May 12, 2017

Dear Secretary Zinke,

Thank you for coming to Utah which I hope was an informing experience regarding the review you are doing of national monuments, including of the newly-proclaimed Bears Ears. At the same moment that you were meeting with stakeholders at the BLM Offices in Salt Lake City, there was another gathering, just two blocks away, a panel of Native American elders and others. The gathering was the launch to develop a new concert dance titled “Sacred Lands/Sacred Waters.”

The reports that I’m hearing back from your visit do not bode well for my Native American brothers and sisters here in the Southwest. So I wanted to share with you what I experienced that night to hopefully countermand what I believe was a tour dominated by opposition to keeping the Monument intact.

The opposition that I’m referring to–your white-shirted, short-haired politician hosts–are all White, Male and Mormon.

By the way, as a Utah native, I consider myself all three. In contrast to the meeting up the street, what I saw on the panel were three Navajo (Diné) elders who were telling their stories through word and, at one point, even song, to a small public gathering which included dance artists from New York City and Utah’s own Repertory Dance Theatre. One of those discussants, Mary Benally from Butler Wash (between Blanding and Bluff), had missed her flight from Moab, so her son left the town where he lives, south of Farmington, New Mexico, and drove over four hours to Moab, picked up his mother and drove the almost four hours from Moab to Salt Lake City, then turned around and drove all the way home.

Mary talked about the Bears Ears as being a sacred land to her, her people and the Tribal Coalition that in an unprecedented way has brought together tribes, putting aside ages-old differences, to advocate for the Monument.

Mary Benally (Dine)

My concern is that during your Utah visit your itinerary and most of your interactions were commandeered by White, Male Mormon Politicians (WMMPs). This is a piece to the puzzle that your hosts—Governor Gary Herbert, State Senator Mike Noel, and most especially, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch—are not willing to “unpack” for you. There is a long history in this state and region of WMMPs’ getting their way while marginalizing others. It goes back to The Book of Mormon, a tome of purported tales of ancient America that we consider scripture but that also posits that Indians (called “Lamanites”) were actually relocated Hebrews, cursed with a dark skin because of disobedience to God–a tortured, 19th Century notion driven by the prevailing question at the time of the origins of Native Americans.

When the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) began relocating to the Great Basin in 1847, this myth mixed with a strenuous brand of patriarchy and policy which has since devastated American tribes. You likely heard from the WMMP Juggernaut that Brigham Young, took no umbrage at the local Indians. This is only part of the story about a fiercely competitive territorial leader whose disciples, following his lead, blamed Natives for the biggest white-on-white massacre in the country’s history (actually perpetrated by some of my ancestors) and whose sentiments and behaviors eventually precipitated massive cooperation among Mormons to relocate thousands of Native children to boarding schools, robbing them of their identity, their language and their dignity.

Jonah Yellowman (Dine)

Another panelist last Sunday, Jonah Yellowman (Diné), is a spiritual advisor to the Utah Dine Bikeyah and resident of the Monument Valley made famous in cinema by director John Ford, among others. Jonah told me over lunch what it was like to be sent to a white school in New Mexico, beaten when he didn’t speak a language he didn’t know (and had never been taught), and finally given an Anglo name manufactured through the colonizing logic of the local population. Fortunately for him and for the rest of us, frankly, he has parlayed his trauma into a spiritual discipline that has blessed his people and is now blessing others. The next day the dancers and choreographer left with both Mary and Jonah as guides to seek inspiration for their work at a place that I hope you also came to believe while here is a sacred land that needs to be preserved and co-managed by Native tribes.

Sen. Hatch, of course, is tone deaf do this vision of the land. I believe that the reason he went on record saying that Indians are “manipulated sometimes by people,” is because he and his ilk have been trying to manipulate them (at best the WMMPs call it “managing them”) through, arguably, their sense of white entitlement and their intractable impulse to convert Natives not only to the “true religion” but to their way of thinking about public lands.

