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Op-ed: Bears Ears is a place for healing, not conflict

The Bears Ears, of Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.
The Bears Ears, of Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Native American voices in San Juan County are seldom heard by Utah’s elected officials. Reportedly, everyone agrees that protection and co-management are necessary for Bears Ears. So, we wonder why those leaders so fiercely attack Bears Ears National Monument when they have not identified a single acre as undeserving of protection?

In fact, Utah’s political elite convinced President Barack Obama to remove 560,000 acres of the proposal to set aside for potash, oil and gas, and even uranium mining, even though local Native Americans view mining here as a threat, not a desirable outcome for our future.

Utah Diné Bikéyah decided in 2011 that the effort to protect Bears Ears must be rooted in the concept of healing. We refuse to engage in a warfare mentality because there are no losers in our vision, just greater opportunities for moving forward together. Native Americans and protected lands will not harm the future of Utah, and both should be embraced.

Our proposal emerged from the land and our elders, not from anywhere else. The five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition all lived here at different times and we respect their wisdom and insight for the region. UDB spent three years engaging thousands of leaders, elders and community members from all ten Native communities in San Juan County, prior to the five Tribes taking the reins. We did what the local communities asked of us, which is why most Native American county residents support the monument.

Like most Utahns, Native Americans have a close relationship to the land and believe that local people are its best stewards. The creation of Bears Ears National Monument gives Native Americans hope for a future that is inclusive of our voice, our traditional practices, our stewardship values and our prayers. UDB engaged with Utah officials throughout this process, and we are ready to meet for the next phase of planning when politicians are ready to put their weapons down. We recognize that the greatest ideas for our future can only emerge from a vision that we craft together as neighbors and we ask that the monument be part of that plan.

Bears Ears is not a power grab or a poke in the eye to anyone. It is our sacred place that we use every day. It is a place we go for healing and a place to share with all. Our desire as Native people is for the conservation of these lands, for the preservation of our cultural heritage, for sustainable economic development and for the achievement of land stewardship that is driven by local people.

Interestingly, several months ago, at the peak of the Bears Ears debate, I asked one leader from Aneth who was opposed to Bears Ears National Monument, what he would like to see happen there if he had his way. After some thought, he said, “I would really like to see an area set aside as a place where everyone can go to pray.” I laughed with him as I told him this is the very thing Bears Ears represents to all Native Americans. Prayer is an ideal we can all aim for.

Native Americans in San Juan County know firsthand what the worst kind of oppression feels like, but even though we are the majority in San Juan County we do not intend to inflict these wounds onto non-native people. It is true that the local grocer still represents an economy that conflicts with our traditional economy, and the white ranchers do have rights that prevent our sheep from grazing on our lands, and the preacher still tells us to reject our traditional beliefs. However, we do not seek to eliminate differences or control local politics, but rather to be respected, to be heard and to be understood. Native Americans have many contributions to make in Utah, but we have never been given an opportunity to sit at the table.

For some San Juan County residents, oppression may feel like Obama using the Antiquities Act to listen to Tribes, but for most Native Americans, oppression feels like walking out of our Hogan doors and having nowhere to turn for hope. Bears Ears gives us hope. It also gives us peace, tranquility and a place to pray for our future.

I ask my fellow Utahns, if you will please come and pray with us and help us convince President Trump to not take Bears Ears away from us.

Willie Grayeyes is board chair of Utah DinÉ BikÉyah.