The sacred site where nomads once hunted woolly mammoths and Native Americans survived the Long Walk is under siege from the federal government
Spring 1973: My first glimpse of the Bears Ears country was a revelation.
Every square foot of earth has its own compulsive magic, Lawrence Durrell once wrote.
Here in the lost dry canyon country of Southern Utah was the absolute living proof, with enough square footage to reach the vanishing point of the western horizon, as far as the eye could see, extending even beyond the eye’s imagination.
My friend and I had just driven up the switchbacks out of Paradox Valley in the corner of southwestern Colorado, and we were gazing across into Utah. Well, the road map said it was Utah, but that was clearly wrong. This country before us didn’t belong to the 20th century, the Industrial Age, the Beehive State … it lay in a kind of Altered State, the zone the experts relegate to dreams, hallucinations and visions.
We had reached a kind of frontier in space and time, and we were gazing down into the very bedrock of North America, a petrified world of towers, domes, minarets, mazes, abysses, with mountains like the Abajos, La Sals and Henrys rearing up here and there, and roan cliffs topped by bone-white mesas without names.
Over the following decades, my friends and I spend months, whole seasons, lost years’ worth of timeless time roaming the Cedar Mesa/Bears Ears country, from Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River in the south, to the Abajo Mountains and Indian Creek to the north, and west to the Escalante canyons.
After a time, the landscape seems to hear our voices and footsteps, our scrambling descents into lost sepulchers, the paddle and splash of our rafts and kayaks down remote river gorges; the earth here listens, and sometimes replies.
One winter evening, hiking alone down Kane Gulch to its junction with the main canyon, I find myself standing in the trail facing Junction Ruin, an ancient Anasazi village site perched on the side of the opposite cliff. The shadows are deepening, and it is getting cold. I consider where to make camp and how to conjure a campfire out of sticks and shreds of bark when a strange thought comes to me out of nowhere. “I wish I would see an owl,” I hear myself say aloud.
A moment later, a shadow emerges from the ghostly riprap walls of the ruin and flies toward me, swift as an arrow. I stand there transfixed as an owl, silent as sleep, grazes my forehead then vanishes behind me up the gulch. Something drifts down in its wake and lands near my feet: a Great Horned Owl’s feather from one of the bird’s great wings, a feather barred dark on white, to mingle with moonlight, starlight and shadow. Great Horned Owl, Né’éshjaá in Navajo language.
PAST AS MYSTERY
We are just strangers, trespassers here, no matter what we believe. Some 30,000 years ago, Neolithic nomads hunted wooly mammoths in this place and in the neighboring mountains. It was a wetter, richer world, watered by the shrinking glaciers; some of their major kill sites have been unearthed as far away as Aspen. They pressure-flaked elegant points and tools and may have lived in pit houses, or as likely moved from camp to camp. To anthropologists, they are a koan, wrapped in a riddle and bound in musk ox twine: a complete mystery. We do not know their lives in detail.
They were part of the great wave of wandering hunters, people from Central Asia and Siberia who crossed the Bering land bridge into an unpopulated New World, walking eventually to South America, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.
A LIVING LANDSCAPE
Jump ahead 2,000 years. The landscape had become drier, much as it is today, and the Anasazi, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo tribes, were struggling to survive, farming despite fickle springs, rainfalls and snowmelts, hunting in the wilderness. In this place, they prospered for a while and then vanished.
On the constant edge of survival, they found time to create breathtaking art on pottery and on the rock landscape itself, before a mega-drought and the resulting wars over dwindling resources drove them out.
The greatest art gallery in North America lies under southern Utah. Follow a crooked crevice into a shadowy niche and there, pecked in the rock, is a school of tadpoles that almost wiggle as you watch them. You think, tadpoles, in the desert? And then you remember some rainy springtimes out here, when every tinaja and pool in the rock rang with courting frogs, and what springs like that must have meant to dry-land farmers like the Anasazi. Which also explains the shamanic figure you saw carved on a rock, a magus standing under his own private rainstorm … It must be nice, it must be nice, to have the Rain Gods on your side.
