Seven years ago, the Navajo tribal council in southeastern Utah started mapping the secret sites where medicine men and women forage for healing plants and Native people source wild foods. They wanted to make a case for protecting the landscape known as Bears Ears, a place sacred not only to their tribe but to many other tribes in the region, going back thousands of years. In one of his final acts in office, President Obama late last month created the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, a move that proponents say will safeguard the area’s ecology and guarantee food sovereignty for the region’s Native Americans.
“Up to 20,000 Natives of various tribes live within 45 minutes of Bears Ears, including 10,000 Navajos that live just across the border in Arizona,” says Gavin Noyes, director of the Utah Diné Bikéyah, the Navajo nonprofit that developed the initial draft of the monument proposal in 2013. “It’s one of the wildest, most intact landscapes in Utah.”
About 16,000 people live in San Juan County, where Bears Ears is located. Roughly half are Navajo, and many in the tribe lack running water and electricity, says Noyes. But the land still provides.