BLUFF, Utah – For generations, the Allen Canyon band of Ute Mountain Utes has made a name for itself by creating artistic wedding baskets out of willows and plant dyes collected in the remote canyon in southeastern Utah.
The clan accesses the traditional area from its base on the White Mesa reservation.
But the Utes and other tribal leaders say ancestral sites are at risk of looting, vandalism, energy development and recreation impacts because they are often located on public lands.
“My grandparents would take us every summer to Allen Canyon to gather the willows and collect berries and plants. The men would hunt, and there would be a community cookout,” said Ute Mountain Ute tribal member Mary Jane Yazzie.
What they’ve witnessed in recent years has been a shock.
“Now, I notice a lot of new roads being created in the canyon. People have dug up pottery and desecrated burials,” Yazzie says. “We feel a monument will help better manage and protect the land.”
Toward that goal, the Ute Mountain, Uintah and Ouray Utes, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes have formed the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition.
They met this month at the Friends of Cedar Mesa conference in Bluff, Utah, to urge President Barack Obama to declare 1.9 million acres of public lands in southeastern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument.
“It’s never been done, all the tribes working together,” said Octavius Seowtewa, a Zuni cultural leader. “We as native peoples are banding together to work for the protection of Bears Ears instead of bickering about past issues.”
Navajo Natasha Hale of the Grand Canyon Trust said local tribes tried to push legislation for a National Conservation Area, “but the vision fell on the deaf ears of politicians, so tribal leaders came together to petition for a monument designation.”
Eric Descheenie, co-chairman of the Bears Ears coalition representing the Navajos, urged Western academia to see the land from a Native American perspective.
“Conservation, environmentalism and history are important, but indigenous truth of our connection to the land is the difference,” he said.
Anthropology and archaeology can be “abstract and dehumanizing,” Descheenie said, and the Antiquities Act protects “objects as if they are nonliving beings.”
“Look through the lens of Native people: The rocks, wind and land and homes of ancestors are more than objects – they are living and breathing. That is how we understand reality and how we reflect on the Bears Ears landscape.”
For the Zuni, the area of Cedar Mesa is part of their medicine man society.
“It is very sacred. Our people emerged from the Grand Canyon and were directed to find this middle place of everlasting sunshine,” Seowtewa said.
The coalition wants more native tribe involvement if a monument is declared. A proposed eight-person management commission would include representatives from each of the five tribes, plus officials from the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Pictures were distributed among the audience of looted ruins, burned wickiups (a traditional Ute dwelling), off-trail motorized damage, oil and gas development and attempted theft of rock art.
“Protection of the area is long overdue. It’s been defaced, violated by grave robbers and heavily impacted by industry,” said Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the Dine Bikeyah, a group that seeks a voice on ancestral lands off the reservation.
As for Obama? The president and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell have held meetings with tribal leaders in the Southwest, and Obama has hinted that Bears Ears may be on his list of monuments to declare.
“I reiterated my commitment to working with tribal nations to protect your natural resources and honor your heritage as we did with Denali,” Obama said at the Tribal Nations conference, Nov. 5, 2015. “So moving forward, we’ll also review tribal proposals to permanently protect sacred lands for future generations.”