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Preserving Indigenous Cultures and Indigenous Spaces- Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for Bears Ears

Please support the Edge of Morning Kickstarter here:

What is the value of culture versus the resources that can be exploited from the land? This is at heart the question raised when Indigenous peoples lay claim to the land because of their cultural connection to it--often in defiance of corporate and settler colonial desires to fully exploit the resources of that land. What is the best use of the land by human beings? Is it the cultural heritage of the Indigenous people or is it the successful exploitation of the oil, coal, water, etc. to create wealth?

This is at heart the question posed by the unique proposal brought forward by five Native American nations, Indigenous grassroots community members and environmentalists. What value does the past hold? Does it matter that antiquities and ancient sites be undisturbed? Is there more value in mining and the right to ride ATV’s over thousands of archaeological sites?

Jonah Yellowman, Utah Diné Bikeyah
“We're here to look after it, we're here to preserve it. When our medicine people, when they go to get something for a to do a ceremony they go there and either talk to the plant or whatever they're going to use, either they're going to cut it, they always put corn pollen there, they put it back together. Wherever they dig around, they smooth it out. Leave it like the way it is they walk away from it. We don't just dig it out and leave a big hole. We don't do that. So that's how we are as Native American Indian people.We are here to take care of it. If you take care of it and look after it--it's going to take care of you. You're going to be healed from it. It's going to heal the land, too.”
Jonah Yellowman, Diné, Utah Dine Bikeyah, spiritual advisor

And not only are 100,000 archaeological sites endangered, but so is Navajo (Diné) culture. The Navajo Nation is one of the largest Native Nations within the United States. Its landbase is the size of Ireland; it has 350,000 members--a population equal to that of Iceland; it is also larger than more than 20 member states of the United Nations. Over 125,000 Navajos speak their language fluently--the most of any Indigenous language in the United States. However, the culture depends on isolated communities like those found in San Juan County, Utah to continue to survive.

Navajo Community members at Bears Ears

Traditional Navajo communities and their elders have borne the brunt of energy development in the Southwest since World War II when the Navajo Nation’s uranium resources were used to win the war. To this day there are hundreds of open uranium mines that have not been cleaned up, which poison the water and health of the  people. At Black Mesa, coal strip mining has led to the forced removal of thousands of more traditional Navajo. Many families were “relocated” to the Puerco River, the site of the largest uranium spill in U.S. history. The coal is transported by slurrying a process draining precious  drinking water from the Navajo-Hopi aquifer--the only slurry line in North America. The Public Lands Initiative presented by Rep. Bishop (R-Utah) in congress this week, will open up more Navajo communities to be the victimized by mining.

Putting a Price on Cultural Exchange

And what value do intact culturally-intact Navajo communities provide to America? One need only look at American history to see the huge impact that cultural exchanges between American colonists and intact Indigenous nations like the once powerful Iroquois Confederacy gave to the world.

Modern Democracy--the product of cultural exchange

It has been well-documented that it was the Iroquois that urged the 13 colonies to unite like the 6 nations of their confederacy had done to bring peace and stability to the region. The Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) was also a living example the colonists could see first hand of a working democratic government.

Women’s Rights

It is no accident that the first women’s rights conference was held in Seneca Falls, New York--adjacent to a Seneca village. The Seneca were one of the 6 nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. White women observed daily the greater rights Iroquois women enjoyed. At a time when American women were legally dead, the Iroquois Confederacy, which was matrilineal and ultimate power over the leadership was held by clan mothers, was a vision of another world for European American women. The exchange gave them the courage to challenge thousands of years of patriarchy that dehumanized women. In their speeches, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott exclaimed that they wanted the rights they saw Seneca women had.

So what is the value of such exchanges with Indigenous cultures? Cultures that contain ideas long lost in the rest of the world? As seen by these two examples, the exchange produced ideas that have made lives better for literally billions of people in the world.

What cultural ideas exist in traditional Navajo communities? The land contains not only beauty, history, and energy resources, but the cultural resources that represent human intelligence and the source of ideas that make life better in ways we cannot predict today.

In light of this, the Edge of Morning looks at the work of Native Americans to fight for their cultural places and spaces both at the grassroots level at Bears Ears (Origin Stories - Interviews with Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition organizers) and by Navajo activists and thinkers across the Navajo Nation (For this Land, For the Diné Bikéyah – The People’s Land - Navajo Activists and Academia Speak for Bears Ears), but across the United States (“In Our Usual and Accustomed Places” - Indigenous leaders on Bears Ears and the Fight for Cultural Preservation and Access to Public Lands in the United States).

The fight for our traditional communities and cultural access to our traditional homelands and sacred sites is a monumental effort being conducted by Indigenous communities in a variety of ways. Bears Ears is unique and promising by being such a unified effort by several different Indigenous Nations. It is also unique in the creation of a national monument proposal that represents an unusual degree of collaboration with Indigenous communities.

National Monuments are meant to celebrate the beauty and richness of the our American experience--and nothing encapsulates that more than the cultural exchange with Indigenous people and the gifts that exchange has given to the world.

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Poetically Fighting for Sacred Sites and National Monuments

I was happy when my copy of National Monuments by Ojibway poet Heid E. Erdrich came in the mail! The book is perhaps best known for her awesomely comic poems about Kennewick Man dating online, but I was interested in how she handled the issue of sacred cultural sites and how little power Native people have to protect these sites--and how little understood the issue is by the powers that be.

The fight for public lands has been in the news all year since the Bundy's took over Malheur in January and taken a greater urgency on Monday as the GOP voted to include language in it's 2016 Platform to demand Congress "return" federal lands to states immediately.

In contrast, President Obama has been using his executive powers under the Antiquities Act to preserve more and more public land as National Monuments. On Saturday, July 16th, Secretary Jewell will be holding a public meeting in Bluff, Utah on the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Please attend if you can and share any information coming out of the meeting to your networks via social media. The area of Bears Ears in southeastern Utah, containing more than 100,000 cultural sites, is the most significant unprotected cultural and archaeological area in the US, and sacred ground to the tribes proposing and supporting this national monument.

Also contribute if you can and/or share the Bears Ears anthology "Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears" Kickstarter to help bring greater awareness of Native voices on the issue of preservation of cultural sites.

With that in mind, the two poems that caught my eye--and will be included in the Edge of Morning (thank you Heid!)--are “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects” and "The Theft Outright" (shared below).

The Theft Outright

By Heid E. Erdrich

            after Frost

We were the land's before we were.

Or the land was ours before you were a land.
Or this land was our land, it was not your land.

We were the land before we were people,
loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,
or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—

What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?

Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands
swimming being from women's hands, we originate,
originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.

Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by,
possessed by what we now no more possess.

We were the land before we were people,
dreamy sunbeams where sun don't shine, so the stories go,
or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots—

Dineh in documentaries scoff DNA evidence off.
They landed late, but canyons spoke them home.
Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don't know.

What's America, but the legend of Stop 'n' Go?

Could be cousins, left on the land bridge,
contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll.
In any case we'd claim them, give them some place to stay.

Such as we were we gave most things outright
(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes
and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)

We were the land before we were a people,
earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,
or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth—

The land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,
still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.
Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.

Source: National Monuments (Michigan State University Press, 2008)
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