A view of Hammond Canyon in the Bears Ears region in San Juan County. The designation of land in the area as a national monument has prompted responses from residents who both support and oppose the measure. [Photo courtesy of Tim Peterson and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition]

The Bears Ears National Monument debate carries on. 

“They want to grab that and they want to develop it,” said Ute Mountain Ute Tribe member Terry Knight of oil and gas companies interested in the Bears Ears National Monument area.

Knight spoke in Moab during a recent symposium about the monument at the Utah Professional Archaeological Council’s (UPAC) annual meeting.

A recent change has put Navajo Nation members in the majority for the first time in the three-person San Juan County Commission. Since the swearing in of new members, the commissioners have proposed several resolutions reversing the previous commission’s stance on the Bears Ears National Monument, and moved the commission from opposing the designation to supporting it.

However, it would be wrong to suppose that all Native Americans share the same view on the federal monument’s designation or that their position is as simple as saying people are “for” or “against” it.

Included in the symposium’s program on Bears Ears were presentations made by representatives of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, an organization in support of the establishment of the monument and composed of representatives from the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Zuni Tribe, Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Tribe and co-chair of the coalition, co-presented at the symposium on Feb. 23 with Betsy Chapoose, the director of Cultural Rights and Protection for the Ute Tribe. They discussed how the Native American perspective on the land is different from the non-Native viewpoint, and how land management agencies have, up to now, failed to solicit tribal input on how areas should be managed and what aspects are important to tribal people.

“The landscape itself isn’t viewed like everybody else views it, as far as through our eyes,” Shaun Chapoose explained. “We view it as our home, or former home, or burial ground. Or a place to gather certain things for our prosperity and our culture. So we have a different relationship with it.”

He also explained that his tribe has a different approach to history and the past than non-Natives. Specifically in regard to archaeologists asking about the significance of certain areas, Shaun Chapoose said, “…There’s taboos. I don’t think everybody understands that. We really don’t mess with things that are gone.”

Betsy Chapoose echoed this point.

“Our perspective on archaeology is very different,” she said. “We don’t see that as the ‘end-all, be-all.’ There’s other factors that come into play when you’re talking to tribes … we view them in context of landscapes and not just ‘this archaeological site right here.’”

Instead of focusing on small, specific areas, she said, understanding tribal ways of the past requires consideration of the whole landscape.

“Why were we there?” she asked. “There’s things there, there’s spiritual aspects to those things, there’s physical aspects, there’s aesthetics, there’s the sounds, there’s just everything. And when we approach it, it’s very comprehensive and holistic. We don’t just come onto an area and look at it and say ‘oh, well, this is beautiful rocks, let’s just, whatever, let’s go write something on that.’ There’s a whole process.”

Shaun Chapoose pointed out that while he spoke about his own tribe, that doesn’t necessarily reflect the cultures of other tribes.

“There’s a reason why they’re called different band names, different tribes,” he said. “They’re unique. They’re unique in how they perceive stuff, they’re unique in how they open up and discuss things.”

Shaun Chapoose acknowledged that Native Americans are not always forthcoming in explaining their viewpoint to non-Natives, but encouraged those in the audience, which included archaeologists and members of the public, to ask for input from Native Americans.

“Don’t give up if you want to engage us, because one of the techniques we use a lot is to see how much you will try,” he said, provoking chuckles from the audience.

“And there’s a reason,” he added. “Because we need to see if you’re sincere. We don’t know if they’re pot hunters, we don’t know if they’re somebody trying to get rich. We’re waiting to see, are you sincere, are you honest.”

He said the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition provided “an actual conduit for people to engage us as tribes.”

 Betsy Chapoose chastised archaeologists and land management agencies for failing to engage with tribes in their research and decision making. In the spring of last year she attended a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

“I was very appalled,” she said of the meeting. “I saw no tribal perspective in what was presented — I saw no tribal perspective. Yet you’re talking about our past, our history, talking about things that we know something about, that predates your science, that we can tell you something about why it was that way and explain what you’re seeing with that science.”

