Rather than meeting to share traditional Native American foods, sacred ceremonies and healing prayers at the Bears Ears National Monument meadow this year, Indigenous-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah took to Zoom and Facebook Live to facilitate their sixth annual Summer Gathering.

“We try to bring everyone together through this Summer Gathering as a beautiful time to connect to the landscape,” said UDB Communications Director Alastair Bitsóí. “It’s our opportunity to celebrate who we are as the first inhabitants of what is now America and what is now Utah.”

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Panel and a Bears Ears Women’s Panel were broadcast over the UDB Facebook page on Sept. 5 and 6. Using the hashtag #BearsEarsStrong to promote the event, a total of 3,000 viewers have tuned into Facebook recordings of the speakers.

“Normally this is an event where we would acknowledge the cultural connections of each tribe and how each contributed to the designation of Bears Ears,” Bitsóí continued. “But we can still celebrate our cultures when social distancing from our own homes, whether by watching on our laptops or our phones or social media.”

Bears Ears is an ancestral site that has held cultural significance for generations of Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo and Ute peoples. Its public land status has been fraught with controversy since it was federally protected as a national monument by President Obama in 2016. In 2017, President Trump substantially reduced the national monument’s territory by 85%.

“There are high infection rates in many Indigenous communities, and people are looking for answers to calm their nerves,” said Bitsóí.

“Our summer gathering hopefully showed that we can still live our lives virtually to minimize exposure to COVID-19.”

Organizers at UDB planned two panels for the Summer Gathering, one which focused on the voices of community elders and another that highlighted the perspectives of women regarding Bears Ears.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Panel, moderated by Angelo Baca (Diné/Hopi) and Tara Benally (Diné/Hopi), featured Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (Ute), Alfred Lomahquahu (Hopi), Octavius Seowtewa (Zuni), Carleton Bowekaty (Zuni) and Hank Stevens (Diné). All panel speakers are prominent members of their communities and offered their perspectives on current Bears Ears controversies.

“We’ve had researchers come out from the Smithsonian and live with our people and then turn around and expose some of our knowledge,” Bowekaty, Lt. Governor for the Pueblo of Zuni said during the panel. “We have felt our trust violated, but I’m proud to say that I trust our own leadership.”

Tara Benally (Diné/Hopi), Davina Smith (Diné), Ahjani Yepa (Jemez Pueblo) and Pamela King (Diné/Ute) spoke about the need to be unified during the Women’s Voices of Bears Ears panel. They recounted their personal connections to Bears Ears, their individual processes in overcoming trauma and their views on current affairs.

“I want my nation to heal and for other nations to heal,” said Benally.

“We are survivors of genocide, and a lot of that still hurts throughout the years,” King continued. “We are still healing in modern and traditional ways to stop the cycle for our little ones.”

Bitsóí considers the event a success.

“We wanted to respect the virus and make sure everyone was safe,” he said. “Even though attendees were watching from their homes, they could still perform a ceremony, say a prayer and go back and rewatch the panel conversations.”

The nonprofit has uploaded a video highlighting recent efforts to assuage the effects of COVID-19 and current updates. Looking to the future, UDB will focus on increasing water access and electricity on the Navajo Nation and especially on boosting voting registration efforts in San Juan County.

Utah Diné Bikéyah highlights voices of community elders, women