Women of Bears Ears Speak ~ NYT

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By Elouise Wilson, Mary R. Benally, Ahjani Yepa and Cynthia Wilson

The authors are among the founding members of WomenOfBearsEars.org, which supports restoration of Bears Ears National Monument.

  • April 25, 2021

We are among the Women of Bears Ears — Indigenous women who support our families and communities in the protections of ancestral lands. We come from Diné, Nuche, Pueblo and other allied Native Nations. From these Southwestern lands, twin buttes rise; they are known as Bears Ears.

We have been birthed into these lands. The umbilical cords of our ancestors are buried here. Our genealogies are intertwined.

Elouise Wilson.
Elouise Wilson. Credit…Rachael Cassells

Our clans are passed on through our mothers. We are matrilineal societies that carry the bloodlines of our people. The Clan Mothers have always tended to the landscapes that gave them birth for hundreds of generations. Our ancestors are rooted here. We are grounded here.

Bears Ears is listening.

This month, the new interior secretary, Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo, came to Bears Ears National Monument to listen to the voices of those who live in the shadow of Bears Ears, Native and nonnative alike.

President Biden has asked her to examine the December 2017 decision by his predecessor, Donald Trump, to slash by 85 percent the size of Bears Ears and open significant parts of it up to fossil fuel development and other uses. A year earlier, President Barack Obama set aside this land as a national monument. The question is fundamental to who we are: Will sacred lands protected by Mr. Obama through proclamation be protected once again?

Secretary Haaland has been here before. These lands are sacred to her people, too. She is the first Indigenous woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States government. She made a promise to listen to Western science, but also honor the nation-to-nation relationship between the U.S. government and the tribes that were here long before the government.

When the land calls — you answer.

When your mother calls — you answer.

As Women of Bears Ears, we gather together because our voices have not been heard. We recognize Secretary Haaland as a matriarch of our ancestral lands. We will answer her call with respect. As Indigenous women, it gives us hope knowing our responsibilities to Mother Earth are being taken seriously. Ahjani Yepa from the Pueblo of Jemez welcomed the secretary in her native Towa language. Cynthia Wilson from Diné presented her with the Four Corners potato, Solanum jamesii, which has been nourishing Pueblo ancestors for millenniums in the shadow of Bears Ears.

Mary R. Benally. Credit…Rachael Cassells

Secretary Haaland said to us, President Biden must “get this right.”

Our histories run deep. We relate to these lands who are alive. We know the names of the mountains, plants and animals who teach us everything we need to know to survive. We have within our cultures a familial bond. We know these lands as a mother knows her child, as a child knows her mother.

Indigenous women worldwide know where the sacred springs are; where the plants necessary for food and medicines are found; and the animals who instruct us. The women hold this traditional knowledge and pass it on to their children.

Culturally, Native American women are held in high esteem and are looked to for security, stability and sovereignty of soul. We plan and make decisions for our communities guided by mothers and knowledge holders. The women of the Bit’ahnii or “Folded Arms People Clan” have passed on the knowledge that when the great Diné leader Manuelito, who was born at Bears Ears in 1818, was negotiating with the U. S. military over the forced relocation of his people, he said he must first consult with the women.

Ahjani Yepa.
Ahjani Yepa. Credit…Rachael Cassells

We are praying for Bears Ears National Monument and our nonhuman relatives. It’s not just Bears Ears we are praying for. Every tribal nation relates to these sacred mountains and their own ancestral lands. We are praying for them, too.

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Please pray with us.

Please pray for us.

The mountains are reaching out to us.

The plants and animals are trying to reach us.

We are here.

It is not just for Bears Ears we pray.

We are praying for Mother Earth.

Indigenous peoples around the globe are praying.

We are here.

We are praying for our children to have strong hearts, strong minds.

And to have a good education, and to be able to go through these hard times with dignity.

We are here.

