A Christian Call to Stewardship of Bears Ears

Rev. Tweedy Sombrero Navarrete & Shantha Ready Alonso

The cultural, spiritual, historical, and ecological riches of God’s creation are abundant in the area known as Bears Ears in southeast Utah. With the White Mesa Ute Reservation to the East, the Colorado River to the west, and the San Juan River and Navajo Nation to the South, Bears Ears is comprised of 1.9 million acres of national public lands. The land contains an estimated 100,000 cultural sites, including petroglyphs, ancient cliff dwellings, graves, Mormon pioneer sites such as Hole-in-the-Rock trek, and other areas of significance.

Currently, these lands are tended by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and National Park Service. Today, Native American tribes are seeking active engagement in future management of the area.

In July of 2015, leaders from five Tribes founded the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. A historic consortium of sovereign tribal nations united in the effort to conserve the Bears Ears cultural landscape, members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition include the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe. A total of 26 Tribes have expressed support for protecting the Bear Ears region for future generations of Americans.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition proposes President Obama use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the Bears Ears region as a national monument and protect its historical and scientific objects. They propose a collaborative management strategy by the Tribes and Federal agencies. This is the first proposal of its kind.

In May 2016, Creation Justice Ministries commissioned a poll to gauge public support for protecting Bears Ears. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, found that 71 percent of Utah voters support the designation of a Bears Ears national monument, whereas 20 percent opposed it. Support for designating these public lands as a National Monument is broad-based across age, gender, religion, political party, and geographic regions of the state. Voters see a wide-range of benefits to increasing protections for the public lands in the Bears Ears area to safeguard unique historic artifacts and sites (83 percent), for children to get outside and explore nature (83 percent), and to conserve natural areas and wildlife habitat (78 percent). You can see the full results of the poll, as well as response to questions about the poll’s methodology at www.creationjustice.org/bears-ears

The poll results affirmed what Episcopalians from Navajoland and other faith communities in Creation Justice Ministries’ network knew from experience: Utahns respect God’s creation and have reverence for our neighbors’ history, spirituality, and culture. The Episcopal Church, together with its ecumenical partner Creation Justice Ministries, supports the Bears Ears monument proposal for two main reasons: the health and integrity of God’s creation, as well as racial reconciliation and justice. The two reasons for support go hand-in-hand.

Native American traditional wisdom about stewardship of God’s creation is too often dismissed. This attitude has not only contributed to centuries of physical as well as cultural violence toward Native Americans; it has also been a detriment to everyone. We all depend on the integrity of God’s creation. The tribes leading the Bears Ears national monument proposal have experience living sustainably on the land since time immemorial, and traditional knowledge related to Bears Ears is irreplaceable. Now, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is offering the United States a true gift: partnership in a national monument which will help our nation to learn from them.

Members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition hold the Bears Ears immediate landscape, as well as the lands fanning out from its twin plateaus, as traditional sacred lands. Native American relationship and visits to Bears Ears are essential for maintaining their culture and spirituality. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has explained to the public that that ruining the integrity of these lands compromises tribes’ ability to heal. As Christians, our response is that we, too, need this special place for healing.

For far too long, stewardship of God’s creation has not been a priority, and the Native American culture, history, wisdom to care for their ancestral lands has been dismissed. A Bears Ears National Monument would advance these causes, and it is time to get it done.

Rev. Tweedy Sombrero Navarrete (Dine’) is the Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Yuma, Arizona. Originally from Brigham City, Utah, she is full-blood Navajo. A graduate of Haskell Indian Jr. College, Ottawa University, and Iliff School of Theology, she was a social worker for her tribe before she became ordained.

Shantha Ready Alonso is the Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries, a Christian organization that brings together 38 denominations, fellowships, and communions to protect, restore, and rightly share God’s creation. In 2017, Creation Justice Ministries’ focus topic will be environmental justice from Native perspectives.

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