On Thursday, May 30, 2019 the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative hosted the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Conference at the Memorial Union.  The keynote speakers for the afternoon session of the conference were Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom, the authors of the ethno-photographic book Voices from Bear Ears: Seeking Common Ground on Sacred Land.  Robinson is an anthropologist, journalist, and storyteller, and Strom a retired astrophysicist and lifelong photographer.  They are also family.  Strom is Robinson’s grandfather, and this familial collaboration resulted in the book that was published by The University of Arizona Press in 2018.

Voices from Bears Ears was a project created with the purpose of giving a voice to a group of Native American peoples that were trying to protect their ancestral and sacred lands from the financial exploration of mining and other resource extracting companies, such as oil.  The Bears Ears landscape in San Juan County, which is located in southeastern Utah, is the ancestral home and sacred lands of the Navajo, the Hopi, the Northern Ute, and the Zuni tribes.  This culturally and spiritually rich landscape became more widely known throughout the U.S. in late 2016, at the end of President Barack Obama’s presidency, when 1.35 million acres of public lands were designated by the president as the Bear Ears National Monument.

Bears Ears is full of indigenous history and is of unsurpassed natural beauty. However, it is also full of controversy.  This is especially so after current President Donald Trump reduced the area of the National Monument by eighty five percent in December of 2017.  This reduction was welcomed by those who opposed the monument in the first place, and opposed by those who, for a long time, had fought for the protection that would inherently come from the National Monument designation.

Robinson and Strom sought to give voices to those on both sides of the argument.  On one side, the five Native American tribes that formed a coalition to actively and aggressively push for the creation of the monument, thus protecting their ancestral and sacred lands.  On the other, those who devoutly speak of their Mormon heritage, and of their right over the land which was settled by their pioneer ancestors under divine guidance.

During the presentation, Robinson and Strom shared with the audience stunning photographs of Bears Ears, along with recordings from the Native American tribal coalition leaders. One of the recordings was of a Navajo activist named Mark Maryboy, who became involved in local and state politics, and was the first Native American to ever hold an elected office in the State of Utah.  Maryboy entered politics, according to Robinson, in order to better help the local Native populations in their economical struggles after the collapse of uranium mining in San Juan Country, but who was also instrumental in securing the protection of Bear Ears.  Maryboy was also part of a local organization of Native American tribes that mapped all of the historical and sacred sites in the area, thus creating a map of those sites that ended up being used by the Obama administration as the boundaries for the 1.35-million-acre national monument.

Robinson and Strom also shared the voice of Phil Lyman, a white European man, and local Mormon business owner.  Lyman was one of the most vocal oppositionists toBear Ears.  He was a Utah State representative who entered the political world in order to share more amply his views about Bears Ears, and to oppose the interference of the federal government on local matters.  According to Robinson and Strom, a substantial amount of tension existed between local white Europeans and the Federal Government since most of the land in that area is public land managed by the Federal Government.  To persons like Phil Lyman, Robinson explained, the designation of the national monument at Bears Ears was yet another example of Federal interference in local land matters and was seen by Lyman, and his supporters, as an enormous “land grab” that has increased tensions in the area.  However, despite this strong opposition to Federal interference in the creation of the national monument, Lyman admitted that the national monument status of Bear Ears would end up, in the long run, generating the much-needed economical boost that the area desperately needs.

The presenters concluded by sharing the voices of two more individuals that were interviewed for the book, a local white European rancher and a Native American administrator for the coalition of five tribes.  Both persons showed admiration for the land, with the rancher -who had been living in the region all her life – siding with the Native Americans, and going a step further by wanting the land to be designated a wilderness area, which would completely close it off to human interactions.  However, she understood that such a designation was far-fetched but felt that a compromise was going to be needed so that all sides in the debate would have at least a part of what they wanted.  Robinson did point out that regardless of which side a person is on, people on both sides shared a reverence for the land, and an overarching theme that Bears Ears was who they were.