In the beginning, the Earth was without form and void, and darkness ruled. Ute storyteller Larry Cesspooch agrees the biblical book of Genesis got that much right.
But for Cesspooch and other American Indians in Utah, the creation story departs from there into myriad narratives, rich in imagery and born of timeless traditions rooted in the heart and soul.
Today, such ancient legends make up the spiritual bedrock for tribes campaigning to restore and safeguard southeastern Utah’s former Bears Ears National Monument, broken up and slashed to 15 percent of its original 1.3 million acres by the Trump administration.
Imagine the Garden of Eden being discovered, only to be opened to potential mining and oil drilling. As Eden is to Christian, Muslim and Jewish beliefs, Bears Ears and its high desert, canyons and mesas are where origin legends for many of Utah’s native peoples were born. These sacred undercurrents provide extra motivation for the tribal coalition fighting to protect and preserve Bears Ears.
“Every tribe has their stories about how they came to be where they are today,” Cesspooch says. “It began [for the Utes] with Sinawav, the Creator. In the beginning there was nothing, but Sinawav was a great thinker; he snapped his fingers, and there appeared the light.”
In the Ute creation story Cesspooch’s grandmother told him as a child, the Creator instructed the sun: “Every day you will come up, and everything will come to me in your light.”
Sinawav then wielded his magic staff to cut a hole in the heavens. “He stepped through the hole, standing on snowcapped mountains,” Cesspooch recounts. “Everything was cold and desolate. He didn’t like that, so he told the sun to shine through the hole.”
The warm light melted the snow, creating rivers and streams that flowed into the ocean. Sinawav broke off a piece of his staff, which turned into fish when dropped in the water. As the world sprouted in greenery, the Creator gathered leaves and blew on them to create birds.
“He created all the animal people, and they got along pretty good, everything in harmony,” Cesspooch says, “until Coyote was created.”
In the Utes’ story, Coyote spreads lies and gossip that end the peace.
“Fur and teeth and feathers were flying everywhere. The Creator sees all this. ‘This won’t work,’ he says, so he creates Bear [to be] the leader of all the animal nation,” Cesspooch explains. “When Coyote gets rowdy, Bear sits on him.”
Still, something is missing. Sinawav, intent on forming humans, gathers twigs from various trees, puts them in a bag and then, weary from his generative tasks, decides to take a nap.
Hiding nearby, apparently out of the sight of the Creator and Bear, is Coyote. The curious critter slinks up to the bag, sniffing it. It moves, and muted sounds whisper from within.
“Now Coyote is really curious,” Cesspooch relates, “so he cuts the bag with a stone knife and all the people start coming out. Coyote tried to put them back, but there are so many he can’t do it.”
When the Creator awakes, the bag is empty — except for the Utes. For their faithfulness and strength, they are given the Rocky, Uinta and Wasatch mountains.
Still, Sinawav’s plan to equally distribute humans throughout the world has been ruined, and Coyote is called to account, doomed to howl nightly at the moon as penance.
Coyote also appears as a personification of chaos and conflict in creation stories of other Utah tribes, but they found ways to add to the narratives, making elements of them their own.
For Navajos, who, like the Utes, claim ancestral lands bordering on or including Bears Ears, the creation story is a variously told epic beginning with Nihodilhil, or the primordial, dark “First World,” a prehuman realm inhabited by insects and numerous deities — including Coyote.
First Woman and First Man, formed from clouds, find each other and are led into the “Second World” by Coyote, where they discover birds, animals, blue skies and lightning. From there, they are banished to the “Third World,” the mountainous realm of what would later become the Navajo homeland, inhabited by the godlike, rainbow-traveling Holy People.
It is there that First Woman gives birth to five sets of twins, each pair being claimed by various deities and taught to pray. From those twins come more offspring, and they become today’s “Fourth World” Navajos.
Navajo elder Mark Maryboy sees archaeological as well as religious ties between Bears Ears and his people’s oral accounts of their origins.
Maryboy, a board member of the pro-preservation Utah Diné Bikéyah, believes discoveries of phytosaurs and other dinosaurs in the Bears Ears area echo Navajo lore about the “Hero Twins,” deities honored for finally ridding the Earth of “Monsters.”
