The Power Of Bears Ears Remains
By Natasha Kaye Hale
December 28th marks the one year birthday of the Bears Ears National Monument. My most immediate memory of that day, when the White House announced the monument and released the proclamation, is the organized chaos surrounding the moment. A small team of us were working closely with the tribal leadership to prepare rapid and coordinated responses, and were working frantically to connect the tribal leaders to a frenzied media. It wasn’t until later in that week that I realized the significance of the accomplishment. I received congratulations from several people that day, but two phone calls really caused me to later pause and reflect on what the designation meant.
The first call was from Peterson Zah, a former Navajo Nation President and Navajo Nation Chairman, who is deeply familiar with land protection initiatives, public lands policy, and Utah politics. He thanked me for my hard work and leadership throughout the campaign and he spoke about the significance of the moment for our Navajo people, and all Native people, to permanently protect such a sacred landscape. He shared touching words in the Navajo language expressing his gratitude, and I was moved by his sincerity. The second call was from a Navajo elder from Utah. He called to tell me he was driving to the Bears Ears buttes to meet with several medicine men who just heard the announcement. They were going to conduct a ceremony to ensure that the proclamation would stay intact, and the prayers and decades of work to protect the sacred landscape would not be undone. Having lived in Utah all his life, he had dealt firsthand with the blatant racism and bigotry of Utah public policy. He knew there would be a challenge ahead to defend the Bears Ears National Monument, especially with the recent election of Donald Trump to contend with.
Unfortunately, he was right. On December 4th, just shy of one year since Bears Ears National Monument was created, President Trump flew to Utah, and from the halls of the state capitol, issued and signed a proclamation to drastically reduce the monument. We, of course, knew this was coming and the tribes immediately sued the President, filing their complaint on the same day of his announcement. From a political standpoint, we had seen the warning signs coming when Secretary Zinke announced a monument review in April, setting the stage for reduction. But on a personal level, hearing the president dismiss our birthright as Native people to this landscape during his press conference placed a heavy weight on me. After his announcement, I felt defeated and exhausted.
That evening the first part of my run was fueled by anxiety and bouts of rage. Stories of the cultural genocide our people experienced flooded my memory, and I had to quickly remind myself that our elders and ancestors faced a harsher iteration of this type of hostility and hatred. Then I recalled the prayer conducted by our medicine people on December 28th of last year, and powerful words uttered by one of our late medicine man, John Holiday, about the power of this place. At 100 years old, he passed away just one month before the designation. He was confident the monument would happen, and the Bears Ears would be protected in perpetuity. My run settled into a steady rhythm again as I remembered the prayers set into motion by our medicine people to protect this landscape. I knew that our cultural and spiritual connection to our ancestral homelands could not be undone by Trump’s proclamation.
For decades, tribes have fought to protect the Bears Ears area. It has always been important to our culture, our history, and belief systems. Over six years ago, our grassroots tribal people began doing cultural mapping to identify all the places of significance to our people. When it became clear we were working with an obstinate delegation in Utah, five tribes created an alliance to protect these areas and began taking their vision of protection to the halls of Washington, DC and eventually the White House. Our tribal nations negotiated a collaborative management model consisting of appointed tribal government officials to partner with federal agencies in managing the landscape. Through this model, our way of life as Native people is honored, management finally would be taking into consideration our deities whose presence is still strong within those lands, and medicines which are prevalent throughout the landscape. The legal battle ahead will likely go all the way to the supreme court, and our tribal leadership, along with a large majority of the broader legal community, are confident the courts will rule in our favor. In the meantime, we will continue to work closely with the federal agencies to protect the landscape, and have a presence in Washington DC and the halls of Congress to educate our policy makers about public lands and tribal interests in these lands, and the promise of a new collaborative management model.
It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to be able to work with our traditionally minded spiritual elders and leaders, our political leadership, and legal scholars to protect the Bears Ears. To carry the stories and the prayers with us to Washington, DC to share why the Bears Ears matters to our people has been fulfilling. It’s also been a learning experience to work with our allies in the conservation and outdoor industry community who are opening their minds and their hearts to understanding why tribal perspectives matter in protecting large landscapes. The ups and downs of working in such a high stakes campaign have also taught me a lot about myself, and sharpened how I facilitate and handle pressure and conflict. There’s no doubt there are strong personalities at the table when it comes to protecting places, and learning to both listen and communicate effectively has been necessary to create mutual understanding and partnerships.
As a Navajo woman, rightfully reclaiming our Native history and defending our birthright will continue to fuel my energy going forward. I continue to recall the words of our elders and leaders to guide me. My spiritual understanding of the power of the Bears Ears landscape continues to deepen, and I know there is much more for me to learn. As the saga of the Bears Ears unfolds, I continue to be inspired by the community action on the ground and am encouraged by the outpouring of support and enthusiasm by people who realize the power of place. Thank you to everyone whose vision for this landscape has been focused on healing, love, and respect.
The power of Bears Ears remains.
Words by Natasha Kaye Hale | Photos Tim Peterson
Natasha K. Hale is Navajo and Saudi Arabian, and was raised in the community of Twin Lakes, New Mexico on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation. Natasha is committed to strengthening tribal communities through land protection initiatives, launching community-based, culturally-compatible economic projects, and bringing philanthropic dollars to on-the-ground projects in tribal communities.
Before joining the Grand Canyon Trust team in 2011, Natasha was a politically appointed legislative staffer for the Speaker of the Navajo Nation and worked closely with the Navajo Nation Council, where she advised policy at the local, state, and federal levels. Prior to that, she was a reporter focused on local tribal issues, politics, and human interest stories. She received her B.S. from the University of Arizona.
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