Behind the Bear's Ears

Ancient wisdom for our future world

We just got back from two weeks camping in the Bear’s Ears region of southern Utah. For those who have not yet had the great fortune to visit the Utah desert, it is a wildness difficult to imagine.

The landscape is dominated by fortresses of red cliffs. Spiny, towering rock monuments pierce through sagebrush plains. Some look like giant people, frozen into the fabric of the land. An occasional creak of ravens’ wings echoes off of water-sculpted canyon walls. Ancient fossilized sand dunes roll underfoot, decorated with intermittent, flamboyant collared lizards. Risking stunning cliché, yes, wild horses actually romp and play.

Bear’s Ears became a national monument during last gasps of 2016. About a month later, one of the first acts of the new president was to slash its size by 85 percent. Before then, Bear’s Ears was largely unknown to the rest of the country. Now it is the poster child for human conflict over land use; a confluence of oilmen, cattlemen, hikers, politicians, off-roaders, grandstanders, conservationists, miners, clothing manufacturers, river rafters, town planners, hotel owners, and archaeologists. Oh yeah, and Native Americans, who might finally have a proper seat at the planning table thanks to our new Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, whose Laguna Puebloan ancestry is tied to the area.

To the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and other peoples, southern Utah is sacred ancestral land. The canyons and mesas of the area are rich with ancient dwellings, but it’s not just those that are holy. It’s all of the land, plants, cedars, herbs, cliffs, hawks, snakes, and rivers. Hopi and Zuni ancestors likely moved to the area in Paleolithic times. That means the roofs of some sandstone alcoves have been blackened by at least 10,000 years of human campfires. When agriculture became a thing, the ancestral Puebloans settled down and started building. Their populations in just southeastern Utah numbered in the hundreds of thousands (a stark contrast to San Juan County’s current population of 28,000).

Based on what we can surmise from archaeological evidence and ancestral stories, it was pretty peaceful through most of time. But in the late 1200s, something changed. The rains became weak. The springs dried up. A long-lasting drought made crops more sparse. With thinning resources, dwellings became more fortified. More defensive. Peace turned into turmoil, and eventually the Pueblo cultures migrated south to New Mexico and Arizona.

The bighorn sheep, spotted rock squirrels, and yucca blooms remained behind.

A hundred or two years later is when we think the Utes rolled in, though they could have been there all the while. Just a bit later, the Navajo, or Diné, arrived, finally working their way down from the northern tundras. In the 1600s, the ancient dwellings were “discovered” by the Spanish, and then “discovered” again in the 1850s. It wasn’t long after that that white settlers decided they wanted to own the land, and not share it, and so began the mass slaughter of the Navajo and Ute, with survivors being condemned to concentration camps out of state.

Petroglyph panel near our camp. Elsewhere on this wall is a mammoth, which means people were carving here for at least 10,000 years. Photo Steve Alberts.

Like most of the West, Bear’s Ears is a strikingly beautiful place with a terrible black spot on its past. But perhaps we’re learning. Steve and I were very much uplifted when we ran into an archeological team comprised largely of cheery Zuni men, helping to preserve their ancestral sites and translate some of the petroglyph and pictograph symbols, the meanings of which had been handed down to them through many generations.

We couldn’t help but think about how the demise of the ancestral Puebloans in Bear’s Ears is a daunting parallel to our current trajectory. The West is in an ever-worsening drought, with no end in sight. Climate change is shifting the weather patterns across our country’s farmlands. Presumably, as our resources dwindle, our lives will become more defensive. Our walls will get bigger. Our weapons more numerous. This age of relative peace and comfort that many of us have enjoyed during recent decades may very well be coming to an end.

Or maybe it’s possible to imagine ourselves into a different outcome.

We know that we have to change our baseline, if we are to mend our broken relationship with the earth and one another. We will have to rethink everything, from how we live, to how we travel, to the very structure of our society. That takes a lot of imagination. Imagination we better start using now, so we have a clearer vision of the new baselines we want to create.

In my imagination, I see us no longer claiming dominion over the land. We humans take so much. I see us fixing that by regaining a sense of sacredness. By seeing the land and waters, plants and animals as an extension of us, and us of them.

I see us ceasing our glorification of money. Without the money deity, caring for our parents, or volunteering in a community garden would be a more honorable way to spend our days than being the leader of a multinational corporation.

I see our children understanding that greed and ecocide are not okay. Even better, I see them living in a world where those are not the norm. A world where the self-indulgent no longer call the shots.

Handprints. This particular site has dozens of them. They come in all sizes, but most of them appear to be children’s. Photo Steve Alberts.

Maybe we can redefine wealth as a clean river teeming with fish, rather than a vacation home in Jackson Hole. Maybe we can move into the future by taking down all of the cattlemen’s fences, instead of forever fortifying our homes.

The San Juan River, seen here outside of Bear’s Ears at Goosenecks State Park, needs many more protections. It is deluged with mining and agricultural waste. But it is still beautiful. Note the particularly precarious modern-day fire ring.

I further imagine us disassembling those artificial gods that we’ve created, concepts like stock markets, GDPs, and even countries. It’s feels almost impossible to imagine a world with no countries, or maybe it’s easy if you try. If you haven’t heard it in a while, it’s worth a listen.

For too long we’ve hung our beliefs on concepts that aren’t important, or downright ridiculous, like a growth economy. Health, community, love, family, nature, peace, laughter — and time enough to fully participate in each of those — that feels essential. More essential than Wall Street.

These days, it seems that the world has fully tipped into crazy-town. But for conservationists, and surely for Native Americans, our modern world has always seemed haywire. An insane uphill battle against forces of ignorance and destruction. But now, now there is momentum. Now there is a whole world watching, and most of a world wanting to help. Now, just when everything looks the bleakest, is there actually hope for deeply meaningful change.

And so the moral of this story is… if you ever get the chance to go to Bear’s Ears, don’t turn it down.

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