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Long before anyone kept track of these things, the Navajo named two buttes on a high mesa in southeast Utah after one of their creation stories. They are not particularly high or steep, but because of topography they are visible for hundreds of miles in most directions. Called the Bears Ears, they have lately become the focus of a kind of Armageddon of politics. The fight is between those who would preserve the area and those who would develop its resources for human use. The Navajo and four of their neighboring tribes still remember their stories, and they are taking an active role in defending them.
In December 2016, the U.S. government established the Bears Ears National Monument after careful review of a proposal from the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition. The Coalition is an organization of members of the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian nations, who set aside ancient differences to collaborate on the proposal that would protect lands sacred to them all. Less than a year later, the U.S. government—now under different leadership—reduced the size of the monument by 85 percent, disavowing Native claims of historical, cultural and spiritual value and prioritizing the economics of industrial development. The legal battles now underway will either cement the sanctity of land protections all over the country, or undermine the nation’s fundamental land-preservation laws.
Running for Life
To the Navajo, running is a fundamental expression of life. It was the primary form of locomotion for their their entire history until European incursion in the 16th to 18th centuries introduced domestic animals such as horses and sheep. Though spread across the great dry distances of sand and mesa in what is now the Four Corners region, running allowed the Navajo to remain connected with each other. As Shaun Martin, race director of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra in the heart of the Navajo Nation, explained: “Running is how we say thanks to the Creator for the good things in our life, and how we ask for strength for our families and ourselves.”
Similar traditions exist among the other four nations of the Coalition, and this provides a context for why several dozen people recently elected to run over 200 miles from their homes to Bears Ears. Running is both a celebration and a prayer; a way to honor themselves and the powers that give them strength. So on March 12, 2018 three groups of runners from the five nations started from different locations—one group from Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico, one from Pinehill in northern Arizona and one from Flagstaff, Arizona—to run from their homes to Comb Wash at the foot of the Bears Ears. They did this is in the manner of the ancient messengers: by relay across the vast windy deserts of the Southwest.
That they had modern roads and vehicle support did not detract from the purity of purpose that compelled them all. According to Dustin Martin, one of the Prayer Run’s organizers, land and culture are the same thing to the tribes. They understand the world and their place in it through the stories they tell themselves, and their stories are both literally true and deeply rooted in the landscape. When the Navajo talk of Changing Bear Maiden, whose ears are the buttes we see, they know her as a real person, no less tangible than the dozens of other magical powers that they encounter every day in the form of the bird people, the tree people, the wind people and all the other beings that exist in the universe.
The Hopi, Ute, and Pueblo nations have their own stories and traditions, but all are rooted in the same basic belief in the historical power of landscape. With this commonality in mind, the tribes ran for five days to meet in the Utah desert in order to discuss something more immediate and tangible than their ancient stories: they needed to decide their collective response to the Monument’s proposed reduction. The goal? A document to present to international bodies of law such as the U.N. that may intercede on their behalf with the U.S. government. The Coalition hopes to treat with the world as the individual nations they are, and make the case of their persecution by the U.S. government.
In between they simply ran, pounding out the miles under a hot sun, surrounded by the detritus of a sometimes-ferocious wind that turned the desert into a maelstrom of dust and sagebrush. In the evenings, the sun set slowly, bathing the landscape in liquid amber light that made the red and white cliffs glow as if from within.
But first they had to run there. Volunteers both native and white swelled the ranks of each group to between 20 and 40 people, ensuring a continuing supply of young runners. While running, each athlete carried a small bundle of sage and feathers symbolizing their collective strength and purpose. Each morning before starting and each evening after finishing, the groups joined hands in a kind of prayer to say thank you for the strength to continue and the support of their friends and families. In between they simply ran, pounding out the miles under a hot sun, surrounded by the detritus of a sometimes-ferocious wind that turned the desert into a maelstrom of dust and sagebrush. In the evenings, the sun set slowly, bathing the landscape in liquid amber light that made the red and white cliffs glow as if from within.
From each rise along the road, the whole area was laid out before the runners’s feet: The Bears Ears themselves dotted the distant northern horizon. Framing them were the landmarks of the Southwest: the Abajo mountains, and Sleeping Ute, the La Plata mountains, Mesa Verde, Shiprock, the Lukachukai mountains, the Chuska mountains, Black Mesa, Red Mesa and the interminable sweep of rolling sandy plains between them. There were lines of roads in the near and far distance, and multicolored dots of towns and homesteads. Above and upon it all were lines of light that electrified everything with an unimaginable clarity. The land was as timeless as the activity, and the runners had little trouble seeing the connection between the land, the light and their feet.
As director of Wings For America, a non-profit dedicated to using running to improve Native American lives, Dustin Martin has spent much of the last five years deeply immersed in the issues that affect Navajos. He explained that Navajo legends come from the landscape, and they are the primary force that centers Navajo life and self-understanding. “So when the Earth is damaged, we are damaged,” he said. “It’s simple. The Earth and the people are all one. If we don’t protect the Earth, we don’t protect ourselves.”
When I asked why protect Bears Ears and not other places, he said we have to fight the battles that are presented. “Of course we would love to protect all the land, but that’s not a choice. We can’t fight imaginary battles; we have to fight the ones that are available to us. Bears Ears is no more important than any other part of our land, but it has come to represent the total fight for landscape. If we can protect Bears Ears, then we will win recognition that our culture and values are important.”
But the monument status is secondary to their cultural beliefs. As the Bears Ears Prayer Run Alliance website says: “Though the initial vision and protections of “Bears Ears National Monument” are now in danger, the land and its resources will forever remain a part of our heritage. We will continually return to the land on foot from our respective homelands to pray for its future and foster appreciation for our ancestral teachings.”
On the final day of the run, over a hundred runners ran to the ceremony site in Comb Wash. There they formed a circle and talked to each other about the things they had thought about during the run. Some people spoke about how much it meant to see their land at a running pace, and others talked about the power they felt in sharing the experience with their families, and they strength they felt from the camaraderie of other runners. “Many people were surprised to find that even their own people were not protecting the land,” Martin said. “We all agreed that change must come among ourselves first.” In the end they formed a delegation to send to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, whose 2018 theme is “Indigenous peoples’ collective right to lands, territories and resources”. “So our message is well-suited this year,” said Martin.