Magazine article The Christian Century

New Protected Area in Utah Includes Land That's Sacred for Native Americans

Magazine article The Christian Century

New Protected Area in Utah Includes Land That's Sacred for Native Americans

Article excerpt

When President Obama established new national monuments in Utah and Nevada, he noted that the area is "profoundly sacred" for the Ute, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni peoples.

At the start of his proclamation in late December protecting 1.35 million acres of land in the Four Corners region of southeastern Utah, Obama also called the distinctive twin buttes that dominate the landscape--Bears Ears in English--by t heir names in native languages: Hoon'Naqvut, Shash Jaa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe.

"The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon," Obama said. "Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence."

Obama has protected more land than any other president, designating more than 550 million acres of federal land and waters as national monuments.

"Communities have depended on the resources of the region for hundreds of generations," Obama said of the Bears Ears region in his proclamation, noting its ecological importance. "Navajo refer to such places as Nahodishgish, or places to be left alone."

Many Republican lawmakers--including most Utah politicians, who have for years supported a mix of development with partial protections--saw the president's latest executive action as both sentimental and outrageous, "a slap in the face to the people of Utah," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah). He had been working to draft a federal land use bill for the now-protected area.

But for many Native Americans, the president's move represented the latest public victory in a growing effort to protect their traditional sacred lands--a struggle many say has also led them to reconnect with their religious traditions.

"We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness," said Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation. "These places--the rocks, the wind, the land--they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection."

Earlier in December, the Obama administration gave the Standing Rock Sioux, other tribes, and their allies a reprieve in their effort to halt the final stretch of the 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which is slated to cross sacred sites near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, and a Missouri River reservoir, which is the reservation's water source.

Many Native Americans see these efforts, along with others in the movement against climate change such as resistance to the Keystone XL Pipeline, as part of a resurgence of their collective spiritual traditions. …

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