For as long as Navajo healer Jonah Yellowman can remember – “all the way back to Creation” – southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears region has been central to the culture and religion of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Indian tribe, and Ute Mountain Ute people. Its tens of thousands of archeological sites date back 13,000 years.
“It’s sacred land,” said Yellowman, spiritual adviser to Utah Dine Bikeyah, a nonprofit organization working to protect the region’s cultural and natural resources.
“Our ancestors are buried there. There are petroglyphs and stone markings there. We even have ancient sweat lodges and hogans,” referencing Navajo traditional wood and mud dwellings still used today for religious ceremonies.
“Bears Ears is where we gather herbs for medicine and for our ceremonies. And it’s where we get the firewood that we use to heat our homes in winter,” he said.
In 2016, after intense lobbying by environmentalists and tribes, then-President Barack Obama proclaimed the Bears Ears National Monument and established a commission of tribal representatives to consult with the government on how the land should be used.
For more than a century, however, the region has also been home to non-Native farmers and ranchers who depend on Bears Ears for water and grazing their livestock.