In a room filled with song, two mighty spiritual traditions came together this week to celebrate sacred ground, and the life force that emanates from Mother Earth herself.
Tribal leaders supporting the creation of Bears Ears National Monument hosted the renowned Tibetan monk His Holiness the Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang, the highest leader of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and United Nations Ambassador for Mountain People of the world. Along with the leaders, His Holiness visited the monument’s namesake, a pair of sacred buttes that rise above the iconic landscape, to pray together and share in the sacredness of the land to be protected. The entourage then returned to Monument Valley to share an afternoon of song, traditional Navajo food and a discussion that was part rally and part public meeting.
“I think this environmental partnership is very important,” Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang told about 100 local residents assembled at the Monument Valley Welcome Center. He emphasized that Bears Ears is a “special place” and that protecting the environment is a global imperative, especially in the face of climate change. “You have a special duty.”
Even as these spiritual traditions united for a brief moment, the Utah legislature was meeting in a special session to pass a resolution formalizing their opposition to the request for a National Monument designation from President Barack Obama.
The simultaneous events showcased both sides of a movement that is gaining wide attention as the time for a Presidential designation draws near. The Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, made up of leaders from the Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute and Hopi tribes, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Navajo Nation, unveiled a formal request last fall for President Obama to use his Antiquities Act powers to designate the 1.9 million–acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. The proposal includes the idea to share management of the monument between the federal and tribal governments, in order to protect deeply significant cultural resources across the landscape that are being threatened by mining and grave looting, among other insults.
“We have old hogans up there, sweat lodges,” said Albert Holiday, vice chairman of the Navajo Nation’s Oljato Chapter and a board member of the grassroots conservation group Utah Diné Bikéyah, which helped conceive of the monument years ago. “There are petroglyphs. We have herbs. We have to protect that.”
Most attendees were in support of the designation, but some arrived to learn more.
“All I can say is I haul wood up there, and I collect herbs up there,” said a wary Marlene Allen, Navajo. Referring to a nearby Utah state park that used to be open access, she added, “Gooseneck is a park now. You have to pay. But we used to go up there and have a picnic.”
Overall, a quiet spirituality underscored the afternoon's events—from the simple sharing of a meal, to a common recognition of the sacredness of Mother Earth. Locals stood in awe as the monks, smiling, made their way to the center of the room after an hour-long, mud-induced delay coming down from the twin sacred buttes. His Holiness, resplendent in his maroon robes, was followed by his monk traveling companions. Albert Holiday, vice chairman of the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation, noted that traditionally, Navajo pray before eating. But he switched it up, instead leading the room in celebratory song, joined by some of the attendees, including Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation employees on staff at the Welcome Center.
Reverence and awe were palpable as the music took over and the monks sat, eyes closed, soaking it all in. Afterward, residents served up traditional fare, including mutton stew in bowls, fry bread and traditional corn mush.
Photo: Anne Minard
•Albert Holiday, center, vice chairman of the Navajo Nation’s Oljato Chapter in Monument Valley, leads Navajo tribal members and visiting Tibetan monks in a song before lunch, at a May 18 meeting about Bears Ears National Monument.
Meanwhile, about 400 miles away, an estimated 250 people were gathered in Salt Lake City, sporting “Support Bears Ears” t-shirts and banners, for a more raucous rally in favor of the designation. It was happenstance that the visit by Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang coincided with a special legislative session, but the Salt Lake City rally had been planned specifically to counter the politicians’ move. After an hour of discussion, Utah’s House of Representatives voted 64–10 to pass an anti-designation resolution; the state senate passed it 22–5. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was expected to sign it on May 20.
The lengthy document sets out many details of the state’s opposition, including a statement by Herbert that another monument designation in Utah would "inflame passion, spur divisiveness, and ensure perpetual opposition," and suggesting that the Antiquities Act allows for “improper unilateral national monument designations” without state input.
Since Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, presidents from both parties have used it to designate nearly 150 monuments. Utah politicians have historically opposed the creation of federal lands in their state, a feeling that intensified after the Clinton-era Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.
Utah’s federal representatives, Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, have proposed a plan called a Public Lands Initiative that would set aside significantly less acreage and leave the door open for energy development, which Bears Ears supporters oppose.
Bears Ears National Monument, by contrast, would prioritize land and cultural resource protection across the 1.9 million acres, which includes all or part of the Manti La Sal National Forest, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Natural Bridges National Monument. In addition to protecting cultural antiquities, the designation would protect the ecologically and hydrologically contiguous Canyonlands Basin, only a third of which occurs within Canyonlands National Park to the west. Proponents of Bears Ears have requested that traditional Native land uses, including wood gathering and herb collection, be expressly allowed to continue throughout the monument.
Twenty-four pueblos and tribes have passed resolutions supporting Bears Ears. The Navajo Nation sent a letter of support to President Obama on April 16.
“While your administration may be criticized for using your Presidential authority, for the Navajo Nation and many tribes, your action will be one that will be remembered amongst our people for centuries as protecting our sacred resources, our history and our memories while preserving what we consider a place of healing and spirituality,” the letter stated. It was signed by Navajo President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, Speaker LoRenzo Bates and three Navajo Nation Council representatives from the Bears Ears area.
Navajo Nation Council delegates Herman Daniels, Jr., Davis Filfred and Nathaniel Brown, all of whom represent nearby chapters, attended the Monument Valley gathering.
“The Navajo Nation president supports it. The Navajo Nation Council supports it. We’ve been using that land for centuries. So I am in support,” Daniels said.
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition and head councilwoman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, has been working for nearly a year toward the designation. She said the best part has been traveling to the various tribes.
“At the end of this week, I’ll be in Hopi,” she said. “We’re pinpointing a date to go to Zuni, and then Northern Ute. That’s been one of the most enlightening parts of this process. You hear their stories. You hear them speaking their language.”
Lopez-Whiteskunk said the Coalition is staying positive despite the opposition by Utah politicians.
“Our grandparents taught us to take things in stride,” she said, “and be patient.”
Anne Minard, a journalist and recent law school graduate, has been conducting legal research for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.