Lummi Nation House of Tears carver Doug James (left) and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe member Floyd Morris, from the White Mesa community, stand beside the bear totem at the 2018 Bears Ears Summer Gathering. [Photo courtesy of Amos Zerah]

Regional Native American tribes convened for the 2018 Bears Ears Summer Gathering on July 20-22 in a meadow at the base of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Former President Barack Obama designated 1.3 million acres in the Bears Ears region for Bears Ears National Monument in 2016; less than one year later, President Donald Trump reduced the size of the monument and renamed it as the Indian Creek and Shash Jaa national monuments.

The regional tribes — Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Zuni Tribe, Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015. The coalition disputes the national monument’s 85 percent reduction and filed a lawsuit; the coalition also disagrees with the decision to rename the national monument.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition sponsored the fourth annual summer gathering, along with Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that works with and supports the tribes.

Braidan Weeks, a descendant of the Ute Tribe White River Band, is a strategic engagement specialist with Utah Diné Bikéyah. He primarily works with the Ute communities.

Weeks said a gathering of the five tribes doesn’t happen very often.

“The summer gathering is really unique in bringing these tribes together because the Bears Ears National Monument was the first time these five tribes have really gotten behind each other and connected and moved forward,” Weeks said.

Even a generation ago, he said, people in the Ute communities were taught not to be in the same room as Navajo people.

“That’s how deep the prejudice ran,” Weeks said.

He said the Bears Ears region is important to each of the five tribes for various reasons.

“We have different stories, but we recognize in each other that it’s important and we needed to protect it,” Weeks said. “It’s sacred, and people were desecrating it by stealing from our graves, by robbing our ancestors. We got together to try and correct that and try and make it better.”

Several hundred people attended the Bears Ears Summer Gathering, and the five tribes shared ceremonies and stories under a large, open tent in the meadow.

Sunny Dooley, a member of the Diné (Navajo Nation), from Chi Chil Tah, New Mexico, has been a storyteller for 35 years. She shared some of her stories on Saturday, July 21, and in one story, she described what the symbol of the bear means to her culture.

“This is the land of the feminine bear,” she said. Dooley said the two buttes known as the Bears Ears are the ears of a bear figure that extends across the land for “many, many miles.”

“The tail is sticking up in Magdalena, New Mexico,” she said. “If you’re Diné, this is a significant place for you. It’s a very, very sacred place.”

Amos Zerah, a masters student studying conservation and restoration science at the University of California in Irvine, traveled to the summer gathering to understand the connection between the five tribes and the Bears Ears region.

It wasn’t his first visit to the area. Zerah said he traveled to the region in December to meet with the Navajo Nation and document their relations with the land.

“I wanted to see exactly how they take from this land and was fascinated by how sustainable their methods are,” he said. “So, wood fuels from the surrounding mesas are a crucial resource for these communities, to heat their houses and cook their traditional food, but they also come here to gather wood for ceremonial use and traditional building, to collect herbs for many kinds of medicines, to hunt or just to spend time in nature with their families.”

Zerah said the tribes’ involvement in the Bears Ears region is also about the tribes’ “spiritual experience in which they connect to their ancestors, their unique traditions and their identity.”

“This is something that we can’t always understand as outsiders, but this is exactly why I’m here,” Zerah said.


Not far from the tent where ceremonies and stories were shared, stood a 9 foot tall and 3 foot wide bear totem. The Lummi Nation in Washington State brought the totem from Seattle as a gift to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Doug James, Lummi Nation “House of Tears” carver, said he has been giving totems as gifts since 2002, beginning with the first totem taken to New York City as a gift for the victims and survivors of 9/11.

The gift of the bear totem represents healing and unity for the five tribes, he said.

“Just letting them know that there’s others of us out there, other nations, that are coming up alongside them to stand with them. This is a gift to pick up the morale and pick up their spiritual feelings,” James said.

At the base of the bear totem are carvings of a buffalo, a wolf and a bear cub. On the back of the totem is a symbol for the man in the moon, James said.

“The man on the moon is an Indian … if you really look at the shadows of the man in the moon, you’ll see him sitting there cross-legged with his arms down and with his head bowed and two feathers hanging off his head. You’ll see that on a full moon,” James said. 

James said the symbol of the man on the moon on the bear totem represents Native tribes “praying to the creator and asking to save mother Earth for the children.”

“All of these movements that we’ve been doing,” James said, “are to save the Earth for the children, and that’s why we’ve been going all over the country. Maybe we can’t stop what’s been happening, but maybe we can slow it down. Maybe our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren might have something left for them if we can slow it down now. At the rate it’s going, what are we going to leave them?”

Standing beside the bear totem listening to James’ story, Zerah said, “The more I listen, the more I realize that the real natural resource here is these people, the first Americans. And by natural resource, I mean not to use and to exploit, but to nurture and empower, to tell their stories and learn from their traditional knowledge and perspectives.”

Weeks traveled with Mary Jane Yazzie, member of the Ute Mountain Elders Committee, and Alejandro Yazzie, youth ambassador at Kids Speak for Parks, to help the Lummi Nation bring the bear totem to Utah.

“I hope that sense of unity the three of us felt, and we felt with the Lummi, that those people who are in this divide in San Juan County between Natives and non-Natives, I hope that that brings this together and those people who are not here at the summer gathering today, even they feel that and that we can move forward,” Weeks said. 

After the Bears Ears Summer Gathering, Weeks said the totem was taken to the Southern Ute Museum in Ignacio, Colorado.

“The summer gathering is really unique in bringing these tribes together because the Bears Ears National Monument was the first time these five tribes have really gotten behind each other and connected and moved forward.”

Lummi Nation gives bear totem as symbol for unity at annual monument gathering