I think a lot about human relationships to the land. Right now, there are what I call economic-drive concepts. Everyone wants to say, "I want to make a million dollars." That’s all it is, people trying to get to heaven on a pile of money….These are the types of behaviors we are seeing on the Navajo Nation and what we are seeking to do with the Bears Ears National Monument is to stabilize our community and to bring the youth back to the reality of the natural world.
— Willie Grayeyes, Diné elder and Utah Diné Bikeyah chairman, Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears
On December 28, 2016, just weeks before he left office, President Obama signed the proclamation creating the Bears Ears National Monument. The creation of this 1.5 million-acre monument in the southeastern corner of Utah represented the culmination of years of work by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a grassroots group composed of representatives of five different Native nations in the Southwest. Working together as never before, the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, and two Ute tribes who collectively share an ancient and cherished history in this rugged landscape preserved an area that includes more than 100,000 archaeological and sacred sites and attests to more than 10,000 years of human habitation in this part of the world. Bears Ears, named for the twin buttes that are shaped like bears’ ears, has been a literal nursery of Indigenous nations, distinct in language and culture. A year later, on December 4, 2017, President Trump reduced the size of the monument by 85 percent.
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This yo-yo-ing of United States policy is both a sign of the times and also emblematic of a deep and tragic divide in this country: America, born of a colonial imperative, is yet dressed with a moral narrative that aspires to the highest ideals of equality and fairness. All of this has pulled into a clarity of divergent action, some of which is hateful and driven by fear, as seen in the ongoing, relentless murder and harassment of Black Americans wherever they may be, in church, at the grocery store, at Starbucks; and of Jewish Americans, as seen at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. These groups represent the Other American, and grapple with a world fraught with instability, bigotry, and violence; they are asking for compassion not only for themselves but every vulnerable member of society.
After Trump reduced Bears Ears, I wrote about it in three different ways. Firstly, I took issue with Trump’s use of Navajo people as props
at the signing of the executive order reducing the monument, for which he flew into Salt Lake City to administer the final flourish of his signature. Then, I addressed the role the uranium industry
played in the decision, for which I was attacked by the CEO of the uranium mining company Energy Fuels, which owns a uranium mine and processing plant near Bears Ears. I later won an award for my reporting on this and The New York Times
backed me up with a massive FOIA request. Finally, I revisited the value of these sacred sites
to the five nations who wrote the monument proposal.
Bears Ears...has been a literal nursery of Indigenous nations, distinct in language and culture.
The fight goes on and has now spread onto the political field. One of the central grassroots leaders featured in my book, Utah Diné Bikeyah president Willie Grayeyes, is running for county commissioner in San Juan County, and has successfully fought back in the courts against attempts by white county officials to remove him from the ballot. All of this is happening against the backdrop of redistricting, and after the Navajo Nation won a 2016 lawsuit
proving the county was violating the Voting Rights Act. The recent news is all about the North Dakota ID law (which I also wrote about), but despite the 2016 ruling, Navajo people are still being disenfranchised as well. The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission found 25 percent were assigned to the wrong district. Many are Navajo voters in Grayeye’s district who were assigned to the district of another Navajo candidate who is running uncontested. However, if they can get the vote to the polls, Navajos living in the county where Bears Ears is located could have two Navajo commissioners out three total commissioners for the county. The Navajo commissioner whom Trump trotted out with her family at the signing has already lost. Trump removed tribal nations from the running of the monument and added the county commissioners who were all anti-monument. If Grayeyes wins, two of the three will be pro-monument and more accurately represent the feelings of the people of San Juan County, which is majority Navajo.
I think one of the greatest things I learned while writing and editing this book was the extent to which these grassroots tribal leaders and their spiritual elders worked together to craft this very unique national monument proposal. They come from distinct cultures who have lived next to each other for centuries and yet don’t traditionally share their sacred teachings with each other. It is forbidden; however, saving Bears Ears mattered more than old enmities. I can’t say that was covered enough. As a citizen of the Navajo Nation and a journalist, I apply a different lens than non-Native journalists, to whom we can seem very foreign. Their reporting suffers because of this, as it engages in otherizing the actions of Native American people and leaders. The New York Times
left the tribes out of the story of the creation of the national monument altogether when they covered it, crediting only white environmental groups and “some tribes.” I had to remind them to put these five nations back into the story.
Years ago, I wrote about Thanksgiving ("Thanksgiving and the Hidden Heart of Evil"
), and it has been republished all over the world many times over in many different languages. And it is a Thanksgiving that lies heavy on my mind, the Thanksgiving week of 2016 at Standing Rock. That year, Lakota and Dakota people and their allies faced off nonviolently against law enforcement to protect their drinking water from the Dakota Access pipeline, a crude oil pipeline. The police sprayed them with water cannons as they were trapped on a bridge for five hours in subfreezing North Dakota weather and peppered the captive crowd with “less than lethal” weaponry at close range. One, a medic named Sophia Wilansky, of Brooklyn, New York, was struck by a concussion bomb thrown by the police that destroyed a great deal of the flesh of her forearm, revealing the bone. On November 23, 2016, The New York Times
editorial board wrote a scathing condemnation
of the misuse of state violence against the water protectors, saying, “When injustice aligns with cruelty, and heavy weaponry is involved, the results can be shameful and bloody. Witness what happened on Sunday in North Dakota, when law enforcement officers escalated their tactics against unarmed American Indians and allies who have waged months of protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.” So with all the violence since then, from Charleston to Pittsburgh, I can’t help but wonder: What will this Thanksgiving bring? I think the ending of my old Thanksgiving piece is still apt:
In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil. I see, in the 'First Thanksgiving' story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale that needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism. Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota writer and contributor to Yes! Magazine, Truthout, High Country News
and many other publications. Her book The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears
is available from Torrey House Press and the forthcoming Standing Rock to the Bundy Standoff: Occupation, Native Sovereignty, and the Fight for Sacred Landscapes
will be released next year.