“Right now, it’s our turn to live. We were not meant to live during a T. rex era,” paleontologist Kevin Madalena, a cultural resource coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, said in a news release. “We have proof at the Bears Ears National Monument. … Some of the kivas intentionally included Theropod fossils hauled from great distances and inserted as hearths or decorations in prominent locations in the home. Fossils are important to who we are.”
Such legends give birth to Navajo rites — among them the “Enemy Way” ceremony — still used today to heal, spiritually cleanse and re-establish Hozho, or harmony with nature.
“We believe the spirits of the people who lived there are still there,” Maryboy recently told the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s very important that we protect the earth, the plants and special ceremonial places in Bears Ears for future generations — not just for Native Americans, but for everybody.”
The Skull Valley Goshutes’ version involves a mother and her daughter visited nightly by the Creator on an island in the Great Salt Lake, resulting in multiple births.
The babies are placed, one by one, into a woven jug that grows larger with each addition. Once again, a noise stirs curiosity, the jug is unstopped and people pour out — all except, in this case, a dusty Goshute man tough enough to survive in the Great Salt Lake desert.
The Southern Paiutes, too, are among the native peoples who anciently shared the Bears Ears and Great Basin crossroads. Their creation stories echo much found in the numerous accounts of the Utes and other Numic language relatives, including the Goshutes and Shoshones.
However, like other tribes, the Paiutes — resident to southern Utah for at least a thousand years — added their own origin story to explain the strange rock formations, or “hoodoos,” of their native Cedar Breaks region.
Paiute storytellers, according to the Cedar Breaks National Monument website, preached that the eerie hoodoos had been evil people whose punishment was to be frozen in stone.
The Western Shoshones proffered a legend of their own to explain the profusion of evergreens blanketing their mesas and forests throughout their domain, including Bears Ears. Once again, a hungry Coyote is the culprit, tricking Woodpecker (in one account) into slicing open a deerskin bag of pine nuts hung in a tree and, in another version, dispatching Mouse to steal and scatter them.
Cesspooch insists that none of the tribes now united in battling to protect Bears Ears can make sole historical claim to the area; drought-driven migrations took them all through the hauntingly beautiful high desert and wilderness.
Still, the Utes treasure their own story about how the pair of San Juan County buttes came to be named — a tale that inspired the tribe’s annual spring Bear Dance celebration.
“The legend goes that down in that area, the bear was underneath the earth sleeping. He came out of hibernation in the springtime and gave [the Utes] the Bear Dance,” Cesspooch says. “When he again laid down in Mother Earth’s blanket, he kept his head up just enough to watch over the White Mesa Utes there. At certain angles today, you can still see the bear’s head, snout and ears.”
What unites all these creation and origin stories, Cesspooch says, is reverence for life and nature — and, in particular, one’s homeland.
“When the Creator decides to make life, everything has a purpose,” he states. “He blesses us with gifts to accomplish this mission … blesses us with part of his spirit.”
Today, that mission finds expression, at least in part, in the battle to protect the Bears Ears area — estimated to contain some 100,000 archaeological sites from rock art to cliff dwellings and graves — from commercial exploitation.
Along with the Utes, Navajos, Hopi and Zuni, a number of environmental and conservation groups have sued to reverse President Donald Trump’s December decision to splinter Bears Ears National Monument into two smaller monuments totaling barely 200,000 acres.
Trump’s move to strip 900,000 acres from the nearby 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument also has brought a slew of political and legal fallout, albeit more focused on conservation and environmental concerns.
It could be years before these matters are settled. In late January, the Trump administration requested a change of venue for the Bears Ears-related federal litigation from Washington to the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. No decision on that motion has yet been made, but Bears Ears defenders remain resolute.
“If it’s a fight they want,” Ute Councilman Shaun Chapoose stated recently, “it’s a fight they are going to get.”
In the Bible, cherubim wielding flaming swords guard Eden from violation by fallen humanity. Utah’s tribes might wish they could hedge their courtroom bets with the aroused bruin of Ute Bears Ears lore or an encore from the Hero Twins.