BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT— Sitting on the ground, in a grass clearing surrounded by ponderosa pines, in the shadow of the Bears Ears butte, Angelo Baca speaks first of his grandmother.
“She knew where all the spots were for deer and elk,” the Navajo/Hopi filmmaker says. “She would literally say, ‘Be careful around this corner, this is where they cross.’ And when you turn around that corner, a whole line of deer would appear. And she wasn’t even a hunter.”
Her knowledge of the land and plants and animals was ingrained in her soul, says Baca. There was no difference between her and the land. She would wander off from the family for days to be immersed in the Bears Ears landscape, following the footsteps of her own grandmother, who once lived here.
“There’s a very deep longstanding traditional knowledge base that a lot of the folks around here have and which was built into the protections for Bears Ears,” he says. “We wanted to put those first and foremost as the things we wanted to have protected. The relationships of the people, the place, the landscape and biodiversity and how it all interacts.”
Baca is referring to a provision in President Barack Obama’s Dec. 28, 2016 proclamation creating the 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument. Obama specifically called for management of the monument to “carefully and fully consider integrating the traditional and historical knowledge and special expertise” of American Indian cultures deeply connected to the cultural landscape.
Bears Ears has long served as a refuge — not only for the soul, but also physical freedom. Whether it was Navajos, led by their great chief Manuelito to avoid the U.S. Army seeking to round his people up for the brutal and deadly 1864 Long March, or western outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hiding from the law, the labyrinth of canyons, mesas, washes, forested uplands and ancient ruins made it a haven for those seeking solitude, for whatever reason.
“This place represents freedom and peace and civility and refuge,” Baca says in the soft, even, thoughtful cadence of his forefathers and tempered by a deep understanding that the land has mysterious powers to be honored.
“This is a beautiful peaceful environment and you have to watch what you say and think when you are up here because this is like an amplifier,” he says. “It makes the kinds of things that you think and feel that much stronger.”
Baca, of Hopi/Navajo lineage, grew up in the Blanding area after his family decided it would be better for him to have the opportunity of a formal education. He took advantage of it and is now a documentary filmmaker. He has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and American Indian studies and a master’s in communications and American Indian studies from the University of Washington, and is now a Ph.D. candidate at New York University in anthropology.
His deep roots to the land through his family and traditions, combined with his years of rigorous academic training, gives him unique insight into the conflict that swirls over Obama’s national monument designation for Bears Ears. Utah politicians and many non-native people living in the small towns of Blanding and Montecello east of the monument are adamantly opposed to its protection.
They fear their western way of life is being trampled as their ability to access the Bears Ears landscape for a wide range of uses — from recreation to natural resource development to cattle grazing and weekend pot-hunting excursions — will become more regulated and restricted.
“There’s a lot of differences between the western and indigenous way of thinking about land and people and space, time, temporality,” he explains. “There’s a western framework that is very Eurocentric in the way of thought, that’s very lineal, compartmentalized, separated. You can take things and look at them and dissect them very single-mindedly, narrow-mindedly.
“Whereas in indigenous epistemology, and indigenous system of thought, it is very holistic, it’s all encompassing and overall related. Everything affects something else,” he says.
With such a fundamentally different way of looking at the same landscape, it’s no wonder conflict arises.
“The differences are from the get-go,” Baca says. “It’s very difficult to have one person who is talking in squares talking to one person who is thinking in circles.”
But the most important conflicts that had to be resolved before Bears Ears National Monument could become a reality were longstanding disputes and bitterness that has persisted between the American Indian tribes surrounding Bears Ears. The distrust between the tribes slowly melted away after Navajo leaders recognized that all the region’s tribes had a deep history and close relationship to the Bear Ears landscape.
Two words cleared the path to collaboration on achieving a greater goal of protecting Bears Ears. “Welcome home,” Navajo elder and political leader Mark Maryboy told an intertribal gathering that included Hopi, Zuni and 19 other New Mexico tribes in April 2015.
Maryboy’s gracious overture, Baca says, allowed rivals to set aside their differences. “It was the acknowledgment and respect of the welcoming and understanding that we don’t call this ours as in ownership and property,” Baca says. “We just call it ours as in something shared.”
Those disarming words of inclusion, Baca says, opened the door for American Indians to work together on a project that no one had ever done before: Petition the president of the United States to designate a common spiritual homeland for American Indians a national monument.
A few months later, five tribes formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and used the work that the Salt Lake City nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah had accomplished through years of compiling and documenting the oral history and cultural significance of Bears Ears. Baca is the cultural resource coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah.
The intertribal coalition includes the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Oury. Baca says the coalition’s efforts to present its plans and open a dialogue with Utah state and county officials and the Utah congressional delegation were met with silence.
“The coalition decided after being disrespected and not listened to that they would just go over their heads and activate their nation-to-nation relationship that we have with the federal government as a federally recognized tribe,” he says.
Elders from different tribes met with federal leaders and described to them why Bears Ears was so important.
“Even though a lot of them are not great English speakers or writers, or highly educated, they are still smart,” he says. “And they are still passionate. And they know how to relate, reach people, talk with folks and help communicate about the significance of this place.”
The Obama administration listened. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell held a public hearing in Bluff, Utah, where Baca had a chance to interview her for a documentary film he’s producing.
Opposition to Obama’s monument designation was immediate. Utah’s congressional delegation, led by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop, asked President Trump to rescind the national monument. Last April Trump signed an executive order requiring Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments designated in the last 21 years greater than 100,000 acres, with Bears Ear targeted for a shorter review.
On June 12 Zinke said he would recommend that Bears Ears be reduced in size, but offered no details on the magnitude of the reduction stating that more details will be forthcoming later this summer.
Baca says indigenous leaders are very concerned about the attempt to renege on the national monument designation and intend to legally fight any effort to overturn or reduce the size the monument. He says Trump’s effort to downsize or overturn Bears Ears is a warning that all of America’s public lands are threatened.
“I think it means that public lands, national parks, national monuments are not safe,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re native or not. It’s an excuse for the administration to take a wide swath at all of the beautiful lands that we have already protected and kept safe and have been stewards of and its being opened up to all forms of extraction.”
No matter what happens to Bear Ears, the tribes intend to protect this area.
“We’re still going to be going here. We’re still going to pray here, do our ceremonies. We’re still going to gather our firewood and our herbs and medicines,” he says. “We will reserve, retain, and assert our sovereign rights.”
“It’s still native land,” he adds. “And it’s always going to be.”