] Georgiana Pongyesva, interview by author, Hopi Cultural Preservation Office; Kykotsmovi, Arizona, January 11, 2019.

[xx] J. Weston Phippen, “Bears Ears Officially Opens to Oil and Gas,” Outside Magazine, February 2, 2018.

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