Author: Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition
Editor: Cassaundra Pino, Communications and Community Engagement Specialist for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition
The History of the Bears Ears Landscape
The Tribes and Pueblos with cultural ties to the Bears Ears landscape is far reaching and includes: Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe, Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Tribe, White Mountain Tribe and Jicarilla Apache Tribe, San Juan, Kaibab, & Utah Paiute Tribes, White Mountain and Jicarilla Apache, Hualapai Tribe, Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Toas, Tesuque, Ysleta Del Sur, Zia and Zuni. Several of the listed southwestern Tribes trace their ancestry to the Bears Ears region. Their ancestors, who populated the region since time immemorial, built roads, shrines, pit houses, pueblos, great houses, kivas, and cliff dwellings – the remains of which still grace the landscape today. Bountiful rock paintings and petroglyphs also decorate cliffs and boulders throughout the region.
The vast majority of the more than 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites in the area have been dated by western archaeologists to at least 700 years old (with some dated as far back as 12,000 B.C.E.), though tribal peoples of the Colorado Plateau trace their connections here back much farther.
Many historic Diné (Navajo) hogans and sweat lodges, Ute tipi rings, and Diné and Ute rock art sites are also found in the area. Diné Headman Manuelito was born near the Bears Ears twin buttes. Manuelito led his people in their resistance to forced relocation on “the Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, and helped secure the treaty that allowed their return to the Navajo homeland. Diné people believe the Bears Ears buttes to be a shrine that protects the Diné.
Protection of all these sacred sites is critically important to Native American people. Ongoing looting, grave robbing, vandalism, and destruction of cultural sites are acts that literally rob Native American people of spiritual connections, as well as a sense of place and history.
Native American connections to Bears Ears aren’t just about protecting the past. Many Native Americans visit the area on a regular basis for ceremonies and to connect with their ancestors. The Navajo Nation and the White Mesa Ute Reservation border Bears Ears on the south and east, respectively. Diné and Ute people frequent the land to collect herbs and medicine, forage for food (such as piñon nuts), gather firewood for heating and ceremonial use, and to hunt game.
Because of these ongoing traditional uses, proper management of Bears Ears’ native plants and wildlife is paramount to Native American people. Tribal people depend on the Bears Ears region as both their medicine cabinet and their pantry – for food, shelter, and healing, as well as for their spiritual sustenance. It is a place of learning, where Indigenous peoples from many Tribes can go and teach younger generations about their connections to Bears Ears, about their ancestors whose spirits still reside there, and about their roles as stewards of the land.
. Photo: Tim Peterson
The Bears Ears National Monument
On December 28, 2016, President Barack Obama proclaimed the new 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) in southeastern Utah. The designated monument protected one of the most significant cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of sacred cultural sites and important areas of spiritual significance.
The successful effort to protect the Bears Ears landscape through a national monument designation was unique and truly unprecedented, and led years of grassroots work by the Native American-led organization Utah Dine Bikeyah and advocacy by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — a historic consortium of five sovereign member Tribes including the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni. While historians, conservationists, scientists, archaeologists, and others have sponsored many requests for protection under the Antiquities Act, Tribes had never before petitioned for a presidentially-declared national monument. As a result, the differences between earlier monuments and Bears Ears are many and deep. The government was acting as a trustee for these five Tribes. The Tribes are sovereign governments, with deep roots in the communities surrounding the monument. They also possess Traditional Ecological Knowledge, a resource that Obama’s proclamation recognized as “a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come,” and subsequently instructed federal agencies to incorporate in the management of the BENM.
In December 2017, President Trump’s Proclamation 9681 unlawfully attempted to revoke and replace the BENM with two much-smaller monument “Units” (an 85% decrease of the original monument size), alongside reducing the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, initiating the largest rollback of federally protected lands in U.S. history. In response to Proclamation 9681, the Coalition Tribes sued President Trump to have the revocation of the BENM monument declared illegal.
In January 2021, President Biden instructed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) to conduct a 60-day review of the Bears Ears (and others) National Monuments; he had promised to restore Bears Ears during his presidential campaign. Secretary Haaland, the first Indigenous leader of the agency in its history, visited Bears Ears to meet with tribal leaders of the five Coalition Tribes, Utah delegates, stakeholders, community members, and conservation groups in April as part of the Interior’s monument review. The Coalition recently launched a national ad campaign calling on President Biden to honor his promise by restoring and expanding the original monument immediately. “Mr. President, the time to act is now,” declared the Coalition.
Photo: Tim Peterson
A Collaborative Approach to Land Management
Concurrent to the litigation challenging the illegal modification of boundaries and in recognition of the fact that there are ever-growing needs for land management and conservation amidst increasing visitation to the Bears Ears landscape, the Coalition has initiated work to develop a comprehensive land management plan for the 1.9-million acre landscape that was depicted in the Coalition’s original proposal to the Obama administration. The Coalition intends to develop a land management plan that is grounded in Native perspective but also easily implemented into the agency planning process led by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS).
The BLM and USFS’s expedited planning process did not give the Tribes a meaningful voice in the development of a land management plan for the BENM. The Coalition reiterated its request that the agencies comply with the government-to-government relationship, by engaging with the Tribes individually and allowing them the opportunity for input and collaboration as encouraged in both the Obama and Trump proclamations.
The Coalition maintains that lands, natural resources, and scientific and cultural resources encompassing 1.9 million acres within the Bears Ears landscape are in need of preservation and protection as a National Monument. The need to structure long-term, sustainable land management policies to protect and preserve lands and resources within Bears Ears implicates the federal government’s role and strict adherence to the trust relationship to consult with Tribes. The Coalition requests the principles of the federal trust relationship be upheld by protecting the original intent of the monument declaration and requiring the lead agencies to meaningfully engage the Tribes in the management of the BENM.
Photo: Tim Peterson
What You Can Do to Support Bears Ears
The most profound aspect of Bears Ears is the Native presence that is interwoven into every cliff and corner. Wondrous though the natural formations are, these cultural elements combine with the land and contribute to its significance. This spirit is the beating heart of Bears Ears. The region is home to more than 100,000 sacred sites and is of paramount cultural and spiritual importance to multiple Indigenous communities today. Do your part and practice respectful visitation by following and sharing the tips below:
Before visiting the landscape, please go to the Friends of Cedar Mesa Education Center in Bluff, Utah. This center provides more detailed information on how you can help preserve Bears Ears and support its longevity.
Stay on all marked trails and roads – please don’t make your own.
If you happen upon a cultural site, please enjoy it from afar.
Please do not climb on/in or touch ancestral structures. They are extremely fragile and are still used in ceremonial practices today.
Please do not reveal a site’s location, GPS coordinates, or utilize geotags on social media as this can attract large foot traffic to an unprotected, sensitive space.
Please refrain from touching rock art, or making your own. These images contain stories told from generation to generation.
Please leave all cultural objects (pottery pieces, corn cobs) as you found them; do not remove them from their place of rest and take them as “souvenirs.” These objects are crucial to passing along knowledge, connecting with our ancestors, and are a part of the landscape itself.
Leave no trace: be prepared to pack out everything you bring into the landscape. Human/pet waste has become a major problem in the region as there are very few portable bathrooms available for visitors, so make sure you have a plan.
Encourage President Biden to protect the Bears Ears in accordance with the wishes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s original 1.9 million acre proposal
Support Collaborative Management of the Bears Ears Landscape