Organized by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the gathering is designed to build support to restore Bears Ears National Monument to its original 1.35 million-acres.
The five tribes involved in the Inter-Tribal Coalition have met at the meadow each summer for the past four years. Organizers state the initial gathering, held in July 2015, was instrumental in developing support for the designation of Bears Ears.
President Barack Obama created the massive monument in December, 2016. Less than one year later, President Donald Trump shrunk the boundaries of the original monument by 85 percent.
The Inter-Tribal Coalition is one of a large number of tribes and organizations that have filed lawsuits in opposition to Trump’s action.
Organizers report that the crowd had a good experience at the gathering, with a variety of activities.
They add that there was some harassment of participants by opponents of the expanded monument, including stolen signs and verbal harassment.
They also allege that law enforcement officials – “the county” according to a spokesman – set up a speed trap and handed out warnings on Comb Ridge on the last day of the event.
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge strongly denies there was a speed trap and would like to know what police vehicle was stopping vehicles.
Eldredge reports that he was in contact with participants leading up to the event. “There was law enforcement coverage in the area,” said Eldredge, “but we didn’t drive into the middle of their gathering in a high profile.”
In the days leading up to the gathering, Mary Jane Yazzie of the Ute Mountain Ute journeyed more than 1,200 miles from the Pacific Northwest to Bears Ears with a nine-foot, one-ton Bear Totem Pole.
Carved by of the House of Tears, the Bear Totem Pole is a Lummi Nation gift to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes the Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Navajo Nation.
Navajo Nation Councilman Davis Filfred and Regina Whiteskunk-Lopez, a former member of the Ute Mountain Ute Council, received the gift on behalf of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
This exchange between the Lummi Nation and the tribes of the Bears Ears region inspired Yazzie to go on the thousand-mile healing journey.
“You can feel the blessing it is giving you and your family,” said Yazzie. Yazzie, a Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) board member, traveled with Braidan Weeks of UDB.
After making a quick stop at the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City, Yazzie and Weeks traveled to the Bears Ears for the summer gathering.
The gathering is designed to celebrate cultures, share stories, and expand learning across generations and between the five tribes of the Inter-Tribal Coalition. Organizers say the pinnacle of the event was the arrival of the totem gift on Friday.
The Bear Totem stands eleven feet tall in the shape of a bear. Organizers state it represents the unity of tribes across the country to see Bears Ears National Monument restored to its full size and purpose.
Zachariah George was invited to bless himself by touching it, and at the same time, instilling his own prayer in it to increase the totem’s power.
George, known as “Mr. Navajo,” said the summer gathering was a powerful experience for him and his grandparents.
“It was my first time there, and it was really inspiring. It was filled with blessings and the celebration of indigenous lands,” George said. “The whole Bears Ears Summer Gathering was wonderful. It was like one big family!”
Friday was Diné day, Saturday was Ute day, and Sunday was Pueblo day, when each tribe shared its cultural foods, songs, dances, stories, and languages. Workshops were led for youth and attendees to learn activities such as beading, yarn making, wild food foraging, and soap making.
Kevin Madalena, UDB Cultural Resources Coordinator, led a dinosaur walk. Amanda Blackhorse, who is the lead plaintiff in the anti-mascot suit against the Washington Redskins, led a group exercise designed to “help attendees heal from historical trauma.”
Educational programs include a talk on uranium exposure in local communities by Tommy Rock. Kate Magargal provided updates on University of Utah firewood research.
Cynthia Wilson talked about traditional foods. A training led by Angelo Baca and Alastair Bitsóí discussed how to engage Native communities.
Indigenous chefs Karlos Baca and Joshua Nez prepared mutton, bison, and delicious side dishes entirely with pre-colonial ingredients.
A 5K and 10K race was held after sunrise on Sunday, with more than 120 participants.
Runners ran toward the sun toward the Arch Canyon overlook and returned along the back of the bear toward the “Ears” on the horizon. The race attracted runners from all over the Four Corners region.
Kabah Bitsóí, of Naschitti, NM, said visiting Bears Ears over the weekend helped her connect to nature.
“It was cool to connect with nature instead of cyberspace,” she said, explaining she drove over 100 miles to Bears Ears with her siblings. “I did not know Bears Ears itself had so many stories to it, and I think that makes it so special.”
Yazzie, like her ancestors before her, blessed and stood close to the Bear Totem for strength. She believes it is the culture of the tribes of the Bears Ears region and the support of sister tribes like the Lummi Nation that will heal and restore Bears Ears National Monument.
The totem will find a temporary home at the Southern Ute Museum in Ignacio, CO.