This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As political rhetoric by Utah's political elite reaches a fever pitch, it's more important than ever to sit down and share the origin story of Bears Ears National Monument as we address even larger challenges ahead in San Juan County. By learning from our past, we can all come to understand where we are headed on this path of healing.
Back in 2009 when I was a county commissioner of San Juan County, the FBI conducted a sting operation in Blanding, netting the largest archaeological grave-robbing bust in U.S. history. Forty-thousand Native American artifacts were ultimately seized (many from the Bears Ears region) and 17 Blanding residents arrested in a raid that shook our whole county.
My Navajo relatives and Ute friends were shocked that our non-Native neighbors continued to desecrate our holy places and rob the gravesites of our ancestors, despite previous arrests. We could never imagine treating a pioneer cemetery in such a way, or secretly stealing objects from another faith's temple. We couldn't believe such offenses were still being committed in the 21st century.
As Native people of southeastern Utah, we had watched our sacred sites be looted for more than a century. Enough was enough. The following year, we formed Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) and began recording the traditional knowledge of our elders, using western science and technology to map areas of cultural and ecological significance. We went hogan-to-hogan listening to stories, and what emerged became the Bears Ears National Monument proposal. We brought a solution to the table in the form of protecting Bears Ears as a National Conservation Area or National Monument.
Fast-forward five years during which time we had held meetings with every level of government in Utah and in D.C., convening hundreds of meetings at chapter houses, county courthouses and at the state Capitol. We traveled more than 225,000 miles throughout the Four Corners region by car and visited D.C. eight times. Still we had gotten nowhere with the Utah congressional delegation and Gov. Gary Herbert, who insisted county leadership remained in the hands of Commissioner Phil Lyman.
It was then that UDB turned to our sovereign tribal nations to lead the call for protection of Bears Ears. Five tribes joined together in an unprecedented way to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The tribal nations of Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Uinta Ouray Ute, and Zuni put past differences aside to unite around the common cause of protecting the Bears Ears region and honoring Native cultures.
When tribes unveiled the Bears Ears National Monument proposal in fall of 2015, Utah's congressional delegation finally requested meetings, but failed to listen or comprehend what tribes were seeking. One year ago, tribes stood together and asked President Obama to act.
Every day in 2016, the Utah delegation tried to run out the clock on the Obama administration, continually promising a legislative solution to protect Bears Ears, yet failing to include tribes at every stage. Utah representatives delayed and moved deadlines back until Congress finally adjourned last month without action. Only then did President Obama pick up his pen in response to our request. Now the Utah delegation labels Bears Ears a "midnight monument" and threatens to undo it, when in reality Obama gave the Utah congressional delegation every chance to lead.
As we look ahead in San Juan County, Native Americans face the greatest challenges of any population in the state of Utah with the highest unemployment and poverty rates, the lowest educational achievement scores, and the greatest obstacles for shaping our future. Local Native Americans have deep knowledge of Utah lands, as well as visionary solutions to bring to the table to address these challenges. Yet we lack a pathway within Utah to be heard. Now is the time for true leaders to step forward, to put politics aside, and to hear our long-silenced voices.
Gov. Herbert and the Utah delegation, we plead that you stop attacking Bears Ears and stop discrediting Utah's Native American leaders. Native American citizens in San Juan County are ready to craft a future together in the place we have always called home, and we must ensure the next chapter is about healing. The Bears Ears National Monument can be a great thing for all Americans, but only if we realize its potential together.
Kenneth Maryboy is president-elect of the Mexican Water Chapter House and president of the Navajo Medicine Man Association.