In other places across these rocks, you see snakes that turn into lightning bolts, and the fertility god Kokopelli with his humpback full of seeds and his flute and his titanic erection, and a head that sometimes sprouts antennae like a cricket, the kind that sing in the ripening corn plants.
You also discover desert big horn and elk, cranes, grizzly bear tracks, star systems, warriors holding scalps that still weep streams of tears, dancers, men with birds’ heads for bodies, and gods with no heads at all … and rows of disembodied heads wearing their enemies’ faces (or so some say).
The best of them jump out at you, like a Klee or a Picasso, from a cliff by the trail or high on a rimrock — a canvas no human has seen since the artist walked away centuries ago, thinking thoughts we can only guess.
The descendants of the Anasazi still come here on pilgrimages to their ancestral graves and holy places; they chant and burn cedar and sage at springs — still marked with the signs of the clans, two millenia old, to which they still belong, though they live in pueblos in the distant south.
This landscape is still very much alive in their spirits. And for the Utes and Navajo, who still live around here, even more so.
Mark Maryboy lives in Montezuma Creek, on the San Juan River, but he was actually born in the Bears Ears, on the high-forested edge of the Abajos. His family’s clan took refuge there after returning from the infamous 1864 Long Walk, where those alive after Kit Carson’s ethnic cleansing campaign across Navajo country were forced into exile at Bosque Redondo. Close to a third of the exiles died before the rest straggled home.
Maryboy, now in his 50s, has seen his life begin with the Bears Ears and return there. When we meet at the Twin Rocks Trading Post cafe in the little town of Bluff, I remind him that we met 30 odd years ago, when he first ran for election for San Juan County commissioner. Back then, gerrymandering and deliberate voter suppression had denied the county’s Navajos, half of the county’s population, any say in the political system they lived under.
It took courage for him to run; during his election campaign, I clearly remember overhearing local sheriff’s deputies in a Bluff cafe talk about lynching the young man after Maryboy announced his candidacy. When I ask him about it today, he just laughs. He is still tough as saddle leather, rides broncos on the Navajo Nation rodeo circuit, and keeps up a sheep camp south by Red Mesa, when he isn’t running his consulting business out of Montezuma Creek.
Maryboy’s people have always been leaders. His family are related to the legendary Navajo hero Manuelito. When they returned from the Long Walk, the family deliberately chose to settle next to Bears Ears, away from the U.S. government’s representatives in the central part of the reservation. Reminiscing about his forebears, he mentions in particular his great grandfather, Owl, who seems to have been preternaturally wise and strong. Maryboy’s grandfather became a member of the Navajo Tribal Council, representing the Navajo north of the San Juan. The council met at the tribal capital in Window Rock, N.M., and every month for years he rode his horse 159 miles south to Window Rock and 159 miles home when the meetings were over.
When he was 6 years old, Maryboy’s family was living across the San Juan from Bluff when word came that Bobby Kennedy was coming through Bluff. His uncle walked with him across the river on the old wooden footbridge.
Somehow, the little boy ended up face to face with the fiery young barnstormer, and something passed between them — perhaps it was the beginning of the awakening of Maryboy’s rare talent, to think locally and globally, across cultural and racial barriers, at the same time.
Later, as the lone Navajo on the three-person San Juan County Commission, he was continually subjected to a campaign of racial insults and slurs from the other two commissioners, both white Mormon not-so-good old boys. He doesn’t go into detail about what he was subjected to except to say, with a rueful smile, “It was bad.”
Maryboy, brilliant but shy, was raised to be polite and deferential to strangers. Lost in the nakedly intolerant world of southeast Utah politics — San Juan County has been called “the most racist county in America” — it was difficult for him to say what was on his mind and in his heart.
