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Terry Tempest Williams: With monument proposal, tribes open door to new way of seeing public lands

First Published      Last Updated Dec 20 2016 01:49 pm

It is time for a monumental idea. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell will be in Bluff tomorrow conducting a site hearing on the Bears Ears National Monument proposal. Her presence honors the strength and dignity of tribal leadership expressed through the coalition of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and the Mountain and Ouray Ute nations who are calling for the protection of 1.9 million acres adjacent to Canyonlands National Park in the remote region of Cedar Mesa.   

The coalition of five tribes — supported by more than 20 tribes within the American Southwest and the National Congress of American Indians,  comprised of more than 250 tribes — is asking the United States government to see their home ground through the lenses of traditional knowledge gleaned through relationships cultivated over time. 




I do not profess to know how Indian people feel. I only know how I feel when I am with them. I am drawn into a circle of relationships that widens my own sense of community that includes all living things. My debt is large to Indian people and all the ways they have shaped and influenced my own sense of home.

I believe the Bears Ears National Monument proposal honors the deep residency of native peoples living inside the Colorado Plateau. The tribes are asking each of us to acknowledge an embodied intelligence born of the land that warrants as much respect and protection as the wilderness, itself.

The Bears Ears National Monument Proposal has the potential to transform Utah's rancorous politics of place into an ethic of place for generations to come.

Not long ago, 15 students gathered in our living room with Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo spiritual leader from Monument Valley. When Jonah arrived, coyotes began howling, a rarity at nine o'clock in the morning.

He entered our home, the students sat near him, and he began his remarks with a blessing. After the blessing, he spoke about how one learns, how his father taught him as a young boy to bring in wood and water at night, so that in the morning you will have dry wood to make a fire for warmth, and water to boil a cup of tea.  

"You will not be caught short in a blizzard," he said.

He shared how he became a medicine person, how the ashes spoke to him, how if one holds a crystal up to the stars for guidance and then peers back into the ashes, one can see into the soul of the person in need. One of the students bluntly asked Jonah why he was sharing this sacred knowledge.

"It is time," Jonah said.  

Jonah spoke about why these lands on Cedar Mesa remain sacred to the Navajo; how the bones of his ancestors are buried here, how their ancient songs are still carried by the winds, and how the Diné see these lands as their medicine cabinets. This is the home of their ceremonies. This is the place where he remembers the source of his dreams.

 "I have dreamed of being in this place before," Jonah said.

He pointed north toward the Colorado River. "The elders told me that this canyon where the great river flows was created by the bison from scraping the Earth with his hoof."

"It is time to go outside," he said.  We followed him on to the patio in Castle Valley, where we witnessed a rare horizontal rainbow above the mesa.

It is time for us to go outside our own places of comfort and dare to embrace a new way of seeing.  The tribes are opening the door, inviting us to cross a threshold where a more expansive conversation about land protection awaits us. They are taking us beyond the rhetoric of wilderness designation to a wider view of how we can live in place with reverence and restraint. Leaders like Jim Enote from the Zuni Pueblo remind us how these desert lands are "source, not resource."

In this centennial year of the National Park Service, it is hard to imagine a more profound act that could provide a greater healing between indigenous people and the federal government than this bold national monument.  At a time when race has created a wedge and a wound within our communities in the United States of America that is anything but united, Bears Ears National Monument becomes a gesture of peace extended to disenfranchised people still held captive by the violence of our shadowed history.

The partisan politics that continues to plague public land policy in the 21st century is being offered a powerful corrective by collaborating with the tribes in a co-management model of cooperation where traditional knowledge is embedded within current land agency governing principles and practices. It will not be easy, but it will be transformative and right.

Our national parks and monuments are not simply "America's best idea" but an evolving idea. In their quiet and dignified manner, the tribes are leading the way forward with a vision of land protection in Utah that is at its core, spiritual. We are the sum of all our relations, both human and wild.  

May Jewell listen to the collective wisdom of the tribes and carry it back to Washington and return to their native home ground with a monumental decision.

Terry Tempest Williams is the author of "The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, currently a New York Times bestseller.  

 

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