It’s Time to Heal Bears Ears

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk

In the past, policies and laws have always been written as prescriptions for us Native American people to follow, including when it comes to protecting the lands, dwellings, art, and final resting places of our ancestors. But now, for the first time, Native American people are using the law of the United States—the Antiquities Act of 1906—to ask the president of the United States to protect our cultural and spiritual homeland: an area we call the “Bears Ears” in southeastern Utah.

Our elders have called for the Bears Ears, which sheltered our ancestors for thousands of years, to be protected, not only for us, but for all people. And our leaders have listened to this people’s movement. A coalition of sovereign nations: the Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, and Uintah and Ouray Ute, have brought a proposal to Washington D.C. to ask President Obama to protect 1.9 million acres around Bears Ears as a national monument. These 1.9 million acres are all public lands, held by the United States government, but right now, they are unprotected.

This first-of-its kind national monument proposal is a strong statement that we, as Native Americans, are a part of the solution. We are the circle that surrounds the box, where the policies and laws live. We are here to provide education, support, and solutions and we are also asking for our seat at the table, to help collaboratively manage the lands of our ancestors once a national monument is created. The Antiquities Act was passed to protect antiquities, but it should also honor the connections Native Americans still have to the land by giving us a voice in decisions about how our ancestral lands are managed.

Native Americans have always maintained a relationship with the land. Bears Ears is home to the dwellings of our ancestors, the final resting places of our people, and sacred areas where our people still collect traditional herbs and medicines today. But it is also home to oil and gas and potash. Like so many ancestral lands, the Bears Ears are threatened not only by looters and grave-robbers, but by mining and oil and gas companies, all of whom are inflicting wounds.

The land and its precious resources need to be healed, but there are other wounds as well, which is why healing forms the inner core of our Bears Ears movement. Relationships between tribal nations have been healed as we work together toward a common goal. And now the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is looking to heal the relationship with the United States government. We are not wielding the hatchet of war, but rather extending our hand to say: join us in encouraging the spirit of healing. 

We understand the work is vast, and disagreements are sure to come, but we are all seated at the same table, actively engaged, ready to learn from one another, encouraged by our elders, ancestors, and the many tribes who support our efforts.

Once a national monument is created, we must work together to help educate visitors, locals and, most importantly, the younger generations. We must listen to the history of the early settlers and their stories and historical connections to this area to make sure existing and future management plans are founded on a clear understanding of the value of this land.

We believe Bears Ears should be protected, for all people; the laws to make this a reality exist. It is up to Native Americans to ask the United States government to use them to protect these lands, which are part of our past, and our present. We are all human beings at the end of the day, breathing in the same air, walking on the same land and citizens of the same United States of America.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is the head councilwoman of Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and a member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. She lives in Towaoc.

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