The fight for Bears Ears, on the road

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Ute Mountain Ute member, takes the monument debate to Washington.

 

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, whose grandmother grew up in the Bears Ears area, has faced disrespect and outright hostility, as she’s taken the message of tribal support for the Bears Ears on the road.
Courtesy Justin Clifton

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....