For the last four years, Bears Ears National Monument has been at the center of a critical fight over Indigenous land rights. This awe-inspiring, culturally rich site was part of the largest removal of federal public land protections in U.S. history. But now that the monument is restored, could it serve as a model for Tribal collaboration in our parks?
Host Jennifer Errick explores the Tribal-led fight to protect Bears Ears National Monument and what the future of collaboration between Native nations and the U.S. government could mean for public lands with guests Ernie Atencio, Southwest regional director for the National Park Conservation Association; Davina Smith, organizer and consultant for the National Parks Conservation Association, cofounder of Women of Bears Ears, and board member of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners; and Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
Watch Davina Smith and other survivors speak about the dark history of Native American boarding schools in the PBS documentary “Unspoken” at https://parkb.it/pbsunspoken. Learn more and find resources for healing from boarding schools and other forms of violence against Native Americans at https://boardingschoolhealing.org/ and https://restoringawcoalition.org/. Read reporting on attempts to open Bears Ears to uranium mining at https://parkb.it/bearsearsreporting. Learn more about the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition at https://bearsearscoalition.org/.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer
This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with moral and technical support from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at npca.org
The Healing Ceremony
Jennifer Errick: For the last four years, a revered part of Utah has been at the center of a critical fight over Indigenous land rights. The awe inspiring culturally rich landscape of Bears Ears National monument was part of the largest removal of federal public land protections in U.S. history. But now that the monument is restored, could it serve as a model for Tribal collaboration in our parks?
I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
From the beginning, the concept of national parks was a revolutionary one. In the 1800s, the federal government began conserving some of the most spectacular places the country had to offer, not as private playgrounds for the wealthy, but as open spaces for the general public to enjoy. But at the heart of this concept was a fundamental injustice that continues to haunt even the most remote corners of our wildest places. These parks that we proudly tout as belonging to everyone, in fact once belonged to very specific people, members of hundreds of Indigenous nations who the U.S. government violently displaced, dispossessed, dehumanized, and murdered.
People who visit parks today could take entire trips without ever being aware of which Tribal nations once called the lands home or where their descendants are now.
Many national parks have improved their efforts to acknowledge and interpret their Native heritage, but often these educational materials sound like something from a history textbook, stories that reference the distant past and are told through the eyes of the colonizers, not the members of the Tribes themselves.
In southern Utah, the story is somewhat different. At Bears Ears National Monument, Native American art, culture and history defines the site as much as its canyons, buttes, mountains and creeks. When President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument in 2016, it became the first park of its kind at the direct request of Tribal nations. Five Native nations led the successful campaign to preserve the land. The Dine’, also known as Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute, the Ute Mountain Ute and the Zuni, and all of these Tribes trace their ancestral homelands here.
But barely a year later, in 2017, these lands set another precedent — this time an ominous one — when President Donald Trump issued a proclamation slashing the monument’s boundaries by 85%. This act, along with a separate proclamation reducing the size of nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, together represented the largest reduction of federal land protections in U.S. history, and it left roughly two million acres vulnerable to mining, looting, desecration and other threats for nearly four years.
Just last month in October 2021, President Joe Biden reversed these cuts and restored both monuments. What does that mean now for Bears Ears and the people who love it?
Ernie Atencio: When I first heard about this monument proposal from a coalition of Tribes who all had historic connections to this landscape, I just thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world, and partly because they were using one of the laws of the U.S. government, the government that had disenfranchised them and dispossessed them of lands for so many years, some of those lands that are now national parks, and they were using this tool of the government to create a national monument to protect ancestral sacred lands for the general public. It's a place that's important to them, but they knew that this would be protected for the public. It's not just another Tribal reservation or something. It's for everybody.
Jennifer Errick: That's Ernie Atencio, Southwest Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association. His history with the monument spans decades of his life as a park advocate and national park ranger.
