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What I Learned at Bears Ears

Two iconic buttes punctuating 1.9 million acres of awesome. The Bears Ears National Monument as proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition stretches from outside Canyonlands National Park south to the Navajo Nation, and though I’d camped, hiked, and driven through the area, I’d never been up to the Bears Ears Buttes themselves. Perched atop what seems an emerging bear’s head and standing high above Natural Bridges National Monument, the Bears Ears are visible for miles into New Mexico and Arizona. And I got to spend three days in their shadow with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, exploring, wondering, and talking about how books can make a difference in the fight to save sacred landscapes.

I had been invited by Torrey House Press board member and former Great Old Broads associate director Rose Chilcoat, to speak to a group of Broads during their service/adventure camp-out at the Bears Ears. Headquartered in Durango, Colorado, The Great Old Broads for Wilderness advocates for saving and enjoying wild places, and nearly sixty Broads—and a handful of Bros—braved the chilly nights at 8500 feet to learn more about the natural and cultural treasures around the Bears Ears and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s work to protect it from numerous threats as a national monument. That’s where I came in. Torrey House Press is working on two book projects to support the Coalition’s efforts: Red Rock Testimony: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’ Public Lands and Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears. Pink clouds rose behind the buttes and the fire crackled. I’d worked for months with powerful words about this place, many from Native writers, and now I was bringing them home, looking for the right passages to help introduce the speakers we’d be hearing from, hoping the poems and prose would convey the sacred I felt in the Ponderosa, sage, and sandstone that these dozens of authors seek to protect.

The night was closing in cool and we huddled, standing closer to the fire and each other. Jonah Yellowman, Navajo Spiritual Advisor for Utah Diné Bikéyah would be our first speaker. I’d just read his wonderful interview with Edge of Morning editor Jacqueline Keeler, and had been thrilled to get to talk with him and Jackie earlier in the summer. Jonah has been working to protect Bears Ears far longer than I have and with a generations-long connection to its wonders that engulfs my own experience here. Now I had words to choose. I paged through Red Rock Testimony in the flickering light of the fire. Who better than the Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation to gather the circle to Jonah.

The Holy People lived here in the beginning.

They built the first hooghan, made the first weapon,

sang the first songs and made the first prayers.

Diné language, ceremonies,

history, and beliefs began here.

This is where we began.

~Luci Tapahonso

And Jonah took it from there, telling us how he was raised to know the herbs and medicines, insects and deer, winds and trees, buttes and washes, through stories told over and over, showing him that everything is alive, everything related to him. His words soothed and swirled and his silences held their space. A woman asked how he handled the hostility that has been directed towards him and the Coalition. He smiled and told us again how he was raised to understand the plants and creatures and places, to speak each of their names, to honor and use them and not cause them harm. Knowledge and stories. Of course. The deepest strength comes from these, and from there so much is possible.


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