Bears Ears supporters celebrate Biden’s restoration of Utah monuments at Cedar Mesa gathering

Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Women of Bears Ears spoke about Indigenous ties to the San Juan County monument.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tara Benally, field director for the Rural Utah Project and member of the Women of Bears Ears, speaks to reporters about the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument at a press conference held atop Muley Point in San Juan County on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

Muley Point • Along the broken sandstone edge of Cedar Mesa, a pair of ravens watched Friday as supporters of Bears Ears National Monument offered gratitude to the landscape, the nearby piñon and juniper forest, and the San Juan River twisting through its goosenecks thousands of feet below.

The gathering was organized by the Indigenous-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), which formed over a decade ago to advocate for the protection of cultural sites and Native American communities in San Juan County.

Several speakers noted that when the group arrived at Muley Point on Friday morning, the boundary of Bears Ears National Monument lay nearly 20 miles distant. By the time the pickup trucks and cars pulled away from the canyon rim that afternoon, however, the monument’s boundaries once again enveloped the site.

In the interim, President Joe Biden had signed a presidential proclamation, restoring over 1 million acres to Bears Ears that had been cut out of the monument by former President Donald Trump in 2017, and Biden had committed more resources to protect the area, which contains hundreds of thousands of archeological sites dating back over 10,000 years.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leonard Lee, a founding board member for the Indigenous-led group Utah Diné Bikéyah, talks about his decade-long advocacy with the group, including its push for additional protections for the Bears Ears National Monument landscape, on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

“We worked so hard for this,” said Leonard Lee, a founding board member of UDB. “It was an uphill battle. A lot of people thought that it was never going to become a reality. … But we had faith, we had prayers, we had songs done up here on the mesa. Today, the Holy People answered our prayer.”

Mary Benally, who also serves on the UDB board and is a member of the group Women of Bears Ears, said she nearly fainted when she heard the news Thursday that Biden would take action to restore the monument on the eve of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, once again strengthening the role Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian and Diné leaders on the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition will play in shaping federal land management decisions in the region.

“This is a small piece of land that we’re fighting for,” Benally said, “and we don’t want any kind of development, extraction, mining to destroy what’s here, the ecosystem.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mary Benally, a board member for the Indigenous-led group Utah Diné Bikéyah and a member of the Women of Bears Ears, speaks about her ties to the landscape of southeast Utah and President Joe Biden’s decision to restore the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

As dozens of people stepped forward to speak, words like “humbled,” “emotional,” “healing” and “thankful” were used repeatedly. Several people talked about the need to continue fighting misinformation about the monument designation, including that it will not prevent the cutting of firewood or the traditional gathering of plants as some monument opponents have claimed.

Staff and board members for the Conservation Lands Foundation, which funded various groups working to designate Bears Ears as a national monument, were already meeting together in the Four Corners region when the news broke, and they attended Friday’s gathering along with staff of the Bluff-based Friends of Cedar Mesa, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the writers Terry Tempest and Brooke Williams, Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert and others.

The press conference was initiated by San Juan County School District board member Nelson Yellowman, who asked the non-indigenous attendees to share what the landscape meant to them.

“It seems like us Natives are asked that question constantly,” Yellowman said, “but what does this mean to you?”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams speaks about the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument at a press conference held atop Muley Point in San Juan County on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

In an emotional response, Terry Tempest Williams said the push to protect Bears Ears changed her life. “It has been a redefining of what kinship means,” she said.

“It is time for us to acknowledge the sins we have created against Mother Earth,” Williams said, quoting the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday. She added that atoning for those sins, Momaday once told her, begins with remembering “the deep hole that is in the land of this country of America and of what has happened to Native people.”

The Bears Ears movement, Williams went on, has been one of healing and “is the beginning of an acknowledgment of reparation.”

Ida Yellowman of the Women of Bears Ears also referred to the landscape as a “healing place.”

“If there is anything you go away with today,” she said, “I hope you take with you the beauty of the land, the peacefulness … wherever it is you go — back to your city life, your office. In your mind, in your heart, when you want to get away, come back to this moment and it’s going to heal you.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Board members, staff and supporters of the Indigenous-led group Utah Diné Bikéyah celebrate President Joe Biden’s decision to restore the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument at an overlook on Cedar Mesa in San Juan County on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

The area around the Bears Ears buttes, which rise above Cedar Mesa at the heart of the national monument, once served as a place of refuge for Chief Manuelito — a storied Diné leader who helped broker the release of prisoners after the federal government forcibly removed thousands of people from the Navajo Nation and interned them at a concentration camp in present-day New Mexico in 1863.

Manuelito would often pause during his negotiations with government officials, Mary Benally said, to go consult with the women elders of the matriarchically organized Diné society. The release of the captives was therefore not the work of a single leader but the collective effort of many, she explained.

As the monument supporters celebrated Biden’s action in San Juan County and Washington D.C., where Navajo Nation and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition leaders attended the signing ceremony, it was clear the Bears Ears movement was also a collective effort.

The Women of Bears Ears and so many others had offered advice to Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland — a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet — during her visit to San Juan County in April, and Haaland had, in turn, recommended Biden restore the monument.

It is easy to draw parallels between Benally’s description of Manuelito’s decision-making process and the events in Bears Ears.

“He went to the women and talked to them,” Benally said, “and that’s how he made his decisions.”

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.