What the Bears Ears monument means to a Native American

Jim Enote, a member of the Zuni tribe, describes his people's deep connection to a contested place—their ancestral homeland.

Photograph by Aaron Huey, National Geographic
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The Bears Ears monument is known for its Native American rock art as much as for its spectacular landscapes. One treasure still inside the monument, even after President Donald Trump cut its area by 85 percent, is Procession Panel, a nearly 23-foot-long rock carving on Comb Ridge. It's at least 1,000 years old.
Photograph by Aaron Huey, National Geographic

Jim Enote is a member of the Zuni tribe. The Zuni and other southwestern Pueblo tribes, such as the Hopi, are descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, who inhabited the canyons and mesas of the Bears Ears region of southern Utah before migrating away in the late 13th century. In the November 2018 issue of National Geographic, Hannah Nordhaus and Aaron Huey report on the deep roots of the controversy over the Trump administration's decision to shrink several national monuments, especially Bears Ears.

Explore the dizzying cliff-side granaries of Cedar Mesa, Utah with Octavius Seowtewa, Head of the Galaxy Medicine Society of the Zuni people.

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Enote lives in Zuni, New Mexico, where he runs a philanthropy that supports native communities on the Colorado Plateau. But his ancestral homeland is Bears Ears, and his connection to his ancestors is alive. “I am a farmer; I am a wood hauler; I am a hunter; I fish. I continue a lifestyle that has been around careful and prudent use of the land,” he told Nordhaus recently. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Could you share some of the history of your tribe?

The Zuni people emerged from within the earth to the surface at a place within the Grand Canyon, and emerged from the canyon and began exploring all the tributaries of the Colorado River, [settling] in what is called the Bear Ears area in what is now southeastern Utah. They lived there for quite a long time and built villages and farms and homes and shrines and altars. Once those structures were built, they were consecrated. Once they're consecrated they become sacred forever. We never consider them abandoned.

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Kenneth Maryboy (in blanket), a Navajo activist, leads members of Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and other tribes in a sunrise prayer. Utah Diné Bikéyah, the nonprofit whose board Maryboy serves on, was established by Navajo, but it became the nucleus of a broader intertribal coalition set up to protect Bears Ears.

Can you speak of the Zuni relationship to the people who lived in the Bears Ears region five hundred or more years ago, and to other peoples that also descended from the Ancestral Puebloans?

The Puebloan peoples have a shared and common history that goes back a long time, and we don't necessarily have to put years to it. We would just say a long time ago. We know that to be true when we visit each others' villages. We can see our shared sensibilities: We are all village-dwelling people. We are farming people. [Our] religious and ceremonial structures are similar. We can see it in the art as well. We all share a relationship to the Bears Ears area.

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The Indian Creek area, seen here at sunrise, remains inside the shrunken Bears Ears monument.

Why did the Ancestral Puebloans leave the Bears Ears area? What do we know about them, both from the archeological record and from native oral tradition?

[They] migrated in response to a variety of factors—including climate, and interaction with other peoples. [They] left their calling cards wherever they went. Oftentimes it was with writings etched in stone—petroglyphs. And these became maps. The Zuni maps are [also] contained in songs and prayers; they're painted on ceramics or pottery; they're woven into textiles. The petroglyphs and pictographs tell of the events that people had experienced and things that they had seen on the land and beneath the surface of the earth, things they had seen that lived in water, things they had seen in the sky. They tell of times when there were certain animals that were living there, certain birds that were there, celestial events. These are important monuments for all of humanity.

How is the Zuni tribe tied to the Bears Ears region today?

The Zuni people moved through the Colorado Plateau region, living throughout the area for many thousands of years, and eventually settling where we are today, in western New Mexico. But we still have very strong ties to the Bears Ears area, and when the opportunity comes we make our pilgrimages back to the area to visit and to affirm what our oral history tells us. When we go there we can actually see the same petroglyphs there that we will see at Zuni today; we will see some of the same ceramic style. Bears Ears is a touchstone for the Zuni people.

The Zuni people go to the Bear Ears area to pay respect to our ancestors in a way that is not very different from people going to a cemetery and paying respect to their family members. Or in a way that people may go to England to connect with their English ancestry. The people that lived there and built the structures there and carved on the cliffs there, that created the ceramics and the baskets and other things that we see there—the blood of those people is in my veins.

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At a rally at the Utah state capitol in December 2017, organized by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and environmental groups, a sign protesting President Trump's plan to shrink the Bears Ears monument actually captures the feelings of people on all sides of the public lands debate. Some people who live near Bears Ears feel President Obama stole their access to the land by establishing the monument in the first place. On the other hand, Native Americans here and elsewhere in the West believe the real theft occurred much earlier, when their ancestors were forced off the land by the federal government and white settlers.

What did creation of Bears Ears National Monument mean for the Zuni tribe? And what did its reduction mean?

The creating of the monument was a hallelujah moment. We were seen as not only citizens of this great nation, but indigenous to it and part of its original fabric. The monument said that we are of this place.

When the monument was reduced, it made us think, again, we have given so much to this nation and we are receiving so little in return. Even more heartbreaking than that is when Zunis go to the Bears Ears area and we see the continual destruction done by vandals and pot hunters and the potential damage to these places as a result of unchecked development. It is just another slap in the face.

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Grand Gulch, a winding canyon in Cedar Mesa, is famous for its Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and rock art.

A number of tribes—Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, Ute, and Paiute—came together to form the Bears Ears Coalition, which petitioned for the creation of the Bears Ears monument and has continued to fight against the reductions. What has this meant for the Native American community?

The Bears Ears struggle has brought not only the Bears Ears coalition tribes together, but others as well. Certainly for the coalition tribes, the historical and literal physical connection to the Bears Ears area is important. To other tribes, there is also the matter of the federal government honoring and respecting agreements. If there is an offense against one or more tribes, it is an offense to all tribes.

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Conservation workers shore up a badly eroded ruin at the Cave Towers, a 13th-century site in Bears Ears.

Are there specific places that have been cut from the monument that had special significance to the Zuni?

I can't say that one pile of rocks as a shrine or one cliff dwelling or one petroglyph should receive more protection than another. They should all be protected equally. These are sacred places, not sacred sites. A site to me is a point on a map, and it would be too easy to say, “we'll protect this spring, or we'll protect this rock shrine.” When actually it is the context of place that makes those areas sacred and worthy of protection.

The Bears Ears monument is home to some of our nation's earliest antiquities. The Bears Ears monument is a treasury of time-tested Native American experience. People can learn from that place. It is a library. It is an archive. It is a museum.

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Perfect Kiva in Grand Gulch is one of many archaeological sites that no longer lies inside the Bears Ears monument. A kiva is a room, usually underground, that is used for religious ceremonies.