By Jim Enote
Contributions of Native Americans are among the least recognized attributes of the collective American experience. This is no surprise considering the historical efforts to deliberately extinguish Native cultures from the Americas. While ignorance of Native American life is still pervasive among the U.S. public, the Bears Ears region, home to some of our nation’s earliest antiquities, can open the eyes of people who want to learn about a past that is older than what is usually taught. Bears Ears is a treasury of time-tested Native American experience that, if protected, can help create a more informed national citizenry.
Considering the enduring tribal connections to Bears Ears, conventional natural resource management, as it exists today, will not be enough to guard this profound landscape. The proposed Bears Ears National Monument will finally afford an opportunity to protect Bears Ears’ irreplaceable antiquities in situ, doing so collaboratively with regional tribes while providing a place for mediation of this nation’s values and knowledges.
The values of this nation reflect our collective social profits and losses. As a young boy, I remember holding my mother’s hand as she led me to a public restroom. At the door, a “Whites Only” sign stopped her from taking me further. That sign and my mother’s tears of hesitancy gave birth to a heartache that tortures me to this day. Ironically, that public restroom was near the Air Force base where my father was then serving our country and earlier where my grandfather received training as a B-17 tail gunner during World War II.
During a recent visit to Bears Ears with Zuni elders, we approached a massive sandstone alcove sheltering an ancestral puebloan village. We greeted the people who lived and are buried there and gave offerings to them, not so much different from the way other cultures bring flowers to cemeteries to honor their loved ones. As we made our way into the alcove, we saw that the village had been vandalized by pot hunters. Staring at the damage done by the looting was horrifying to all of us.
Some people say the Bears Ears landscape is a necessary resource to allow the expansion of the process of mining energy resources and creating jobs. I believe Native peoples have already suffered losses of precious lands for the development of communities tied to extraction, even far from the source of extraction. And considering the centuries of our ancestors’ work to establish and evolve on Bears Ears lands, energy extractive jobs are relatively short-term.
I suppose in some people’s minds, we are the conquered, so the willingness to pursue ill-gotten gains that benefit a few is simply a given. But if Native Americans are truly a part of the social and cultural fabric of this nation, why do we not receive the civility and respect afforded to other citizens? It’s time we realize that Native peoples are not only citizens of this great nation, we are indigenous to it, part of its original fabric. We are of this place. We have given to it. And we have received little in return.
A Bears Ears National Monument, as it is proposed, would declare at least two things. First, that our society can be nudged to abandon its complacency and encouraged to understand and respect Native peoples’ cultures and contributions. Second, and just as important, the monument would endow our society with a new imagination, creating a meeting place where science, Native traditional knowledge, and a thoughtful conservation policy are together given equal and just attentiveness.
A Bears Ears Monument is not simply about what is ethical. No, we cannot live by sentiments alone. A Bears Ears Monument is about strategically and sensibly protecting our nation’s antiquities and creating a more informed American citizenry.