Ancient Art Under Threat at Bears Ears

February 7, 2018

By: ArtPlace America

Last year, we had the privilege of working with Utah Diné Bikéyah as they partnered with five Native tribes on the project ‘Traditional Arts of Bears Ears- Hopi, Zuni, Dine, and Ute.’

The project aims to promote a sustainable economic future in San Juan County, UT through culture, community, and the arts. Their work is in supporting community dialogues around a future not dependent on extractive resource development, that is instead driven by local sustainable economic solutions and the strengths of the diverse Native American Tribes who live or share ancestry to San Juan County. 

Utah Diné Bikéyah’s goal is to highlight the connections of local people to the natural environment, connect people to each other, and influence local, state, and federal policies to better reflect the county make-up and protect cultural assets for generations to come. The Bears Ears Monument, which President Barack Obama signed into protection just last year, is under attack by the current administration, with 85% slated for removal from monument status. Soon after the announcement, five Native American tribes sued the administration, arguing that it was 'attempting to, in effect, abolish the Bears Ears National Monument. Important art, artifacts and sacred lands have been left out of the new monument boundaries, leaving the sites more vulnerable to development, looting, and other threats. Several more lawsuits have since been filed by conservation, historical and outdoor industry groups. One young person from the Utah Diné Bikéyah Facebook page said ‘ I am a Native American. I am from the Navajo Nation. I am honestly heartbroken that Trump is going to take away a sacred landscape that our people treasure. I am 16 years old. How will my future end up? Where are my people going to end up?‘

We talked to Gavin Noyes the Executive Director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, who is also one of the groups suing the administration about how their project is facing down these issues.

“We’ve known this was coming, it’s been a really prolonged issue.  That political environment has made it almost impossible to directly engage the people fighting this the hardest but I will say that the support for the work we are doing has grown dramatically. This year we sponsored two artists to come work with us. We wanted to introduce to a Utah non-Native audience the richness and perspectives of the native communities so people can understand the importance of what is at stake.  On a recent five-month residency with us, filmmaker Alisha Anderson shot a series of films about tribal connections to the Bears Ears National Monument. This video features Diné’s spiritual advisor, Jonah Yellowman, speaking about how he connects to nature. Alisha took Jonah’s direction on how to pray down to mother earth, instead of up to a creator. She took the nuggets of truth, she finds what is true, and opens them up for people. She’s very good at helping others see and understand that perspective.  We’ve done 5 screenings in the last 6 weeks, bringing in Tribal leaders to facilitate.

The other artists that have been here for 3 months now are Fazel Sheikh an NYC photographer famous for landscapes and portraits partnered with the author Terry Tempest Williams. Together they produced a publication called ‘Exposure’, which we are distributing at all of our gatherings. It states “It is a dirty politics that is being played out now by the Trump administration, hell bent on destroying two of America’s historic national monuments located in the red rock desert of Utah. Morning Consult’s “Energy Brief” reports: “The reduction would open hundreds of thousands of acres of land for oil and gas exploration and other uses that are blocked by the monument status…” We the People, who recognize these lands as a “Geography of Hope,” believe public lands belong to all people for all time. ”

"Through arts, culture and community we are trying to make sense of the political context of what tribes’ experience in this place. People are working closely in communities- through meetings they've identified what are they ways in which Native Americans view the land, resources, arts, economy, and we are working out how we can we explain that so that non-Native people can understand it. We’ve been testing some ideas- this has relevance across all Native cultures were working with.

We’re trying to create a model where we can show the direct Native American connections to the land. It's a relationship, it’s viewing everything around us as relatives, as non-human persons where you do everything in community. It's recognizing that the herb, the deer, the tree, the rock, is a non-human person with particular power. You may be asking it for permission to heal you, and in turn you are gifting a song, water, something it needs. If you do it the right way, you create harmony and balance. We call it ‘person powered gift in place’ and we are encouraging wild food collectors, artists, and herbalists, in the region to understand and begin to translate it for others.

Through the leadership of the Tribes, we as a community of protectors will prevail. The Elders remind us that this can no longer be about anger, but healing."