Photo courtesy Anna Elza Brady
In the wake of this week’s deeply fractured general election, millions of Americans are grasping to figure out what can be done to heal the gaping divide in this country. Millions more are wondering what will become of our public lands, our conservation legacy, and our indigenous leaders who are standing up for the integrity of people and Nature.
The answer may lie in an area of the country Wallace Stegner once called “the emptiest part of America.” The tribally-led Bears Ears National Monument proposal presents an historic opportunity for President Obama to fulfill his legacy of honoring our nation’s incredible diversity through conservation of public lands. In the process, Bears Ears may have something profound to teach all Americans about healing through listening.
In remote southeastern Utah lies one of the most intact wild ecosystems in the contiguous United States, as well as tens of thousands of America’s best-preserved, yet unprotected, archaeological sites. Fanning up from the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers – an area long considered sacred by Native peoples of this region – stretches a landscape of deep sandstone canyons, high red rock mesas, aspen-studded mountainsides, and wide turquoise sky. Rising from this swath of desert plateau looms a pair of twin buttes, visible for miles in all directions. In every Native language of the region, this horizon-defining feature is known as “Bears Ears.”
What appeared stark and deserted to Stegner, however, is intimate and beloved to others. For grassroots Native American people who have inhabited this region since time immemorial and who still use this landscape for ceremony and subsistence, Bears Ears is hallowed ancestral homeland. Tucked among the folds and promontories rest an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, regarded by researchers as world-class objects of scientific inquiry. For Tribes, these sites are quite literally the dwelling places of the Ancestors, whose spirits are still very much alive in this landscape.
Debate & the West
Today an unprecedented coalition of five sovereign tribal nations – Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uinta Ouray Ute – have united to call on President Obama to protect Bears Ears as national monument, for the benefit of future generations of all people. Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, presidents of the United States possess executive authority to proclaim national monuments in order protect historic landmarks. Of the 124 national monuments dedicated since the 1906 passage of the Antiquities Act, Bears Ears would be the first truly Native American national monument.
Bears Ears marks the first time in history that Tribes have called on a president of the United States to designate a national monument in honor of Native American heritage. Ironically, the Antiquities Act was originally passed in response to rampant looting of Native American ancestral sites in the Four Corners region, not far from Bears Ears. Today Bears Ears faces the same threat; a few years ago it was the site of the largest investigation of archaeological and cultural artifact theft in U.S. history. Despite its origin, the Antiquities Act has never before been invoked by the indigenous peoples of this continent, whose cultural relics the law was intended to protect.
More than 220,000 individuals have signed petitions and handwritten letters in support of the Bears Ears proposal—including thousands of local Native Americans who depend on this landscape for livelihood and identity. Allies include veterans, labor organizations, trade associations, outdoor businesses, faith leaders, artists, writers, paleontologists, and archaeologists. These constituencies have added the considerable heft of their support to the five Tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, backed by 20 additional Tribes and the National Congress of American Indians, representing more than 300 Tribes across the United States.
Tribes are offering President Obama a gift. Bears Ears will embrace indigenous ecological knowledge, and it will complete the Obama legacy of working to diversify our nation’s parks and monuments to reflect all the history and cultures of America. In so doing, Bears Ears National Monument will lead the way toward healing our nation, through listening.
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Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.
‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.
Bruce E. Cain