We are not a people of the past. We are born of these lands. Our grandmothers took the placentas of our mothers and offered them to the cedars, just as our umbilical cords are buried in the Earth. We are rooted to Mother Earth through her body like the plants are rooted to the soil. We gather their pollen to activate our prayers. The pollen shows us the path of our prayers.

“Tsoódilzin” in Diné language means “prayer” in English. “Tsoó” is literally translated as our tongue, and “dilzin” means upholding the utmost respect to the Holy People. When we speak, the mist from our tongue travels a long journey to the sun. We are heard and become a part of the beauty and blessings of the land and universe.

In Diné, we say: Bii’k’éh’kłool’dééh’ béé a’nee’téh.

This means: We are rooted to the embodiment of Earth.

Yes, we are rooted to Mother Earth, just as we are rooted to our mothers through the umbilical cord in her womb. Her thoughts, language, prayers, songs and stories echo through our body.

Our story of Bears Ears is a story of the female bear bringing gifts to the people, so in return we protect her with our gifts as humans by using our voice.

We want to protect Bears Ears. We want to protect these lands as they protect us.

Cynthia Wilson.
Cynthia Wilson. Credit…Cora Neumann

Elders tell us to speak of the landscape in present terms. Bears Ears is not something of the past; we are Bears Ears, you are Bears Ears. We are rooted to the land, the medicines, the water and all beings that give life. Just like the spiral pattern on our finger tips and at the top of our heads, we live life in a circular way of thinking, planning and reflecting. We are always taught to gift back as a way to renew and sustain the spiritual energy, cycle of seasons and the natural order of life.

This is what we call the rematriation of the Earth, by which we mean nurturing the cycle of life, restoring our relationships with the land and our nonhuman relatives. Opponents of the restoration of Bears Ears such as Utah Senator Mike Lee say monument designation makes local communities impoverished and threatens livelihoods.

As the Women of Bears Ears, we say, “Whose livelihoods? Our lands have been exploited and destroyed. Our homes were burned. Our elders and our children were killed. We were removed from our home ground. The history of the Long Walk remains. Our ancestors footprints remain. What livelihood?”

We are not a past people.

We are resilient and resolved.

We are here.

We are here — and we are your future.

The rematriation of these ancestral lands such as Bears Ears is a safeguard against the ecological and climate crisis. We know where the water is. We know where to find the plants and animals that have allowed us to survive. We know how to place ourselves back into the land. Rematriation is the cycle of that regeneration.

Our thoughts are woven into the fundamental laws of nature where Bears Ears is actively listening and engaging. Restoring Bears Ears National Monument would restore balance, harmony and beauty among all life. Bears Ears is not something to govern in a linear way of thinking, but a relative to be protected and taken care of in a circular way of thinking, just as our mothers taught us.

We want to tell our true narratives of the lands we are made up of to ensure our voices are included in public policy. We stand in solidarity with Secretary Haaland to empower and uplift Indigenous women, because we have been overrun and misrepresented by politicians who have failed repeatedly to protect sacred lands.

Those in Utah and this country called America, who keep digging, digging and digging for minerals and fossil fuels in search of their identity are trying to erase ours. We as Indigenous peoples are being mined as resources, the bodies of our ancestors desecrated. What we trace back to ourselves is being destroyed.

We, Indigenous women with our matriarchs, are fierce. We need to be consulted and asked for our consent before planning and developing, digging, buying and selling, leasing, drilling, fracking, mining and foresting. Our traditional knowledge is vital for the maintenance of our people and the land — we are inseparable.

We know who we are and we know where we come from.

We are here. We are here.

The plants and animals are reaching out to us.

Bears Ears is reaching out to us.

We, the Women of Bears Ears are reaching out to you. Our number includes women who must remain anonymous for their protection.

Please hear us.

When the land calls, we answer. When our mother calls, we answer.

Elouise Wilson, Mary R. Benally, Ahjani Yepa and Cynthia Wilson are among the founding members of WomenOfBearsEars.org, which supports the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument.

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