Gavin Noyes (Utah Dine Bikeyah) (left) and his opponent, Utah Sen. MIke Noel, doing the WMMP gesture of self-righteous disgust. at a hearing (Photo credit: Salt Lake Tribune)

Then there’s the condescending, patriarchal, and privileged jargon he and his cronies, including the Disinformation King himself, Congressman Rob Bishop, use to even talk about a people whose spirituality and sense of community are a strong contrast to the Latter-day Saints’ and our industrial religion of dogma and hope for global dominion. Many, too many WMMPs, Hatch included, continue to savage a people who have relied on the sacred lands of Bears Ears from time immemorial, a land that doesn’t have a Mormon ward house on every street corner, or beholden to a people whose impulse sometimes seems to elevate late-stage capitalism to one of their Articles of Faith.

Senator Orrin Hatch (left) and Secretary Zinke in Salt Lake City at a press conference, May 2017 (Photo credit: Salt Lake Tribune)

Sen. Hatch knows, as I suspect you do, that there is no future in this land for extractive industries, and that the denuding nature of unbridled ranching is destroying this arid region, even for white settlers. But what he, the Governor, Bishop and State Senator Noel are not saying is that “the Lamanites” are a threat to the control of WMMPs, channeled as it is through the prevailing narrative that the Feds are doing a “land grab.” How can that be when these lands have never been in the hands of the state of Utah, the Mormons or white settlers?

The final member of the panel was Evelyn Nelson (Diné), also from Monument Valley who afterwards had to hurry home—an eight-hour drive—to see her grandchild receive a master’s degree. This is the other part of the story that I fear you did not hear last week: that young Native Americans are returning to their homes armed with academic degrees and the market-driven experience that my people have been swimming in as “super-Americans” since we threw over the practice of polygamy and began desperately assimilating into the broader white American culture. If allowed to stand, Bears Ears will be managed by the five tribes that came together in a healing way to establish the Monument. This threatens the WMMP establishment in Utah. We have only seen the tip of the self-righteous rage that can stem from a group that feels entitled to this level of arbitrary and damaging control over, Surprise!, their “holy land.”

White folks and Native Americans can work through this divide which has been dug and then occupied by myopic men like Sen. Hatch and, now, the authoritarian swipe of a President’s pen. Since the disaster of relocating Native youth to Anglo homes in Utah for the school year, the State has been forced, wisely in my view, to adopt-out Native children only to parents who have a certain percentage of Native blood. Our next-door neighbors, a full Navajo Woman (and yes, also, coincidentally, at least a 2nd generation Latter-day Saint) and her lapsed Catholic husband from Pennsylvania have adopted three Diné children who are siblings and are doing their best to honor the Navajo traditions of their children here in the state’s capital city, far from their home outside of Blanding in southeastern Utah.

Along with these children, Mary, Jonah and Evelyn need not only be heard, they need to be respected, and they need to have sovereignty over their lives and over their ancestral lands upon which, to date, they’ve been merely visitors–lands like the Bears Ears. Native Americans out here in the “Mormon Corridor” don’t need to be “managed” by the government and especially not by White Male Mormon Politicians; they need to be allowed to lead their own nations.

Last night, after you left Utah, there was a gathering in Bluff, very near the Monument, called “Healing Through Motion.” More than one hundred Native Americans and others came from as far as 200 miles away across desert lands with little or no inhabitants–a distance that may not seem very far to me, or to a Montanan, like you, but may wow! someone who lives on the Eastern Seaboard where Washington DC sits. They came to meet with the artists and the choreographer who were there to listen, and to watch. There was food, there was song . . . and there was dance. But most importantly there were stories told.

I wish you could have stayed just one more day and met with them.

I invite you to take this review of National Monuments as an opportunity to heal this area. But healing requires justice, and justice takes courage.


Repertory Dance Theatre’s new commission, Sacred Lands/Sacred Waters will premiere in Salt Lake City Oct. 5-7, 2017 at The Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune
Bears Ears buttes sit high over the surrounding canyon country in San Juan County. The formations are at the heart of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.

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