‘Like we had come home’: Navajo and Ute residents of Utah welcome Pueblo people back to Bears Ears

(Courtesy of Carlos Prado) Youth art at the fifth-annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering in Bears Ears National Monument on July 19-21, 2019.

Bears Ears Buttes • At an annual outdoor gathering with Bears Ears as a backdrop, Beata Tsosie of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico compared the genetic memories of plants with her first trip to Bears Ears National Monument several years ago. Corn, she explained, adapts to a place where it is grown year after year, so that each seed carries localized memories into the next planting season.

When she saw Bears Ears, she recalled standing at an overlook above the landscape where her ancestors lived and feeling waves of emotion wash over her.

“It felt like my genetic memory had been activated,” said Tsosie, who works with the group Tewa Women United to address environmental contamination through traditional knowledge. “It was like we had come home.”

Homecoming was the theme of this weekend’s fifth annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering, which is organized by the grassroots nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB). This year the gathering gave a special welcome to Pueblo relatives.

UDB’s board is made up of Diné (Navajo) and Ute Mountain Ute residents of San Juan County, where President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate a 1.3-million acre Bears Ears National Monument in late 2016.

But many of the hundreds of thousands of cultural sites in the region, including images etched onto the rock and ancient cliff dwellings, were the work of ancestral Puebloans — whose descendants, including Tsosie, live primarily in present-day New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

Although Santa Clara Pueblo is over 200 miles as the raven flies from the Bears Ears Buttes, Tsosie said, she grew up hearing oral histories about connections Tewa peoples have across the region, including to greater Bears Ears.

“I actually wept the first time I went to some of these sites,” she said. “They were so familiar.”

Obama’s decision to designate the national monument came at the request of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes representatives of five Native American tribes with ties to the Bears Ears landscape: Diné, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi, Zuni and Ute Indian.

When President Donald Trump slashed Bears Ears National Monument by 85% in late 2017, cutting it into two smaller monuments, the five tribes in the coalition filed a lawsuit within hours. (The case remains before a federal judge in Washington, D.C.)

Tsosie saw the cuts as another example of colonial violence. She said the push to create and defend Bears Ears has offered indigenous people from across the Southwest the opportunity to “come together around shared solidarity.”

Solidarity was also a theme of this weekend’s gathering, particularly in light of reports that Gov. Gary Herbert held talks with Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer earlier this month to discuss a plan that could potentially end the litigation over the monument’s reduction.

Last week, the Governor’s Office confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune that the state and Navajo Nation leaders talked.

“The Governor and the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation have expressed that they are willing to find a good compromise regarding Bears Ears,” the Governor’s Office said in a statement. “At this point, no specific proposals have been outlined. Gov. Herbert looks forward to an ongoing dialogue with tribal leaders on this important issue.”

Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the talks, and Lizer offered few specifics when he spoke with FOX 13 Utah on July 11.

“We’ll take further discussions with [Herbert] and try to escalate them and advance all of our first nations people’s dialogue into that,” he said.

Eric Descheenie, founding co-chairman of the intertribal coalition and former state representative in Arizona, said even the hint of talks is a sign that Lizer and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez are more willing to meet with critics of the monument, like Herbert, than grassroots activists who fought for its designation.

“Nez and Lizer have yet to engage Bears Ears since they’ve taken office [in January] with the grassroots people who did all of this work, including myself,” Descheenie said. “Yet they were so quick to talk about Bears Ears on a substantive level with those who have been opposing us for quite a while.”

Kenneth Maryboy, a former Utah Diné Bikéyah board member and current San Juan County commissioner, said he hopes elected county officials are also included in any future talks.

But James Adakai, the current Navajo Nation representative on the intertribal coalition, said he felt like too much weight was put on Lizer’s remarks.

“According to President Nez, there are no negotiations,” Adakai said, adding that Nez made an announcement to that effect in the Navajo Nation council chambers last week.

Adakai, who also serves as president of the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation and as chairman of the San Juan County Democrats, said negotiations would have to come through all five coalition tribes that were instrumental in creating the monument.

“The Navajo Nation is one of the coalition members,” he continued, “so we cannot break off to go our separate ways to try to do any kind of deal.”

Likewise, Adakai said, Herbert should not try to interfere with litigation over Bears Ears.

“That litigation is between the coalition tribes — including Navajo Nation — and the Trump administration, and the state has no business to interfere with that.”

Both Adakai and Descheenie agreed the Bears Ears movement should be seen as a true intertribal effort: between the five tribes in the original coalition and with the many other tribes and Pueblos who trace their ancestry to the monument.

Acknowledging this year’s homecoming theme, Descheenie, who is Diné, said Pueblo peoples were welcoming Diné attendees to their ancestral homeland “just as much as we are welcoming them.”

“The solidarity that we’re talking about is rooted in the origin stories of indigenous peoples,” Descheenie said of monument support, “and the primary goal is to preserve our ability to heal — to protect our ability to heal ourselves. And that goes to the goal of keeping the land intact.”

This year’s gathering was the biggest yet, according to Utah Diné Bikéyah communications director Alastair Bitsóí, who said more than 800 people registered for the event.

“You see the support from all over the Four Corners region,” Bitsóí said, adding that there were members of the Taos, Acoma, Jemez, Santa Clara and other Pueblos, members of the Diné Nation and multiple Ute nations, as well as attendees with Cherokee, Dakota, Hopi and Indigenous South American ancestry.

Attendees feasted on a butchered bison donated by the Skull Valley Band of Goshute. On Friday, there was a memorial for Garon Coriz, a member of the Kewa Pueblo and supporter of Bears Ears who died in a rock climbing accident last week.

Bitsóí also mentioned the nonnative supporters who were attending and volunteering at the event.

“The world is here in this little space,” Bitsóí said, “to actively defend this landscape through food, through ceremony, through camping out, through being in each other’s company in what we consider ancestral lands of the Bears Ears region.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune.