Op-Ed: There’s More Work to Do at Bears Ears
President Biden just restored the national monument’s boundaries. Now it’s time for deeper healing and restorative justice for the region’s Indigenous people.
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In 2017, the Trump administration cut nearly 1.15 million acres off the Bears Ears National Monument, in southeastern Utah. Originally designated in 2016 by President Obama, the monument is home to both Indigenous sites and world-class rock climbing. Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation, called the shrinking of the monument a “slap in the face.”
Last Friday, President Biden restored the monument to its previous boundaries—a total of 1.36 million acres—a huge win for Native groups and opponents of the uranium and oil and gas industries. We asked Angelo Baca, cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, and rock climber Tommy Caldwell to weigh in on what we should do now.
About 100 years ago, the so-called Last Indian War in the United States happened in San Juan County, Utah, when two young Utes allegedly stole livestock. A local posse chased Posey, a leader of his tribe, through what is now part of the Bears Ears National Monument, but he took a hidden trail to lose his pursuers. The incident set off what’s known as the 1923 Posey War and gave the U.S. government the excuse it needed to put Indians on the reservation and take Bears Ears lands. Today there are still linguistic discrepancies and cultural differences—including varying Indigenous claims to land, a concept of property and ownership worlds apart in understanding—that cause disagreements and conflict.
Those historical traumas and scars are still fresh, and 100 years is a small drop in the deep ocean of time. When local ranchers and farmers say that they are fifth-generation residents, the reality is that their recent histories are topsoil. But Indigenous ancestral presence goes down to the bedrock. History’s painful echoes are still being played out right now. For all the social and historical injustices Indigenous peoples have faced, we understand that the time to rectify these wrongs and implement historical and restorative justice is now.
You see, public lands are stolen lands, taken from the Indigenous peoples who have been here since time immemorial and who will continue to be here as stewards of the land. There are no greater champions for protecting landscapes than Indigenous communities.
With the news that President Biden restored the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, I know many outdoor athletes are likely to visit this beautiful place. I encourage visitors to ask themselves the following questions:
How can we engage with Indigenous communities on respectful and equal grounds? How can we develop a meaningful and authentic relationship to the landscape and the Indigenous peoples it belongs to? How can we utilize our resources, privilege, and power to lift up marginalized communities of color, especially Indigenous communities, to rectify historical traumas? This is the next great adventure, the next evolution in conservation and restorative justice on a social and cultural level, an action to match intention among those who love our lands and want to do right by them.
If we want to make real and substantive change, we have to make life more just and equitable for everyone. In no other place is that more obvious than in nature, where diversity is prominent, showing us what a vibrant and healthy ecosystem looks like.
Indigenous peoples see themselves and the land as one. Each cannot be separated from the other; if you see the landscape, then you see me; if you see me, then you see my landscape. This is what a real land acknowledgment looks like.
Many outdoor enthusiasts are willing to spend time and money to be in nature. But I’m asking from an Indigenous perspective for more: What kinds of sacrifices and compromises are you willing to make for the restorative justice of our human and nonhuman relatives? Like Posey, I have nothing to lose but my freedom, land, and cultural identity. What are you willing to give and contribute to take care of these lands? Are you ready to be a champion and a guardian of these places we all know and love by going above and beyond what we think is enough?
“Don’t stand over me like a white man, please sit down.”
Ida Yellowman’s bluntness made me both squirm and smile. It’s refreshing to be around someone who tells it like it is. But it’s not comfortable knowing that people who look like me, think like me, and talk like me have been stealing from Ida’s people for more than 200 years. As a professional rock climber, I always thought my intimacy with land was deep—my life often depends on that closeness. But for Ida, and the five tribes of Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Diné, their entire cultural and spiritual heritage is written in this landscape. I’ve come to believe our ideas of public land ownership have been misguided. To them, this place is life, and I am either a guest or intruder. I’m still trying to figure out which one.
My family started visiting the Bears Ears area when I was four years old. The rock here has the purest and most unique cracks in the world, but what kept us coming back was the peaceful isolation. You could explore for weeks and see no one. Get lost in the seemingly endless maze of mesas and canyons. No guidebooks, no internet. Apart from what we believed to be remnants from an extinct civilization, Bears Ears appeared completely uninhabited and untouched.
We observed the ancient dwellings and rock art like typical tourists, thinking they were cool relics of the past, careful to leave the artifacts undisturbed out of the type of respect you might show at a museum. But we didn’t give them much thought beyond that. I was blissful in my ignorance, blind to so much. I knew the landscape was fragile, but I never imagined it would be harmed because it seemed too far off the map.
In truth, what I saw as one of the last wide-open spaces in the lower 48 is really a relatively narrow, untarnished strip. Mines, refineries, and drilling operations dot much of the landscape just out of sight from the main roads and tourist destinations. In the mid-1800s, the Indigenous residents were forcibly removed to reservations. Some of the land has since been protected by the federal government, but much of the rest has been systematically exploited for its natural resources, often to the detriment of the descendants of those who were unjustly removed.
I went to Bears Ears this spring to learn how to respect and, hopefully, help protect this place. Ida invited me to join her and a group of mothers on Mother’s Day in a sunrise prayer over the desecration of a magnificent panel of petroglyphs called Birthing Rock, near Moab. A few weeks before that, a different panel had been bolted by a climber who mistook petroglyphs for graffiti. For Christians this would be like someone erasing text from the original and only copy of the Bible. For the women of Bears Ears, the desecration of Birthing Rock felt like a personal insult to them specifically.
We stood in a small circle around a juniper tree, perched atop a 1,200-foot pinnacle, the staggering towers of the Valley of the Gods to our west, Monument Valley to the south. The cresting sun illuminated the women’s black hair, deep creases in their faces. Tears ran down a few of their cheeks as they prayed in their Native languages. A stiff, erratic wind blew and buffeted our bodies. Ida’s translations were lost in the wind, but the power of the moment was the most important lesson. To be among these wisest of women in such a powerful and beautiful place made me feel like a baby—fascinated by a truth I did not yet understand. Navajo are matriarchal and all land claims are through the women. The land is a living entity to them. Without a lineage and spirituality that stretches back thousands of years, we cannot know how to care for these lands as they do.
To climbers, Bears Ears is one of the premier climbing destinations in the world, the style and beauty wholly unique. These days, thousands of climbers show up in Indian Creek Canyon on a busy weekend. Most of them intend to leave no trace but have little knowledge about how to respect and protect the land. Organizations like the Access Fund have brought resources. Various petitions have circulated, and climbers have joined a chorus of voices calling for lasting protection of this land. But we have only started our conversations with the tribes who have inhabited this place for millennia.
We, as an outdoor community, need to look to our Indigenous teachers, people like Angelo Baca and Ida Yellowman. We need to hold the knowledge in our minds that we are visitors to their ancestral and cultural lands and behave as such. And then we need to join them in the continued work to preserve this incredible place. The redesignation of the monument is a big step forward, but its continued protection will rely on our ability to understand and respect its original stewards.
Planning to visit Bears Ears or any other Indigenous lands? Please review this guidance.