Bluff • Indigenous people from around the Four Corners gathered on the banks of the San Juan River on Saturday to offer prayers and blessings before an intricately crafted, 25-foot totem pole that was stationed for the night in a campground near Bears Ears National Monument.
The totem pole was carved by members of the Lummi Nation and is being transported from their home in Washington state to Washington, D.C., as part of a 15-day, cross-continent journey to advocate for the protection of sacred places and the expansion of tribal sovereignty rights.
“This is a moment where all of our people are facing such duress and uncertainty,” said Judith LeBlanc, a citizen of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma and director of the Native Organizers Alliance, who is traveling on the “Red Road to D.C.” with the totem pole.
“The journey of this totem,” LeBlanc said, “is to bring people together to recognize what it is that will make us stronger. What’s the medicine we need? That medicine is to heal the land. But first, we must bring people together to heal themselves, to understand their relationship to land and place and history.”
Many of the more than a dozen people who spoke Saturday advocated for the restoration and expansion of Bears Ears National Monument, which was created by former President Barack Obama in 2016 and reduced by 85% by former President Donald Trump the following year.
President Joe Biden is currently reviewing the monument boundaries and is expected to expand it back to its original size of 1.3 million acres.
Several elected leaders with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes representatives from Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian tribes, called on Biden to create a 1.9 million-acre national monument as the coalition originally requested in 2015 along with robust tribal co-management of the landscape.
“We hope the Biden administration understands,” LeBlanc said, “that the people, starting with Native nations, must have the right to determine the future of these sacred places.”
Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe and co-chair of the intertribal coalition, spoke about the ancestral connections the five tribes in the coalition share to the hundreds of thousands of cultural sites in southeast Utah.
“Our life story is well documented,” Tenakhongva said, gesturing to a petroglyph panel on the sandstone cliffs near the event. “You can see it right here behind us.
“I’ve been to Washington, D.C., and testified four times [on Bears Ears],” he added. “I believe that’s enough.”
Mark Maryboy, a member of the Navajo Nation and former San Juan County commissioner, told the story of efforts to push for the creation of the national monument through the Indigenous-led group Utah Diné Bikéyah, starting a decade ago, and he connected the fight to conserve land in southeast Utah to other struggles for environmental justice.
“What’s going on today with the totem pole is all one piece, and it’s all about climate change,” Maryboy said. “It’s getting hotter and hotter.” He described trends of snowpack melting earlier in the spring in the Rocky Mountains and the dire situation on Lake Powell, which is expected to reach historic low levels this year.
“The water is a very precious resource,” Maryboy said. “We must do everything we can to preserve the water that’s coming down the canyons.”
Many of the speakers at Saturday’s event, which was hosted by the inter-tribal coalition, Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Women of Bears Ears, linked the environmental battles being led by Indigenous people across the country to the fight to restore Bears Ears.
“When we talk about protecting sacred places, land and water, it’s not just for Native peoples; it’s good for all Americans,” said Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), founder and CEO of IllumiNative, and another participant in totem pole’s coast-to-coast trip. “As this pole travels across the country, it’s really showing people in Utah and every state we’re coming through that Native people are here today, and we are leading. We are thinking about solutions for all of us.”
The Lummi Nation carvers and their supporters stopped at the Snake River in Idaho on Thursday to meet with Nez Perce tribal members, who are working to remove dams and restore salmon runs in the Northwest.
The Red Road to D.C. also has upcoming events planned in Chaco Canyon, N.M., where there is a long-running battle over oil and gas drilling on the Navajo Nation; in Standing Rock, N.D., where tens of thousands of people gathered to fight the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016; and in White Earth, Minn., where over 100 people have been arrested while opposing the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline through Anishinaabe territory.
At the journey’s end, the totem pole will be displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
“The future is Indigenous,” LeBlanc said. “And I say that to mean that the future is when we will recognize our relationality — that we’re related — when we recognize that we have common struggles in order to make sure that our descendants live a good life.”
Correction: 4:00 p.m. July 19, 2021. An earlier version of this story contained an error about the totem pole event in Snake River, Idaho. The Red Road to D.C. group met primarily with Nez Perce tribal members, not Shoshone-Bannock tribal members.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.