A Personal History of Bears Ears: Landscape as Monument

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Map of Bears Ears National Monument. Image Credit: Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust

Lately, it’s been hard to escape talk of monuments. The debates over the removal of memorials to the Confederate cause have sparked debates, protests, and violence around the country. These inanimate statues and the very animated reactions to them have provoked discussions, by historians and the public, about the kinds of stories we as Americans tell ourselves and how we define our history as a nation. But monuments can take forms other than cast metal and stone, and our history can be defined by spaces and places not inscribed on memorial plaques, as Erstwhile contributing editor Sara Porterfield explores as part of our series “The Monuments Among Us.”

The landscape of Bears Ears National Monument defines my personal history.

I have spent afternoons hiding in the shade of White Canyon’s sandstone walls from the oppressive, unrelenting heat of summer. I have carried a pack so heavy with water, climbing gear, and food that with each step I sank into the earth as I traveled through Gravel Canyon. I have hiked through the night, guided by stars and kept company by the Perseid Meteor Shower, to reach our destination after having spent two days (mildly) lost in the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area. I have jammed my hands into the cracks in Indian Creek’s red sandstone walls and hauled myself up thousands of vertical feet, losing skin and gaining confidence in the process. I have marveled at thousand-year-old Ancestral Puebloan pictographs that still retain their vibrant green pigments and reveal a complex and interconnected indigenous world. I have spent a heartbreaking day and night searching Lockhart Canyon for a missing young woman whose death still haunts me. I have spent untold sunrises, sunsets, and every moment in between marveling at the beauty of this arid land.

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Pictograph panel at Green Mask Ruin, Sheiks Canyon, Bears Ears National Monument. Image Credit: Sara Porterfield

Bears Ears’ forested mesas, high peaks, and fissured canyons have taught me how to plumb the depths of my physical and mental strength; they have taught me where to find emotional resiliency within myself and others, how to see the beauty that surrounds me, and the layers of history that reside in this ancient landscape. I would not be who I am, I would not have the history I do, nor would I focus my work as a historian on the landscapes of the American West, without the time I have spent in the desert of southeastern Utah.

Bears Ears is one of the newest national monuments in the country, and one of the most threatened. This 1.35-million-acre monument, established by executive order under the authority of the Antiquities Act by Barack Obama on December 28, 2016, is at the center of a controversy over how our public lands should be protected, used, and valued. In April, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the former congressman from Montana, to review all national monuments created since 1996. This “review” is a not-so-subtle attack on President Bill Clinton’s controversial Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as well as the more recent designation of Bears Ears and the other twenty-five monuments designated by Obama. Both Escalante-Grand Staircase and Bears Ears, along with Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon and Gold Butte in Nevada, are slated to have their boundaries shrunk and the activities allowed within them expanded to include mining, logging, and other extractive enterprises, according to a report submitted to the White House by Zinke last month.

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Backpacking in Dark Canyon. Image Credit: Jeff Wermer

By definition, monuments are “lasting evidence, [a] reminder or example of someone or something notable.” Such a description may, at first glance, seem to represent the kinds of monuments that have been in the news of late: the larger-than-life bronze statues of Confederate soldiers sitting atop granite plinths that have sparked protests and violence and, in some cases, that have been removed swiftly, under the cover of darkness, to circumvent dissent and protect citizens. But such a definition is equally as applicable to the vast spaces, historic places, and diversity of historical narratives the national monument system protects. And it is equally applicable again to the kinds of personal histories written through individual experience in these monuments.

Zinke’s attack on these national monuments is unprecedented, and an affront to those who have worked tirelessly to protect Bears Ears. Not only do Zinke’s recommendations for Bears Ears negate the historic collaboration between indigenous nations, federal agencies, conservation groups, and local citizens that brought Bears Ears into being, but it denies the histories of marginalized groups, of the land itself, and of the individuals who have lived on and traveled through this landscape, as I have argued elsewhere. Bears Ears is a reminder that the kinds of places we choose to protect reveal the narratives we value as a nation. Whether over the removal of a Confederate statue or the public lands designated as under federal protection, debates over monuments will continue to define not only the history of our nation, but also our own personal histories.

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