Fourteen Westminster College students, two faculty members and a program assistant just returned from a semester-long road trip around the American West. Over 10,000 miles, we traced some of the meanings, conflicts and cooperation embedded in landscapes. The Bears Ears National Monument represents a crucial chapter in that story and involves a movement towards including more voices in that conversation.
For the 82 days of our “Expedition,” our public lands served as classroom, textbook and, when we got sick of one another, escape. We listened to people who use those lands for other purposes: ranching, water for agriculture and energy production.
We visited Grand Teton National Park, originally a national monument created under the Antiquities Act and the site of a fierce protest by locals against a “land grab” by the federal government and rich outsiders. We explored Grand Canyon National Park, also first protected by the Antiquities Act despite opponents focused on short-term economic gain. Generations of Americans have since come to treasure those iconic landscapes as inviolate parts of our national heritage. And we were reminded that Native peoples were removed (often forcibly) from these places, their ancestral homelands.
The Bears Ears National Monument informed many of our conversations. We discussed the designation, the opposition, Interior Secretary Zinke’s review and President Trump’s looming attempt to dismantle Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Bears Ears has particular resonance because of the unique grassroots, Native-led campaign for its designation, and Native involvement in its management. This landscape carries thousands of Native stories and sacred sites.
In 2014 Brent Olson took students to see Dine leaders, listen to their stories and survey culturally important plant species. They met with Jonah Yellowman, an elder and spiritual advisor to Dine Bikeyah. They sat in his hogan and drank tea while he told stories. His deep voice seemed to come from the earth itself and the patter of his words reminded students of the snow that had fallen on their tents the night before. He told of the links between his ancestors and the Bears Ears. He told stories about plants, animals and the people connected to them. They built a sweat lodge, sat, sweated and heard stories transformed to ancient song. Students returned wiser and older thanks to Jonah, his family, and their stories and songs.
Most of those students on that trip have since graduated, and many of them have shared their excitement that those sacred lands they learned so much from have been protected. This fall we returned to Bears Ears and camped near the monument at Sand Island at the foot of cliffs covered in thousands of years of petroglyphs. Again, Jonah Yellowman guided us, and he led us to Cave Towers and between the Ears themselves, where he told us with pride what the monument meant to him and his people.
Around the campfire the next night we met Kenneth Maryboy, another spiritual advisor to Dine Bikeyah and a former San Juan County commissioner. Kenneth described the process that led to the monument, then sang a bear song. When he finished we fell quiet and the dry cottonwood leaves rattled over our heads.
We spent the semester listening to people who live, work and play on our public lands. We listened to the land itself. The more we listen, the more we learn from our public lands and from the public that uses them, that comes from them, and that holds them sacred. We learned many things, including that we must listen to Native voices: leave Bears Ears alone.
Brent Olson is an associate professor of environmental studies and Jeff Nichols is a professor of history at Westminster College, Salt Lake City.