Ernie Atencio: I have been visiting the Bears Ears area pretty regularly since my very first trip there in 1978, and it is just one of the most unique and beautiful and intriguing landscapes in the southwest, and the southwest is full of amazing places.
Jennifer Errick: Atencio emphasizes both the natural beauty and the deep cultural significance the monument has in the region.
Ernie Atencio: It's cut through by dozens of beautiful dramatic canyons, there are arches and natural bridges, and that kind of beautiful landscape that people have come to know around the Colorado Plateau throughout Utah and northern Arizona. But in addition to that, there's the rich, rich cultural landscape, and the sites of the places where ancestral pueblo and people lived centuries ago. Some of these places take a little effort to get into. I've been on backpacking trips up to a week long to get into some of these remote canyons to see these incredible sites.
Jennifer Errick: The monument, which is jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service also connects other significant public lands, including several iconic national park sites.
Ernie Atencio: There is a contiguous protected landscape that goes from Canyon Lands to Bears Ears, it includes Natural Bridges National Monument, and then that comes up against Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. And then we get into Grand Staircase-Escalante, which is contiguous with both Bryce and Capital Reef National Parks. When you put all that together, it's just an incredible, huge swath of land with varying levels of protections.
Jennifer Errick: But of course, the importance of Bears Ears goes beyond all of this.
Davina Smith: It's a healing place. I mean, that's why it's so sacred. It's a place of healing.
Jennifer Errick: That's Davina Smith, an organizer and consultant for the National Parks Conservation Association, the co-founder of the Advocacy Organization Women of Bears Ears, and a board member of the nonprofit Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. She's a member of the Dine’ nation and traces her heritage to the Monument Valley region, just south of Bears Ears. The site also took on a special importance for her ancestors during the Long Walk of the 1860s. The Long Walk occurred over a period of about two years when the U.S. government forced the Dine’ people to walk hundreds of miles to an imprisonment camp in New Mexico, destroying their homes and crops, killing their livestock, and murdering those who resisted. The walk itself killed at least 200 Dine’ people.
Davina Smith: My people, the Dine’ people were being rounded up to forcibly go on what's called a Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, Hwéeldi as we call it. In my community, Monument Valley area, we were majority that were able to get away because we were informed of what was happening, and so some of us fled to Bears Ears because that's where our Chief Manuelito was born. Some of us also fled to Grand Staircase-Escalante area. We were taken in by the Paiute Tribe there as well to clothe us, feed us, protect us in a sense. And so Bears ears is definitely, for me, a form of sacredness.
Jennifer Errick: In her advocacy work Smith connects this violent forced removal with other forms of injustice that the Dine’ and other Tribal nations endured, including air and water pollution, loss of language and culture, and emotional and physical abuse, including from the dark legacy of boarding schools. Smith is a boarding school survivor, and her story was part of the 2016 PBS documentary “Unspoken.” We'll include a link to that documentary in the show notes.
Davina Smith: Once they had your child, there was nothing you could do, because if you went to try and see your child or to see if you can get your child taken out, law enforcement would come. Everything was done strategically to make sure that we were going to give up.
Jennifer Errick: Smith struggled for years to speak about her own experience.
Davina Smith: I'm a third-generation boarding school survivor, and when I hear my parents and then my grandparents that went and other relatives, my aunts and uncles, it's too much. For me, I kept that secret for so long because I didn't know who to talk to, I didn't know how to tell my side of what I experienced in the form of physical abuse and sexual abuse. I carried that with me for so long, and it does impact you. I mean, boarding schools, you were taught not to show emotion, you were taught you had to keep everything within yourself.
Jennifer Errick: Smith's desire to promote healing, both for people and for the land, moved her to take part in a special journey.
