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Utah’s Indian tribes restaking a claim to their homeland with proposed Bears Ears conservation area

First Published      Last Updated Apr 28 2016 12:57 pm

Indian tribes hope Bishop initiative will clear the way for largest conservation proposal so far in southeastern Utah.

Bluff • Even some Native Americans don't know about the archaeological riches their ancestors left in Cedar Mesa.

A week ago, on a tour of the area, a member of the Hopi Tribe was shocked to find his family's Flute Clan symbol in a rock pictograph.

"It was a very powerful, very emotional tour," said Mark Maryboy, a Navajo elder. "A lot of them didn't realize how much history and how much evidence their people left behind. There are many generations."

In a campaign to reclaim the place from Anglo grave robbers, off-roaders and benignly ignorant campers and hikers who have traversed the region since state and federal leaders carved it up to distinguish public from private land, Utah's Navajos are leading a push to create the Bears Ears National Conservation Area in the southeastern corner of Utah.

Their proposal stretches from the southern edge of Canyonlands National Park to the San Juan River and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in the south to approximately U.S. Highway 191 on the east and the Colorado River on the west.

The tribe's 1.9 million-acre proposal is larger than three other plans to expand federal land protections in the region — including the Greater Canyonlands notion from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, four conservation areas pitched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and another from Friends of Cedar Mesa.

But for native people whose ancestors occupied the canyons and mountaintops of Cedar Mesa for hundreds of years, the conservation plan is personal.

Last week, the Navajo invited members of the Cochiti Pueblo, Hopi, Hualapai, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni Pueblo tribes on the tour to show them why it needs a federal designation. On that field tour, Maryboy welcomed them home. Then he asked for their help.

"I told them the local peoples — the Navajos and Utes — have been doing the best we can to protect the sacred sites left behind by their people, but that it is becoming very difficult," said Maryboy, a former San Juan County commissioner. "Rooms are desecrated. Pot hunters have come and taken most of the pottery, and ruins are being destroyed every day.

"This is their homeland," he added, "and they need to help us find a way to protect it."

The Bears Ears proposal comes amid Rep. Rob Bishop's regional land-use planning initiative and a growing sense that if Utah doesn't do something to protect threatened public lands such as Cedar Mesa, President Barack Obama could be persuaded to declare another national monument in the state before he leaves office.

"The land we love" and lost • Navajos — through the nonprofit Diné Bikéyah — are leading the effort to create the Bears Ears National Conservation Area.

"We want to re-protect the land that we love," Maryboy said. "Our elders were forcibly removed from those lands and never had a chance to articulate how they felt. Our people were not at the table when the U.S. government created public and private lands."

But it hasn't been easy going.

Just picking a name for the idea revealed sensitivities among the tribes. Originally, the proposal was named Diné Bikéyah, a Navajo phrase that means "sacred lands of the people." But that was a potential obstacle to other tribes joining the project.

In the end, Diné Bikéyah was dropped from the name and the team adopted a geologic formation: A pair of buttes in the Manti-La Sal National Forest south of the Dark Canyon Wilderness called Bears Ears. The formation, significant to several tribes, can be seen for miles. And celebrated Navajo "Headman" Manuelito, known for resisting the federal government's efforts to forcibly remove the tribe from the region, was born in 1818 in a Diné village at Bears Ears.

Drawing support from other tribes strengthens the cause, said Diné Bikéyah Chairman Willie Grayeyes.

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