Finally, in desperation, he went to see the foremost of the local hatali (the word is customarily translated as “Singers,” but they are really healers — of people and the world around them). The Singer used crystals as divining rods to diagnose what was freezing Maryboy’s tongue in his mouth. After using the appropriate medicine to cure him, he told Maryboy he had given him the courage to speak out and the skill to use it.
From then on, Maryboy openly battled his opponents on the commission, giving as good as he got.
Eloquence and wit are two of the Navajos’ most striking characteristics, in my observation. When I was a young grad student, working on the reservation, I stopped once at a trading post. A 40ish Navajo in a cowboy hat and dusty jeans stopped me in the aisle.
“Poor Elvis,” he said sadly. The King had been dead for decades, but I agreed, yes.
It was sad. He looked me in the eye pityingly and nodded, “Elvis and Hitler, the White Man’s greatest leaders — dead!” This last word intoned almost like a moan and, shaking his head mournfully, he turned and walked away. I could almost hear the laughter bubbling deep inside him.
Beginning in 2010, Navajos living in southeastern Utah began evolving a plan for a national monument to protect the area. Maryboy and a group of other Navajos interviewed dozens of tribal elders and collected a great trove of traditional stories confirming the long Navajo connection with the land, how its geography is woven into the tribe’s religion. Over the following years, a coalition of Native American tribes with religious and cultural ties to Cedar Mesa, the Abajos, the Escalante Canyons, including the Utes, Hopis, Zunis and one or two Rio Grande pueblos, began recording their own connections to the area.
In 2014, San Juan County, where most of the monument would be located, inaugurated a 45-day public comment period. The result: 65 percent of respondents favored the monument. In response, county commissioner Phil Lyman celebrated his 50th birthday by leading an armed corps of followers on ATVs on an illegal gathering in Recapture Wash, one of the most important Anasazi sites still revered by modern Puebloans. He was tossed in jail for his crime; he and his followers remained unrepentant.
Despite everything, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition presented its plan for the monument to President Barack Obama on Oct. 15, 2015. The proposed monument would protect the 1.35 million acres, its breathtaking landscapes, its ancient art and architecture and its countless living religious sites, from the threat of further damage and destruction. It would be a different kind of park, one that would preserve Native American religious and cultural rights while preserving the non-mechanized wilderness recreation opportunities for hikers, river rafters, rock climbers and wanderers.
It was a marvelously original concept: The Park Service and the Native American tribes would jointly administer it, with the public’s right to revel in beauty and the Native Americans’ right to religious freedom both guaranteed in perpetuity.
The Obama Administration strongly supported the idea, and on Dec. 28, 2016, by executive proclamation, it formally announced the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument. But then the dream froze in space, where it remains.
Utah politicians tend to loathe wilderness (even though, ironically, their state thrives on it). As soon as the national political scene changed, they seized their chance.
On Dec. 4, 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump announced that Bears Ears National Monument would be downsized by 85 percent – more than a million acres, reducing it to 201,876 acres in two enclaves dozens of miles apart. The executive order would open up the rest of this most splendid territory to oil and potash mining, not to mention uncontrolled off-road hot rodding and the inevitable looting of archeological sites.
Currently, the fate of Bears Ears is tied up in a tangle of court cases, its future in doubt. No one knows how long the process will take, nor how it will end. On one side are the usual suspects, led by the oil companies and mining industries and their lobbyists and political allies — a powerful cabal, especially in today’s political climate.
But the other side is strong, and getting stronger: It now includes environmental groups like The Wilderness Society, the leaders of the outdoor industry, led by Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia, and Native American tribes all across the country. Even the United Nations Human Rights Council has issued a statement supporting the monument on the grounds of religious freedom.
One longtime San Juan River guide, a belagona with the heart of a Navajo, asked: “If they’re going to start tearing down people’s holy places, why don’t they start with the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City?”
Indeed, the Bears Ears case may compel the courts to resolve a question as ancient as America: If a people’s holiest sites are mountains, lakes or mesas, aren’t they due the same respect as man-made shrines, the cathedrals and mosques of other faiths?