The Bears Ears and the “local” card

One of the first “literary” things I ever wrote was a poem that began, “The Bears Ears, have you ever seen them?” It was hardly profound, had neither meter nor rhyme, and was only about five lines long. But then, I was only about seven years old, and I wrote it in one fell swoop while sitting by the side of the road to Hovenweep National Monument in southeastern Utah.

I can still remember the sage, stretching into the distance, the barbed wire fence and the way the silhouettes of those twin buttes rose up from Elk Ridge. I can’t remember why we were stopped in that particular place, though I suspect it was because of car troubles. My father was a writer and my mother was an artist, so we didn’t have much money and the family vehicle was usually some sort of dilapidated hand-me-down that soon reeked of cigarette smoke.

The old International Harvester pickup borrowed from my grandparents, themselves poor farmers, burned through a quart of oil every 100 miles or so and the cab leaked in the rain, which was fine, because my brother and I rode in the back. Our 1960s-era Volvo’s electrical system apparently couldn’t handle being submerged in Comb Wash, and got bogged down there for an extended period of time. The green Nova, borrowed from my dad’s mom, slid off the rain-slickened road to Chaco into a ditch, blocking traffic for hours, until a Navajo guy rallied bystanders to push the thing out.

But none of those vehicular woes stopped us from putting in miles and miles on the backroads and trails of the Four Corners Country. The region is called that because its center lies somewhere around the place where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. Its outer reaches are vaguely defined by the four sacred peaks of both the Navajo and the Pueblos — it stretches from Lake Powell over to the San Luis Valley, and from the high San Juan Mountains down to beyond Zuni. We lived in Durango, Colorado, but considered ourselves residents of the Four Corners Country, first. We felt more closely connected to folks in Kayenta, for example, than those in Denver. The Bears Ears, like Shiprock, Navajo Mountain, the San Francisco Peaks or Ute Mountain, served as waypoints on the horizon. If you could see them, you knew you were in the Four Corners Country. You knew you were home.

That poem, rhapsodizing about the way Elk Ridge looks deep blue from that perspective and about how Cedar Mesa’s south end drops off in a peculiarly perfect right angle, was also about that notion: That we belong not to a state or county, bounded by arbitrary lines drawn by bureaucrats and surveyors, but to a region defined by topography, by watersheds and by deep history. The older I get, the more that truth resonates, both emotionally and intellectually. I feel the same sense of “homeness” when I’m walking Comb Ridge as I do when I drop into the Animas Valley, where I was born and where my great, great, great, great grandmother settled in 1874.

And so, it’s upsetting, even offensive, to hear the folks from San Juan County, Utah — particularly those opposed to a Bears Ears National Monument — discount the opinions of those who aren’t “local.” According to their reckoning, the only people who have any say over the land that lies within their county are the people who live there or, apparently, in the state of Utah as a whole. By this logic, someone from the urban Wasatch Front has a greater voice than, say, someone who lives in McElmo Canyon, a stone’s throw from the Utah-Colorado border.

This concept, of course, ignores the fact that the land in question is public, owned by all of the American people, giving even folks from New York City the same rights to an opinion about how it should be managed. But it is also ignorant of the truer sense of who or what is local. If it offends me, I can’t even imagine how Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye felt when locals yelled at him to “go home” as he tried to speak at the Bluff hearing on Bears Ears. Or when Utah politicians essentially said the same to folks from Hopi, Zuni and the Rio Grande Pueblos by indicating that they shouldn’t partake in the Public Lands Initiative process.

After all, they were home. The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa and the San Juan River are important places in both the deep and contemporary history of the Navajos — even for those, like Begaye, who now live on the other side of the Utah state line. And the ancestors of those who now live in Hopi and Zuni and the other pueblos lived in what is now southeastern Utah for hundreds of years. They farmed and established communities there. They held ceremonies at holy sites there. Their history is written all over that landscape. Seems pretty damned local to me.

I’ve spoken to a lot of people on various sides of the Bears Ears monument debate, and have heard strong arguments both for and against a monument. I’ll delve into those arguments in an upcoming story for High Country News. In the meantime, I hope the folks of San Juan County and Utah will stop playing the “local” card. It’s ignorant and, ultimately, ineffective. 

And the poem? I long ago forgot the rest of it. Though I do remember that the last line asked what the Bears Ears might have meant to the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in its shadow so many years before. I’m still asking that question.

(Photos below were made in August 2016 within the boundaries of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. All photos by Jonathan P. Thompson.)

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