“The reason this came to be is because the tribal voice was not being heard in the way that those landscapes were being managed,” she said of the monument. “I think it’s really time that as archaeologists you step up and be those ambassadors for the agencies you work for, for the groups you work for, and start reaching out to the tribes.” 

Knight, who serves as the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe historic preservation officer and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, expressed frank bewilderment and dismay during the symposium at the huge amount of attention the area of Bears Ears is receiving.

“Everybody and their mother and whatever, want to get involved in here. And I’m just wondering, who are these people? Where are they coming from?” he asked near the beginning of his talk, eliciting nervous laughter from the audience.

Knight gave a brief history of his tribe in the area, recalling that all of San Juan County was once designated as a reservation for the Ute people. He told how members of his tribe are still buried in rock crevices in the Bears Ears region, although the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe was relocated. He told how he and his brothers would roam the country surrounding Bears Ears.

“So I have strong connections to that whole area,” he said. But, he noted, “… we never talked about Bears Ears. Bears Ears was the sacred area. And nobody messed with it.” 

“So I’m looking at Bears Ears,” he continued. “And I’m thinking, why is it so intriguing? What is it, what’s there? Why is it so important to non-Indians, instead of us? Someone should have come and asked us, ‘What do you people think of this? Do you want this, do you want that? That’s one of your sacred areas.’ And we would have said, ‘No, stay away, go home, get out of here,’ something like that.”

This statement may sound contradictory, coming from one of the leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. As Knight continued, however, it seemed as though he considered the monument the only way to protect the landscape, now that it is receiving so much interest, especially from oil and gas developers He has seen maps of proposed development sites, with locations “in that whole area, the whole Bears Ears area, the whole San Juan County.”

And, considering interactions between his tribe and non-Natives in the past, Knight doesn’t foresee any money from energy development going to tribes. 

In remarks after the talk, Knight emphasized that it isn’t just the “archaeological sites” where structures and artifacts are found that hold significance for Native American people. 

“Ute people are nomadic,” he said. “The place where we camp is just a place where we stayed.”

Rather than these discrete spots, he said, it is the whole landscape that matters. 

Other Native Americans in San Juan County have opposed the establishment of the monument, beginning when it was first proposed and continuing up to now.

Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, was a San Juan County Commissioner from 2015 through 2018. She strongly and publicly opposed the Bears Ears National Monument. At a press conference in Salt Lake City in 2016, she said,  “I’m here today to tell you that my constituents do not want a national monument in San Juan County, because it’s just another federal over-reach with empty promises. As a Native American, we understand what broken treaties mean and broken promises. We’ve lived it for the last 200 years.”

Tribe members regularly make comments at San Juan County Commission meetings and have spoken against the new commission’s latest resolutions supporting Bears Ears. Some are concerned that their access to the area will be restricted, and they won’t be able to practice their traditions, which include collecting wood and herbs and conducting ceremonies.

Anna Tom, a Navajo tribe member, spoke against Bears Ears National Monument at a recent San Juan County Commission meeting, foreboding, “We have been through this before, what the BLM will do, what the federal government will do.”

Pro-monument and anti-monument advocates discuss their views in posts and comments on public Facebook pages called “Protect Bears Ears National Monument” and “Rescind Bears Ears National Monument.”

One comment from a Navajo Nation member on the Rescind Bears Ears National Monument page reads, “Taking what is precious and sacred by locals and having strangers wave it around like they ‘discovered’ it ignites the same response from me that I’m sure my ancestors had watching Columbus fumble around the continent.” 

In his presentation at the symposium, Knight voiced a similar sentiment. 

“I just don’t understand why non-Indians, especially white people, want to grab hold of, and be so close, be part of Indian tribal sacred areas … What’s wrong with your church? What’s wrong with your religions? You’ve got all kinds. What about that? So I just don’t understand that. It’s beyond me.”

Tribe members speak at symposium in Moab

“The landscape itself isn’t viewed like everybody else views it, as far as through our eyes.”