On October 15, 2015, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition submitted a proposal for the designation of a new United States national monument to be called Bears Ears. The 1.9 million acre area of land holds over 100,000 archaeologically and culturally significant sites. Bears Ears’ sheer size, breadth of sites, and lack of protection for those sites, make it one of the United States’ most vulnerable areas of land.
The Bears Ears Coalition formed as an independent body as a result of Utah Representative Bishop’s (R-Utah) Public Land Initiative [PLI], which is a legislative proposal that did not extensively include Native voices and communities. The PLI aims to separate 18 million acres of land for wilderness protection, energy development, and recreation. Much of this land is currently occupied, and has been occupied for thousands of years, by American Indian communities. Because of this, a group of five Southwestern tribes came together to form the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition. The Coalition represents members from the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe. They are supported by the Conservation Lands Foundation, the Grand Canyon Trust, Friends of Cedar Mesa, Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Navajo organization, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and 25 additional tribal governments.
Though their “unprecedented” proposal’s main goal is for national monument status, the Coalition also stresses how vital it is to include and promote Native voices, stories, and views within the National Parks Service’s governance of their traditional lands.
In 1906, the United States passed its first piece of cultural heritage legislation, the Antiquities Act. As “the first law to establish that archeological sites on public lands are important public resources,” it allowed for the President to protect relevant regions, structures, and objects by placing them under federal care. The law was the result of a mass looting at archaeological sites in the Four Corners region — Bears Ear’s region. In the century following, additional legislation such as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act [ARPA], the National Historic Preservation Act [NHPA], and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [NAGPRA] have all been passed to support, implement, and expand upon the Antiquities Act’s original mission.
“I look at some things and I see, that’s why I am the way I am, because of these things my ancestors left on the walls, that they left in places near springs, on the rivers. Those were left for me and future generations” –Jim Enote (Zuni), Director of A:shiwi A:wan Museum & Heritage Center
Excavation and analysis in Bears Ears, and specifically in Cedar Mesa in the southern edge of the region, have been underway for over 100 years. Despite these efforts, much of the region is still undocumented.
Archaeologists estimate that there are 100,000 sites within the unprotected area. In comparison, Canyon de Chelly National Monument has 3,500 sites, Chaco Culture National Historic Park has 4,000, and Mesa Verde National Park as 5,000. The sheer number of sites in Bears Ears makes the scientific value “beyond question.” Examples of sites include Lime Ridge Clovis, which provides evidence of Paleoindian occupation dating to at least 11,000 BCE. With this, archaeological science suggests the area’s widespread and long-term habitation by Archaic people between 6000 BCE and 500 BCE. Additionally, Ancestral Puebloan cultures such as Basketmaker (500 BCE – AD 750), Pueblo I, Pueblo II, and the first half of Pueblo III (AD 750 – AD 1290) inhabited the area, leaving a huge range of materials behind.
Today, Red Canyon, Lockhart Basin, Moqui Canyon, and Indian Creek, among other regions within Bears Ears, are littered with ancient roads, pit houses, shrines, rock art panels, and great houses. According to the Bears Ears Coalition, to “the untrained eye, these archaeological features can sometimes be hard to recognize, but their importance to science, as well as tribal descendants is immense.”
Understanding, interacting, and respecting one’s landscape is an integral part of modern culture and daily life throughout Native North America. To the Native communities in the Four Corners, Bears Ears is “as sacred and deserving of respect as are the altars of cathedrals to Christian churchgoers.” Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Cultural Preservation Office for the Hopi Tribe, explains: “these archaeological sites, these artifacts are the footprints of our people. We do not see these sites as ‘ruins’ or as being abandoned. The spirits of our ancestors still inhabit the Bears Ears. When these sites are looted or damaged, not only our history but our future is disrespected.” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a council member for Ute Mountain Ute Tribe expanded on that note by saying for the Native community, “We are who we are because of our ancestors, because of the prayers, because of all that the land provides for us.”
“Native People relate to rock art with our hearts. I regularly visit one rock art site that is a holy site. It provides us knowledge of our past and future. We do not view these panels as just art, but almost like a coded message that exists to help us understand. This knowledge informs our life and reality as humans.” – Malcolm Lehi (Ute), Ute Mountain Ute Council Member
It is currently estimated that there have been over 50 incidents of archaeological looting and vandalism in Bears Ears in the past five years. As the area is largely unmonitored and understudied, this number is considered to be conservative, since most of the incidents have not yet been found or reported. Incidents include various prehistoric walls being torn down, and campers using wood of an intact historic Navajo home to use for firewood. Vandalism of pictographic sites, as well as burial site desecration and looting, are both extremely common. At Bears Ears and other areas, looters have tended to target burial grounds because they usually hold the most ‘valuable’ items such as baskets, ceramics, and textiles. Just this year, a petroglyph was removed from a wall with a chisel and saw, a rock art cave was vandalized, and ATV riders drove through two major sites in the Lower Fish Creek Canyon Wilderness Study Area.
Significantly, a 2009 Bureau of Land Management and FBI undercover investigation resulted in the arrest of 24 people in violation of APRA and NAGPRA for trafficking Native items and government property. Though the case used 256 cultural and archaeological items as evidence, officials estimate that over 40,000 pieces were managed and sold by the group.
Most damage, looting, and desecration has not yet been documented due to lack of funding. In an effort to help this, Friends of Cedar Mesa is currently offering a standing reward of up to $2,500 for information about archaeological site looting and vandalism in the area.
“I cry every time I come to that place” –Kenneth Maryboy (Navajo)
The Intertribal Coalition asks for support, explaining that “[a]rchaeological sites damaged by looting and neglect cannot be healed. They will never regenerate. But the damaged sites can be mitigated through stewardship, through education, and through shared appreciation. In the case of archaeology, prevention is the only medicine that will heal the People. Spiritual leaders will bring healing to the mesas and canyons, and as children visit the homes and special places of the ancient ones, the bonds to the past will be strengthened, and a new future will come to these places of the past.” (Source). Legally protecting Native cultural heritage is yet another step in the healing process for communities. Natasha Hale (Navajo) says that Bears Ears “rejuvenates who we are and our spirit” in this healing process.
The United States Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is holding a public meeting in Bluff, Utah on Sunday July 17, 2016. All are encouraged to attend.
The nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa asks visitors in the area to avoid touching or moving archaeological structures and use non-invasive hiking and camping equipment. If you see other visitors interacting with the environment in an illegal or inappropriate manner, report it. In doing so, you will be saving “the heritage of all Americans.” Archaeological vandalism and cultural property trafficking can’t be stopped without your help.
“I think to lose this place is to lose being Native” -Evangeline Gray (Navajo)
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