Jennifer Errick: When the Trump administration gutted Bears Ears National Monument in 2017, it felt like he had another broken promise to Indigenous people. Smith was so devastated, she organized two prayer runs to help bring healing to the community and draw attention to the fight to protect the monument. Smith's first run in 2019 was a 330-mile route from the monument to Salt Lake City. At the time, she was serving as executive director for Salt Lake City Air Protectors, a nonprofit that advocates for cleaner skies through Native leadership, and the prayer run linked the importance of land protection with climate protection.
Davina Smith: One of the board members felt it would be great if we, as this organization, could implement a prayer run. She knows that I'm from San Juan County, and I do a lot of advocacy work for Bears Ears, and it was perfect timing because it was the same time the United Nation Conference was being held in Salt Lake City.
Jennifer Errick: After a successful first event, she took a pause in 2020 when the pandemic hit. Then she organized an even more ambitious 420-mile run in September 2021 from Bears Ears to Grand Staircase-Escalante to Salt Lake City. For both events, she split the total number of miles with other runners who joined her on the route. For her more recent event, she ran every day for over two weeks, logging three to twelve miles a day, but her training didn't go as smoothly as she would've liked.
Davina Smith: It was actually quite difficult to prepare for this run because during the pandemic last year, I actually had pneumonia. That was so terrifying because at that time I was living up around Salt Lake City and I thought it was COVID. I just had gotten done with a meeting that afternoon. After my meeting, I went straight to sleep. I was so tired, and I could feel some body aches, and I was thinking, oh no, now I'm getting sick. What's going on?
Jennifer Errick: When she woke, she had trouble breathing and dialed 911.
Davina Smith: The ambulance came, they were dressed in a full suit of protection, so I'm like oh my gosh, they probably think I have COVID, but maybe I do have COVID. They took my ox levels, and usually, our ox levels around 95 to a hundred, mine was a 45.
Jennifer Errick: Tests confirmed that Smith was negative for COVID, but she still spent months recovering. Then she had a second less serious bout of pneumonia just months before the prayer run was due to start. Fortunately, she was able to continue her training, despite some difficulty breathing, making her message of healing all the more poignant. During her run, she carried a traditional medicine bag every day with plants she had collected at Bears Ears.
Davina Smith: That's the whole importance of this prayer run. Growing up in Bears Ears, knowing that that location is sacred for Indigenous people, I wanted to bring that medicine along the prayer run. And so the day before we began our run, I was joined by a medicine man, his name is Jonah Yellowman. I know him because he comes from my community back home. We joined the day before and we did some prayers and we gathered medicine plants, and from that the focus is every step that I made on Mother Earth was a form of healing and prayer and blessing.
Jennifer Errick: I found it particularly moving to hear Smith describe the experience of running as a form of ceremony.
Davina Smith: As a Dine’ person we're always instilled to wake up in the morning before the sun rises and pray to our holy people to the east, and when you're in that moment of reverence, that's where you connect to Mother Earth by running. She's hearing your steps every time as you're breathing in Father Sky, and so that is a form of ceremony because everything that you are wanting or hoping that day, you're releasing it as you're in this meditative state.
Jennifer Errick: Smith's experience underscores how her connection to the land is both spiritual and physical, a vibrant living tie. This connection speaks to the central role that Bears Ears continues to have in the lives of Native people.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers: It is a very special area, but I think all ancestral homelands are special. It is special because the Tribes say they still have a relationship with the land, in both a historic and contemporary sense, is the reason why it makes it special for me.
Jennifer Errick: That's Pat Gonzales-Rogers, Executive Director for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the alliance of five Native nations that fought to create and defend the national monument at Bears Ears. Gonzales-Rogers has been working on Indigenous land rights issues for 30 years, and he began serving in his current role shortly after the Trump administration slashed the monument boundaries.
To say he had his work cut out for him would be an understatement.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers: Yeah, so you know, like many things, ignorance is bliss.
