by Matthew Anderson
as published by Sutherland Institute
Southeastern Utah is a land of towering mesas, ancient cliff dwellings and red rock canyons. More impressive than the landscape, however, are the native people who call it home. Last month I spent a week visiting with members of the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation learning about their history, culture and hopes for the future. While each shared with me unique stories and perspectives, one common theme was present in all our discussions – the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.
The San Juan County Navajo have a special connection to the Bears Ears Mountain. For them it is more than just place to hunt, collect firewood, and gather pinion nuts in the fall. “The Bears Ears is part of life. That’s the place where our people, our ancestors, even us today we still go up there and do our offerings and prayers,” Denton Benn, a leader in the community, told me. “It’s part of our heart and our mind. It’s really sacred to us.”
For San Juan County Navajos, the Bears Ears represents security and stability. The mountain and surrounding area have been a constant for these people in an ever-changing and evolving world. “When I wake up in the morning, I look to the west to see Bear Mountain. It makes me feel strong,” Andrew Tso said. “I feel protected from harm, evil, and danger.”
This symbol and all it represents is being threatened with a national monument designation. A designation would restrict the local Navajos’ access to traditional resources, bring in hordes of tourists, and take away from the sanctity of a land they revere.
Susie Philemon knows this and is doing her part to push back against a national monument. As she shared with me her feelings about the designation her voice cracked and she became emotional. “The federal government again is going to take something, a land that truly belonged to us. They are going to take it away from us again.” She sees this fight as much bigger than just herself and understands that a national monument will impact her posterity for generations. “I really want for my children to go back over there, not just to hunt and pick berries and things like that, but to be able to know that that is where they originated from.”
This area holds a history, cultural significance, and a hope for the future for San Juan County Navajos. These grassroots people are the ones who know and love the land the most. It is their voices, not those of individuals who are far removed from the land, that should be heard and respected.