Standing at a lectern at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk gently strokes a clump of sage she picked a few days earlier during an outing near Bears Ears, the southern Utah landscape she’s fighting to preserve as a national monument. Her voice brims with emotion as she tells a small group of reporters that she brought it to help her convey how important the region is to her people, the Ute Mountain Utes, and to the four other tribes in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which she co-chairs.
“You can’t separate a Native American from the land,” she says. “We’re so strongly tied. It’s our history. It’s our teacher.” The artifacts left by the ancestors of today’s tribes — cliff dwellings, kivas, petroglyphs — need to be preserved, she adds. “Our legacy is on the walls of the canyon. I can’t afford for anybody to destroy what is there for my grandchildren.”
The scene is both ordinary and extraordinary. People frequently stand and speak to reporters at the National Press Club. But this city of suits and sound bites has rarely seen anyone like Lopez-Whiteskunk.
She is dressed in traditional garments decorated with cerulean, red, yellow, green and black-beaded designs. Her late sister made the moccasins she wears, and her brightly colored necklace, pin and earrings were crafted by other loved ones. They keep her connected to her people even when she’s far away, she says.
The travel required by her work as a tribal council member and coalition co-chair is challenging, though it’s much easier than it was for her ancestors, tribal leaders who traveled for months to visit the “Great Father” in Washington. “But I do realize and understand how lonely it can be when you’re out here,” she says. “I’m out of my element.” Although she was recently voted off her own tribe’s council, she took five trips to Washington over the last year for Bears Ears alone.
On one of these trips, she had an epiphany: She realized she had fulfilled a decades-old prediction by Hawaii’s then-senator, the late Daniel Inouye. When she visited Washington in 1987 with a group of young Native Americans, he told them that they would one day be tribal leaders. That meant they should be serious students of Washington, because of that city’s importance to their tribes’ future. Lopez-Whiteskunk was then 18, and he commended her for wearing a calico wing dress and beaded jewelry, saying it showed her strong connection to her tribe. “That had a profound impact on me,” she recalls.
This September, dressed in traditional garments, Lopez-Whiteskunk was the sole person testifying on behalf of protecting the Bears Ears at a hearing at the House Natural Resources Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, opposes the monument. When Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., implied that she had no authority to speak about Bears Ears because she’s not from Utah, she calmly responded that though her home is across the state line in Towaoc, Colorado, headquarters of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, her tribe’s land stretches into Utah and her own ancestors were forced out of the area around Bears Ears.
Lopez-Whiteskunk wins over audiences because she speaks not in a political way but in a spiritual and emotional one, says Gavin Noyes, the executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, the small nonprofit that planted the seeds of the Bears Ears monument proposal. When a high-level delegation visited the area in the summer of 2015, Lopez-Whiteskunk asked the officials to reach through the ponderosa pine needles and pick up a handful of earth. “I don’t think anyone could help but feel that direct connection,” Noyes says. “She’s very good about trying to help people understand in small ways the connection that Native people have to the earth.”
Not everyone listens, though. At the state Commission for Stewardship of Public Lands in Salt Lake City, the Utah politicians, nearly all older white men, cut her off and were downright hostile.
“I was floored by the amount of disrespect I received,” Lopez-Whiteskunk writes in Red Rock Testimony, a collection of essays and poems in support of the monument. On what she calls that “oh so scary morning,” she says, “All I could do was to be silent, as my grandmother had taught me. You give them grace even if they don’t deserve it.”
Her grandmother, Stella, grew up in the Bears Ears area, but was forced to leave and sent to boarding school, where she was punished for speaking her Native tongue. “Like all of us, I feel this historical trauma,” Lopez-Whiteskunk writes. That trauma, she says, can be soothed by the land’s yellow flowers and sage and juniper-covered hillsides. “This is why healing is at the inner core of our Bears Ears movement.”
Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington. Follow @ShogrenE