Jennifer Errick: Gonzales-Rogers equates the loss of protections at Bears Ears with tragedies at other sacred sites.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers: One has to think about this landscape in the same way that one has this kind of deferential treatment of a 400-year-old church in eastern Connecticut, or the cathedral of Notre Dame when it had its terrible accident with the fires, you heard a hush. That same hush should apply to the Bears Ears landscape. It is their church, it is their chapel, it is their cathedral.
Jennifer Errick: When I asked him where the major opposition to the monument had come from, he downplayed one of the big factors that many others have cited a common mindset in Utah, in which many people are wary of the federal government and see public lands as creating restrictions on the rights of individuals. But polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of people within the state support protect the monument. Gonzales-Rogers names a different opponent behind the boundary reductions, the uranium mining industry.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers: Energy Fuels, Inc., Which is a Canadian company with subsidiaries in Colorado, they are one of the major players in uranium extraction. They actually went to the White House, provided a boundary reduction, the Trump administration followed that verbatim. So Energy Fuels Inc. basically wanted to then allow all the areas that were reduced to be open up to extraction. The Trump administration followed this.
Jennifer Errick: Gonzales-Rogers sites that we actually have a four-decade surplus of uranium in the country, and that the metal can be acquired more cheaply in other countries. Atencio shares other reasons why mining is both impractical and problematic in the region.
Ernie Atencio: There are multi-generational impacts from uranium mining that happened here during the Manhattan Project in the 40s. It takes a terrible toll on human health. There's all kinds of potentials if things go wrong, if the company is cutting corners to save money. It's just not something that could be done haphazardly. Like with oil and gas or any other kind of development in certain places under certain conditions, but it shouldn't just be a free for all like it has been in the past.
Jennifer Errick: Fortunately, there were no new mining activities or other major destructive practices at Bears Ears in the four years the land was left vulnerable, although other ongoing threats plague the site.
Ernie Atencio: There have been some rock art panels that have been defaced in recent years. There's a long history of pot hunting and chipping off huge chunks of rock because they have a petroglyph or something. Sometimes using petroglyphs for target practice. There's intentional defacement and theft of artifacts, and that's been going on for a long time. I think national monument designation will help protect against that. And then there's just more and more people coming in who don't understand how to behave, how to treat a place like that, and how to treat it with respect.
This is the still living home of many of the descendants who are scattered around the southwest still today. They don't see these places as abandoned ruins, they are still alive with the spirits of their ancestors, and they treat them with respect in that way. If you know that, you treat it in a different way. I think that alone would go a long ways.
Jennifer Errick: Atencio hopes that the newly restored protections at Bears Ears will help with this kind of poaching and vandalism, but realistically park staff need more funding to manage it effectively. Fortunately, Tribal members will also have a say in how to care for these lands. When the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition fought to create the monument, the Tribal nations made it clear that they wanted a say in how the lands were used. The five Tribes officially have a collaborative relationship with the federal government. Although Native nations have managed lands in similar kinds of partnerships at other sites, it's the first such arrangement at a national monument.
Jennifer Errick: Here again is Pat Gonzales-Rogers.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers: We are collaborative managers, a stage higher than that is co-management. Collaborative management connotes that you are a primary party to basically provide opinion, co-management connotes a much more equal footing to all of that in terms of how you go forward. We approach this in a rather methodical way. This is the first step, and we will advance the reasons why we should be co-managers down the road.
Jennifer Errick: Well, this made me wonder what that actually would mean for the Tribes in a day-to-day sense, but it's hard to answer that question because management plans take years to develop and enact, and the Tribes themselves are just at the beginning of that process of determining what they want for the future of the monument.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers: We haven't defined that as yet, and because that was not even addressed during the Trump administration, the nice thing is we will have an organic conversation about that, and we will work in a collaborative sense to define collaborative management.
Jennifer Errick: According to Atencio, the significance of having Tribes partnering on land stewardship goes beyond issues of justice, it's also practical.
