My mind wandered off from where I sat—purely alone, threatened by nothing, protected by everything. Solid. Framed by cliffs, side to side, by wild silence from above. I thought of Bears Ears, a huge wild chunk of land in San Juan County to the south. We held out hope that President Obama, in his last days, would proclaim it a National Monument. This after years of failed process, phony negotiations, and continued threat from carbon development. Already, inspired by all the publicity, people from all over the world had descended on this pure place, which was not ready for them.
I thought back to the moment Bears Ears came alive for me. I was sitting with the writer Terry Tempest Williams in our Castle Valley living room with a dozen University of Utah Environmental Humanities Graduate students. Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo holy man, was there with Gavin Noyes, the executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah. It was the last day of Art, Advocacy, and Landscape, the class that Terry developed and we led together each year addressing a current issue, hoping to discover new humanities-based solutions. “Greater Canyonlands” was the subject that year. We’d spent four weekends visiting the landscape in question while meeting with environmental leaders representing the different proposals for protecting the environmentally, scenically, and culturally important vastness around Canyonlands National Park. Jonah and Gavin were the last to meet with the students. They presented the Indigenous proposal and called it “Bears Ears.” This was the first time I heard the words.
Having wandered the canyons and mesas of the area for years, I favored the proposal co-generated by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and the Grand Canyon Trust, which offered the most protection to the greatest area. Plus, I’d worked for SUWA and had been involved in the analysis and field work that led to their proposal. At a Washington D.C. strategy meeting with the Department of Interior, we’d been told that while a new monument in southern Utah was on their radar, they wouldn’t move on it until the different factions of the local environmental community were all on the same page.
The class was waiting patiently for Jonah and Gavin’s arrival. Light rain began falling when we all went out on the porch to greet them. As Jonah entered our home, coyotes called in the distance. We all turned toward the desert dog’s songs. I’d never heard coyotes singing in daylight.
We gathered inside and sat in chairs and on couches forming a circle around our living room. After introductions, Jonah blessed our home and everyone in it, first in Navajo and then in English. Terry turned to Gavin to share his perceptions of the Bear’s Ears Campaign with the group. Although Anglo, Gavin has always had an alliance with Native people. He’d created and implemented a project designed to gather Indigenous knowledge about the Colorado Plateau. Conservation efforts had been drastically deficient in Native Voices, and Gavin’s efforts resulted in the formation of a new organization representing the varied and diverse Native voices in all matters. In the Navajo language, “Diné Bikéyah” means “the sacred lands of the people.”
Although I’d read it before, something shifted deep inside me when Gavin told our group that Diné Bikéyah’s mission is to “preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of ancestral Native American lands to benefit and bring healing to people and the Earth.” What struck me was “bring healing to people and the Earth.” For the first time, “People,”, meant all people, not just Indian People. I felt this idea sinking deeper into my body and settling as Gavin and Jonah described specifics by using many-colored maps. That their proposal didn’t cover as much acreage as the others no longer mattered. It manifested a deeper vision.
It was Jonah’s turn to speak. Just then, those facing the eastern windows gasped. A rainbow appeared, but this one was different. Rather than arching traditionally up into the sky and down again, this one stretched horizontally across the tops of the distant formations, connecting them, one to another. Jonah smiled. “The Twins are nearby,” he said, referring to the Monster Slayer Born-of-the-Waters—part of the Dine’ Creation Story. We all went outside. Terry asked Jonah if this was common. “No,” he said.
He went on to tell of Bears Ears, two perfect buttes in the center of the Navajo world, the source of many stories since the beginning of time, the place where the bones of his ancestors are buried, where his great, great, great grandmother was born. The longer he talked, the deeper I sunk into my chair. The more comfortable I became. When Jonah referred to “Sacred land Protection,” I realized that this was a term with which I had a history.
In my own Mormon upbringing, the “Sacred Grove” was where Joseph Smith received the vision inspiring him to create the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’d been through many stages since stepping away from my Mormon foundation. I grew up assuming that anything considered “sacred” was of “God,” for religious purposes, the opposite of “secular” or of the world, human-based. Wendell Berry, a true hero of mine, wrote, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
As Jonah talked, I wondered to myself what the term actually means. For me, a “sacred place” is the site of a story that is important to one personally or culturally. The ancestors of white Euro-Americans—my ancestors—disconnected their stories from their sacred places when they left them. When my European ancestors got here, they created economies based on “desecrating” the sacred places of others.
There was something elemental in Jonah’s voice that morning. Jonah did not come to convince anyone of anything. Only to tell his truth, which I sensed came up through him from some place deep in the land that raised him. He came with stories given to him by his ancestors. Nothing seductive in his voice, said, “I have something for you, something that you need.” Nothing saying, “Now, let me tell you how to earn what I have for you.” He simply came to visit and share what he knew.
A boy in the Mormon Church, I grew up hearing white men speak in what we came to call their “Priesthood Voice,” which they used to control us, scare us into conformity, promise us incredible gifts, but only once we were dead.
As Jonah spoke, his eyes moved around the room meeting each of our eyes, and then beyond: above and between us, looking out as if the stories he was telling were appearing in his mind at the exact moment he needed them, fully formed, a landscape of traditional knowledge, appropriate to our discussion. His frame of reference transcended time and space as we knew it.
When he finished, deep quiet pressurized the room, and no one moved. No one said anything for a full minute until Anna spoke up. “Thank you, Jonah, for these stories.” She said, “We feel that you’ve shared some very sacred knowledge….”
“It is time,” Jonah said.
A collective chill ran through the room.
I struggled to the door and opened it, releasing the pressure, spreading the chill out across the desert. We milled around as if nothing had happened. Jonah said, “We must have scared the coyotes away”. With many miles still to travel, Jonah and Gavin left. We had some final class business to take care of. We sat out on the porch in a circle.
Acknowledgments: This essay is excerpted from Brooke Williams’ forthcoming book Mary Jane Wild: Two Walks and a Rant (Homebound Publications, 2021). Reprinted with permission.