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Individual and Collective Histories of Bears Ears Nat'l Monument


“Today, we have an opportunity for healing before us,” Willie Grayeyes wrote from Navajo Mountain, Utah in An Open Letter to President Donald J. Trump.

Willie Grayeyes is Chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Native-led non-profit that supports the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah Ouray Ute tribes in connection to the land. An Open Letter, penned in response to the administration’s threats to Bears Ears National Monument, continues:

“…It is clear that an overwhelming majority of citizens want these magnificent places which hold our individual and collective histories to remain whole, not sacrificed to oil and gas development.”

Upwards of 2.7 million Americans — hunters and gatherers, writers and artists, democrats and republicans, humans of every sort — submitted public comments in support of Bears Ears National Monument to the Department of the Interior. Less than 1% of these commenters opposed the Monument.


I have transplanted myself in the West after growing up near the ocean, and am a tourist in Bears Ears compared to those who are rooted in the landscape. Yet Indian Creek, a small corner of the Monument, feels like a variation of home. 

The movements up certain fissures in the sandstone there are embedded in my mind and muscles from years of returning to ascend them: left hand, right hand, pulling, stretching. The Creek, in its stillness, is one of the places against which I can measure myself, for when a place stays the same, each return is a catalyst to reflect on the ways I’ve changed. The climbing is hard, and as the skin on our fragile hands becomes raw, we become raw with each other, laughing more and crying more and loving more.

It’s magic, it’s comprised of all the cliché reasons we urbanized creatures seek out rugged landscapes — blistering sun and sweeping vistas and stretching ground to ramble through during the day, fires and deep starry skies at night, and a routine of movement that calls forth our more primitive selves. I believe that most anyone who experiences this landscape openly will experience, too, the intrinsic need to protect the place from harm at the hands of our species.

Still: I live elsewhere. Bears Ears has worked its way into my individual history, into the story I tell of myself, but the place is not mine. It is the stories of those who hold collective histories here that need to be told and shared and echoed beyond the canyon walls.


At the SHIFT Festival in Jackson Hole, I was privileged to hear spiritual leaders from tribes indigenous to the Bears Ears area speak on the monument designation and subsequent threats. Through listening to their perspectives, I began to view the land as an independent entity, not as a human acquisition. We must speak for the land not because we are entitled to the place, but because the land cannot speak for itself.

This should resonate with anyone who has spent long days and nights in that landscape: the idea that the place has a spirit of its own, a healing power, and the ability to give and receive offerings.

At the Rally for Bears Ears National Monument in Salt Lake City in late November, I watched dancers from the Mexica Tolteca Nation spin in mesmerizing patterns in the grass in front of the stern pillars of the capitol building and heard prayers for the earth from humans most rooted in the landscape we’re all working to protect. 

These indigenous activists are not always activists by choice, in the way us climbers are. They are often activists because their homes and their very existence are, yet again, endangered. We must realize and honor this distinction if we hope to build a future based in respect for the land and each other.


I don’t have nearly enough space here to discuss the current politics of the situation; there are new bills constantly introduced, threatening to further undermine both the Antiquities Act and the efforts of everyone standing up for this land. NPR has had some good coverage. This article gives readers an understanding of broader arguments for keeping public land in public hands, and this NYT opinion piece does a better job of acknowledging the violations of Native American people’s rights.

I recommend listening to the SHIFT presentation I referenced, which was streamed by Patagonia here, and learning from Utah Diné Bikéyah, Bears Ears Tribal Coalition, and other Native voices and platforms. You can also visit this page to hear the speakers from the rally.

I hope to hear your resources, your thoughts and motivations. I hope we can keep sharing our climbing stories, our epic sends, our tales of sufferfests and lazy desert cragging days. In telling these stories, I hope we can acknowledge those who came to the land before us. I want to learn about your individual history on the land, and I also want to recognize, listen to, and elevate the voices of those who have collective histories — family roots, familiar gathering paths, etc. — in the sacred corner of the earth we call Bears Ears.


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Words, wisdom & photos by Field Agent, Emma Longcope.