Nearly ten years ago, I remember sitting with friends in the back seat of a red Jeep en route to Salt Lake City and noticing the mysterious twin buttes jetting above the western horizon. I would later learn they were called Shash Jaa’ in Navajo, or the Bears Ears. While driving through Navajo land near Mexican Hat, Utah, these buttes tower above Cedar Mesa and connect to the Abajo Mountains, the lay of the land changing from red and orange cliffs to green forestry.
On this road trip, I learned that Shash Jaa’ is where Navajo headman Manuelito was born in 1818 and where his ancestral Bit’ahnii clan call home. My political junkie acquaintances knew this, better equipped at Navajo history than this then- 21-year-old. Their claims were later verified by Navajo historian Jennifer Nez-Denetdale, a descendent of Manuelito, and oral histories of Navajo families and clans, along with the testimonies from other tribes, nations and pueblos that have cultural attachments to this beautiful land.
Even though I was not driving toward Shash Jaa’ during that summer day, I was mesmerized by the Navajo connection. Instead of being attracted to the city life of Salt Lake City and the Mormon experience of Brigham Young University, my mind wondered about what the mountainous knolls, canyons, forests, water and wildlife of the Manti-La Sal National Forest and surrounding public lands looked and felt like. I could only envision inhaling the fresh air.
Then last summer came. I was hired by the Grand Canyon Trust and Utah Diné Bikéyah to tell the story about the efforts of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which I learned about from being a reporter with the Navajo Times. While at the base of the Bears Ears Buttes last July, I listened to and talked with cultural leaders from the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni people, who told how they continue to harvest medicine, pick herbs and minerals, hunt, perform ceremonies and issue offerings at designated places in the Bears Ears region.
Witnessing wildlife, including deer, come toward our campsite and listening to the Bear Dance songs by Ute Mountain Ute healers showed the connection between cultural leaders and Native families that want Bears Ears protected. Evidence of an indigenous footprint is obvious; more than 100,000 archaeological sites that date over 12,000 years reveal this history. Unfortunately, these cultural artifacts are being desecrated, looted and disrespected by non-Natives who see these sacred items as cash profits. Ongoing threats come from natural resource exploitation of the oil and gas and uranium industries and the environmental degradation of overgrazing by ranchers and all-terrain vehicles. This cultural landscape needs protection.
When I had my epiphany in that red Jeep, I never thought I would visit the Bears Ears in so many ways—documenting the July celebration of the coalition, camping, flying in a small aircraft and learning the healing powers of this nearly untouched landscape, Hozho, or there is beauty, in the Navajo tongue.
I also never thought I would be writing about Bears Ears thousands of miles away in my Brooklyn apartment, where I attend graduate school at New York University. The presence of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is growing in New York City. At NYU, Angelo Baca, a Navajo doctoral student in film and anthropology, has screened his 21-minute documentary about the coalition’s efforts and his family’s connection to Bears Ears.
Bears Ears will always be a significant healing space for young Navajos like me, who live in the concrete jungle that is New York City. The experience of Bears Ears will always be in my heart and mind, just as it probably is for Manuelito, the Navajo leader who encouraged Navajos like me to get an education and help our people.