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

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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.

Jacqueline Keeler
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