THE BEARS EARS, San Juan County — Several top federal officials from Washington quietly attended a so-called “Gathering of the Tribes” put on last weekend by environmental groups and a very small, select group of Native Americans in southeastern Utah, their presence made known only to a chosen few who were “sworn to secrecy.”
It’s the clearest signal yet that the Obama administration may be considering the creation of a huge national monument surrounding a place called the Bears Ears.
Administration officials and enviornmental groups are going overboard to try to make this look like it is a Native American initiative, claiming that the tribes are in solidarity and fully supportive of additional protection of a 1.9 million acre region. It’s studded with tens of thousands of archaeological jewels spread across a landscape of stunning red-rock scenery.
“It’s for preserving this land as useful for the Native Americans, not for private use, or mining or oil and gas,” said Navajo Nation member Phil Atene. “Leave it the way it is.”
“It’s the most sacred land,” said Amos Holliday of the Navajo Nation.
The proposal is charged with controversy and any move by the Obama administration to unilaterally protect the region would likely set off an explosive political reaction. There are still bitter memories in southern Utah of a similar political uproar when President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.
“They’re stealing our lands from us. I think we’ve been really good stewards of it,” said Brent Johansen who represents a group of ATV enthusiasts called SPEAR, San Juan Public Entry & Access Rights, which stands in opposition to the protection plan.
“It’s a fight,” Johansen said. “It really is.”
Among the Obama administration officials who attended the unusual inter-tribal gathering was Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. Also in attendance were Steven A. Ellis, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, and Arthur “Butch” Blazer, deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Most of the hundreds of Native Americans who attended the colorful gathering at Bears Ears were unaware of the Washington delegation’s presence.
“I was told it would be likely that some D.C. officials would show up,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, one of a coalition of environmental groups and tribes supporting the protection plan. “I didn’t know exactly who they would be, and we were all sworn to secrecy for the ‘safety of the visitors.'”
The concern about safety may reflect the strong feelings stirred up by the prospect of Obama taking a hand in the battle.
The 1.9 million acre Bears Ears proposal was rejected by the San Juan County Public Lands Council which is comprised of a variety of interest groups. The council did endorse a significantly smaller proposal.
“I think it protects absolutely the most important areas,” Adams said.
The Bears Ears visit by the Obama administration officials was revealed days after the event in a news release from the Navajo Nation and in a blog posting by U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn.
We were struck by the personal stories of spiritual connection to this rugged land. We share the desire of tribal leaders to protect sacred places and leave the earth better than we found it.
–Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs
“We were struck by the personal stories of spiritual connection to this rugged land,” Washburn wrote. “We share the desire of tribal leaders to protect sacred places and leave the earth better than we found it.”
The inter-tribal gathering began at Bears Ears with a ceremonial ride by Navajo horsemen. More than a dozen riders ascended a dirt road that climbs to a notch between two prominent bluffs that dominate the landscape. The bluffs are known as the Bears Ears because they can be seen looming over a vast region, as if a bear’s ears were poking above the horizon.
The ceremonial ride reminded several of the Navajo riders of a revered war chief who led the Navajos during their tumultuous and ultimately tragic showdown with the federal government when Army troops drove them from their land in the legendary 1864 “Long Walk of the Navajo.”
“Chief Manuelito, this was his camp area,” said Atene as he dismounted at the Bear Ears gathering. “This was where they gathered herbs, firewood. We (still) get it from here.”
“He was a great chief,” said Holliday. “And what his clan is, I’m part of that clan. Most of these riders are the same clan as he was.”
“This is likely an ancestral pueblo handprint from 800, 900 years ago,” Ewing said as he inspected several handprints in a natural red-rock alcove. He said experts have estimated that as many as 100,000 archaeological sites lie within the proposed protection zone, including cliff dwellings, granaries, pit houses and fire pits. He argued that the ancient treasures of Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa are threatened by ATV riders and by potential oil and gas development.
“The goal here is to see this area permanently protected for future generations,” Ewing said. “It’s a very real possibility that this sacred place to Native Americans could become an industrial zone.”
Some opponents claim that the protection plan was cooked up by environmentalists using Native Americans as “puppets.”
“It just seems like a constant battle with them,” Johansen said, “wanting to close more and more trails. It’s just a fight, really. A lot of our group, this is the only way they can get out and enjoy the great outdoors. A lot of our older riders have oxygen tanks strapped to their machines and it’s the only way they can get out and enjoy it.”
Ewing disputes the notion that the tribes were recruited for the fight by environmental groups.