Some indigenous groups fear that a larger Bears Ears National Monument would restrict access to the ritual space

As the daughter of a ninety-year-old Navajo medic, Ana Tom is used to long car journeys. Tom supports her mother Betty Jones’ role as a traditional healer by taking her far away from San Juan County in search of rare herbs for use in various traditional medicines important in Navajo rituals.

“There is not much [elders] they know where to collect the herbs and what is needed, and sometimes we would take them past Reno and even to Lake Tahoe to collect herbs, ”said Tom. “My father, who was a medicine man, went to Texas to buy wild tobacco, and that’s a trip we’re going too.”

Taking any plant from Mother Earth, even the smallest, requires a prayer, she says. Most of the herbs her family uses are readily available in the Bears Ears area, two double butts rising more than 8,000 feet above sea level. Like nearly 65% ​​of Utah, Bears Ears is state, although their current status is likely to change.

The Bears Ears National Monument was created by President Barack Obama in 2016 and covers approximately 1.3 million hectares. Under President Donald Trump, the site was reduced to 201,876 hectares. The Biden administration is believed to be considering restoring the Obama-era borders with the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in southern Utah.

While Bears Ears has received widespread support from a coalition of Native American groups across the country, some Native Americans in the immediate area are opposed to the memorial, with religious freedom being a primary concern. In fact, Betty Jones took to the stage with Trump in the Utah Capitol in 2017 to announce the monument’s reduction.

But the day before, an estimated 5,000 people, including many Native American activists, had protested the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the size of the monument. The Trump administration’s move drew condemnation to Native American groups and some companies, such as outdoor outfitter Patagonia.

The initial push for the memorial was supported by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, including representatives from the sovereign governments of the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and the Navajo nations. At the time, two chapters of the Navajo Nation, the Aneth Chapter and the Blue Mountain Dine, refused to create the monument. The two groups are the closest to the proposed memorial, although the latter is a locally organized Navajo group that is not officially recognized by the Navajo Nation.

At stake are two different visions of how best to protect holy land.

“Bears Ears is home to more than 100,000 Native American cultural sites, ranging from rocky scatterings to granaries to complex villages,” said the tribal coalition proposal for the Bears Ears National Monument. “Some are in the distant hinterland. Others require a day hike. However, others are readily available. This is one of the world’s most important areas of reflection on the work of long-gone societies. “

For her part, however, Jones has compared the construction of the memorial to other federal measures that, while intended to express charity, have had a profoundly negative impact on their lives.

Jones, who lives on McCracken Mesa near Blanding, was moved from their original home along with other Navajos in 1933 to make way for Glen Canyon Dam. That same year, the Franklin Roosevelt administration ordered the slaughter of a million Navajo sheep, ostensibly as an environmental measure, but historians have argued that it was carried out on the basis of flimsy analysis.

“What people don’t understand is that [Bureau of Land Management] Land – everything is protected, ”said Tom, Jones’ daughter. “But I’m worried about the Abajo Mountains. If you put them in the memorial and lock the access, you will not be able to perform some blessings and rituals in this area. This monument will break the connection we have with this area. “

Firewood gathering is another important topic for Tom and numerous Navajo families. San Juan County, which would be home to most of the Bears Ears National Monument, is one of the poorest counties in the contiguous United States. Many of the Navajos who live in the area live in buildings with no running water and only intermittently with electricity. They rely on collected deadwood, as they have for centuries, to keep the Utah winter warm.

Obama’s original Bears Ears proclamation permitted “the collection of medicines, berries and other vegetation, forest products and firewood for personal, non-commercial use in a manner compatible with the maintenance and management of the above items.”

However, Tom says that during the time it was briefly a memorial, some measures were taken to deny access to sites, although she says it is unclear whether this activity was linked to the federal government. She also pointed out that other national landmarks in Utah do not allow the gathering of firewood.

There are a number of Navajo hogans, or ceremonial structures on top of the expanded memorial, and Tom is worried about losing access to the sites. She is also concerned about possible vandalism such as that occurred on other monuments due to the influx of tourists.

Suzette Morris, a member of the Ute tribe who lives on White Mesa, recalls the sinking feeling she felt as she read Obama’s proclamation. Turning the area into a huge museum, she said, isn’t the best way to honor the land’s enduring sacred importance.

“I am concerned that if we make it a national monument, it will lead to the desecration of our graves, many of which are not marked, but we know where they are and how important they are.”

Morris – who is related to Chief Posey, the famous Ute leader who named the last armed conflict between the United States government and a Native American group in 1923 – said she had encountered opposition from tribal leaders and other indigenous groups who have favourited the Monument.

“Others have tried to shut me up and tell me the memorial respects the sacred,” said Morris. “There is nothing sacred about putting a capital X on the map so that millions of people can visit holy sites and intentionally or unintentionally destroy them.”

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