Utah Dine Bikeyah and Bears Ears- A 10 Year Healing Journey

Words Spreading Like Wildflowers

Bears Ears National Monument was created by five Tribes and a nonprofit, Utah Diné Bikéyah.Gavin Noyes

Prayer and traditional religious beliefs were primary reasons Bears Ears was protected as a National Monument in 2016. This may sound strange, since spirituality might seem too far removed from policy making. However, this topic was more carefully studied by the Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) Board than any other topic. Board Members would inquire; “Did we ask the right permissions?” “What words were uttered, exactly?” “Were the proper dates selected?” “Were phases of the moon and star alignments considered?” “Which religious practitioners did we invite?” These questions were all taken into account. Everyone knew that Bears Ears is not a place where mistakes can be made or where the inexperienced or unsanctioned can lead prayers. Spiritually, the UDB house was in order.

Utah Diné Bikéyah is an all-Native American nonprofit founded 10 years ago this month. The medicine men and women on the Board set its mission around healing the earth and its people, and they developed the Bears Ears National Monument proposal, that was later designated by President Obama at the request of five Tribes. Bears Ears is full of deities, and the goal of UDB was to ensure that every non-human person, every plant, every animal as well as the sky, the mountains, and the rivers were all participants in the ceremonies to protect this place. These prayers and requests for help would leave nobody behind. The foundation of the request would be solid and the human intention would be pure. Political considerations were discussed too, but these were small matters by comparison. The spiritual leaders who formed UDB always centered activities on ceremony, listening to creation stories in the oldest dialects in the Navajo tongue, relearning the songs, studying the vocabulary, seeking the right objects and speaking to the deities prior to entering the sacred circles of religious practice.

Ceremony and spiritual leaders center the work of Utah Diné BikéyahGavin Noyes

UDB formed itself as a non-profit on January 26th, 2012, yet many of its leaders had already been working together for decades. Several even attended boarding school together as classmates who got whipped, beaten, converted to Christianity, and punished side by side. For those who survived this erasure of culture and removal from family, the bonds of friendship between peers would last a lifetime. The determination to succeed against all odds as happened with Bears Ears, was less a choice, and more a necessity. Because of this shared background among Native elders, UDB always functioned like a family. To accomplish things that had never been done, the UDB Board relied on each other, on their ability to form collaborations and identify strategies. Among UDB’s founding Board Members, everyone was older than 55, and this was nobody's first rodeo. “The bucking bronco the Board raised and named UDB was saddled and cinched up tight ten years ago. I am proud to see our young horse still kicking even after founding Board Members have ridden off into the sunset or earned bigger belt buckles,” says UDB founder Mark Maryboy. Read "UDB's Ten Year Celebration" Booklet here.

“It is not easy to explain the meaning of Bears Ears to non-Native people,” explains Woody Lee, Executive Director. To Navajo People, Bears Ears includes the place Diné emerged from the earth. Bears Ears is a location where epic battles and the fate of humankind were determined. It is where culture, language and religion were born. It is a landscape inseparable from culture, just as there are many cultures inseparable from the lands at Bears Ears. Importantly, Bears Ears is a “who,” not a “what,” and has been lived upon by many distinct civilizations of highly sophisticated humans for millennia, many of these cultures are still thriving today. She is called by many names including Hoon’ Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu, Nukavachi, and Ansh An Laskokdiwe, and in all languages, her name translates into English as “Bears Ears.”

Ten years ago in San Juan County, Utah in 2009, two things happened. First, Senator Bob Bennett passed the historic Washington County Public Lands bill which protected 256,000 acres from development and “disposed of 5,000-9,000 acres” of public land. Lands that would later be sold to real estate developers. The second event of 2009 was the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) arrest of 16 residents in Blanding, Utah on the morning of June 10th, 2009. These white citizens were allegedly caught stealing and selling 256 archaeological objects from public lands, including Bears Ears, to an undercover FBI informant. The raid netted more than 40,000 archaeological objects in their homes. Native Americans were angered that their histories, ancestors, and rights were still being stolen item by item, after so many decades and promises to quit from their neighbors. In response, San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy began leading ceremonies at Bears Ears. He organized people to determine how to respond to ongoing looting of sites and this potential legislative opportunity.

Mark Maryboy, founder of Utah Diné Bikéyah was the first Native American elected to public office in the State of Utah.Gavin Noyes

Mark Maryboy, a seasoned politician and Kenneth’s older brother, cut his teeth on public lands issues as a young man. Mark was the first Native American elected to public office in the entire State of Utah and in 2012, he structured the UDB Board to fill holes in tribal government and the non-profit sector. Mark selected one Native American leader from each of 10 reservation communities in San Juan County. Each UDB Board Member was assigned to convene their neighbors to discuss water, public land, and natural resource issues every month. They relayed information to and from their own “Chapter House” communities (these are like county districts) so that people could get involved, become educated, and eventually vote on land and water issues as informed constituents. UDB’s focus on the protection of off-reservation public lands was intended to bring local indigenous communities and several tribal nations together. Native People hold the right for these cultural sites to be protected, yet at the time were told their rights stopped at the reservation boundary.

UDB set out to become a model organization for others to follow and focused on off-reservation public land conservation. Strategically, to protect Bears Ears, the Board decided; 1) federal agencies will respond to scientific data, 2) Utah politicians will respond to local advocates, 3) political alliances could be formed to win approval of the Utah delegation knowing that a Utah bill sponsor would eventually be important, and 4) sovereign Tribes (not UDB) must eventually champion the designation effort in Washington D.C.. This four-prong strategy (developed in partnership with Round River and the Navajo Nation) turned out to be effective. UDB leaders persisted due to the spiritual foundation of their request and eventually succeeded in protecting Bears Ears on December 28th, 2016. Five Tribes including Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute Mountain, and Ute Indian Tribes formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and led the designation effort beginning in July, 2015.

Willie Grayeyes, UDB’s first Board Chair aimed the organizational mission toward “healing the earth and its people,” a purpose that was later adopted by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Upon receiving its 501(c)3 status and its first grant from the Conservation Lands Foundation, Mark Maryboy set the goal for the UDB organization to become “a nationally recognized environmental group, like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, or the Sierra Club.” The Board asked Gavin Noyes to serve as “staff person” in 2012 and later hired him as “Executive Director” in 2014. The organization built itself by gradually expanding its funding and size to have a ten-person staff.

An organization never forms on its own, and UDB owes its existence and effectiveness to critical early support from key people, as well as to tens of thousands of people who have subscribed to its e-Newsletter, followed them on social media platforms, made a donation, became a sustaining donor, volunteered, or even just mentioned UDB causes at the dinner table. As a reader, supporter, donor, volunteer or an ally this involvement is what made UDB what it is today, on its 10th birthday! The spiritual grounding of Board Members and staff is what kept the reigns in UDB’s hands and their eyes on the horizon. But it is also the support from so many members of the public who cheered UDB to victory along the way. Getting bucked off and trampled is a normal day in today’s political arena. UDB looks forward to riding the bucking bronco it created for another ten years whichever way the political winds may blow.

Read more about Utah Diné Bikéyah's history, founding principles, 30 successes in ten years, and what will be coming next for this small, but impactful nonprofit. UDB's Ten Year Celebration Booklet.

Bears Ears was the first National Monument designated at the request of Native American Tribes.Gavin Noyes

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