Ernie Atencio: It's not just a symbolic gesture because this used to be their ancestral homeland, it's also the fact that Tribes know about these places in ways we don't, and they have a lot of traditional wisdom and traditional ecological knowledge to share that I think really needs to be integrated into our public land management regime. Public land management has really become kind of a ... I heard somebody call it once a cult of expertise that doesn't take into account traditional perspectives.
I know ranchers who graze on public lands, I know people who are small scale timber cutters who work in the forest, who in many ways know more about those lands and those ecosystems than the
conservation groups like ours, who are working to protect those places. Finding ways to integrate that from a Tribal perspective, I think is incredibly important for the land, it's important for the Tribes, and it's a model that I think we ought to be looking into for national parks across the country.
Some parks are starting to do that a little bit more intentionally, but it needs to be codified in some way, so it's not just the parks with the open-minded superintendents who are starting those conversations, but all parks need to be thinking like this.
Jennifer Errick: Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna was recently confirmed as the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior, which oversees both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Secretary Haaland's leadership could herald better relations Tribes and land managers. Gonzales-Rogers is certainly hopeful.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers: It is like if you like chocolate and then Willy Wonka became the president of your company. Of course, she brings nuance and granular kinds of perspectives to Indian country in need of communities. That said is she is the Interior Secretary for everyone. I think everyone is very, very well served by her leadership
Jennifer Errick: Haaland gave an emotional speech at the White House last month to commemorate restoring protections at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Davina Smith was deeply moved watching Haaland standing at the podium in a traditional Native American skirt and speaking at the ceremony to protect Tribal lands.
Davina Smith: I saw Secretary Haaland and I lost it. I was just ... I was already in tears. I was in tears, and before the ceremony even started, because I see this in Native woman, this Indigenous woman, who has basically fought everything in terms to be where she's at. She's endured a lot of backlash, I bet even hate, but she stands there today. She stands there to advocate not only for Indigenous communities, but the importance of Mother Earth.
Jennifer Errick: As we record this episode, the Senate is also poised to vote on the nomination of Chuck F. Sams III, deputy executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation of Oregon to serve as director of the National Park Service. If confirmed, Sams would be the first Native American in the position. And just last month, the Park Service launched a formal partnership with a Native American tourism association to help facilitate better dialogue between Tribes and the agency.
Jennifer Errick: There are hopeful signs that the government could soon make progress healing some of this historical trauma, or at least provide more resources in the voices of Indigenous people themselves so that interpretation at parks sounds less like outdated history textbooks and more like how real people feel about real places. Atencio emphasizes that there's still much more to do.
Ernie Atencio: Now that the monuments have been restored to what most of us believe are their original legal boundaries, this is where the work starts. This is not time for conservation groups to wipe their hands and walk away and claim a victory. This is where we all have to really get behind these monuments, continue to defend them, continue to support the Tribes, and do whatever we can to really codify this concept of Tribal co-management.
Jennifer Errick: Smith is also hopeful.
Davina Smith: I don't know what the future-future involves, but I know there are many more of me out there in other communities that have that same vision and hope of reconnecting with our lands.
Jennifer Errick: And for those of us non-Native people, Smith has heartfelt advice for us too.
Davina Smith: For other communities that are non-Indigenous, I'm hoping that they take the time and be supportive, not being our spokesperson. We've had far too many historical traumatic experiences with that happening, and it's done a disservice to our communities. But that is my hope, is that others that are not a part of these communities to just ask the questions — How can I help? What can I do? — so we can continue this collaboration.
Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Episode six, The Healing Ceremony, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with moral and technical support from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton. Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more at TheSecretLivesofParks.org.
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations with more than 1.6 million members and supporters. NPCA is the nation's only independent nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks, and we're proud of it.
The Secret Lives of Parks is overseen by Amy Hagovsky, who has a special flair for her role.
“It is like if you like chocolate, and then Willy Wonka became the president of your company.”
You can join the fight to protect places like Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante, and all of our inspiring national monuments. Learn more and join us at NPCA.org.