Letter to America

Prose by Rebecca Robinson + Photographs by Stephen Strom

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Dear America,

During my decades of travel across southeast Utah, I have come to know red rock country in all seasons. I can trace milestones in my life to moments spent in its wonderland of endless ridges, buttes, pinnacles, natural bridges and wild canyons—each one, like a sandstone fingerprint, completely unique—sculpted and painted by water and wind.

In a landscape that often looks and feels empty, one is constantly reminded that humans made a life and a living here long before our time. Hidden in the canyons is evidence of ancient civilizations, the remnants of which are still present many centuries later. They bear silent witness to the ancestors of today’s Pueblo peoples, who called the region home for millennia before migrating southward to Arizona and New Mexico more than 700 years ago. Faded tipi rings and half-collapsed hogans speak to the presence of early Ute, Paiute, and Navajo peoples. Their descendants are still here, continuing to draw spiritual and material sustenance from the land. Weathered cattle corrals and long-abandoned log cabins dot thousands of square miles of open range, visual testimony to the coming of the first Anglo settlers, Mormons called in the late 19th century to journey across this most rugged and forbidding territory to build new settlements and start a new life.

My connection to this place will never be as deep or complex as that of the people who call this country home. But it has shaped and sustained me just as it has people the world over who discover the power of this arrestingly beautiful territory and the historical troves it contains.

The Bears Ears buttes in winter. Click image to view larger photo.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

This land is Bears Ears, a new national monument declared by President Barack Obama on December 28, 2016, invoking his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Named for the iconic twin buttes at the heart of southeast Utah’s canyon country, Bears Ears National Monument protects 1.35 million acres in San Juan County—an area larger than the state of Delaware—land that has been proposed for protection by various groups over a century. Significantly, for the first time in history, it provides Native Americans a powerful voice in managing a national monument.

Native American tribes whose ancestors called the surrounding area home—the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, whose leaders have formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—will work with their federal counterparts to set policy for preserving ancestral sites and artifacts, and for providing access to monument lands for traditional cultural and spiritual uses.

Many Americans, and indeed many people throughout the world, will celebrate the declaration of Bears Ears National Monument as a bold stroke that will begin to right historical wrongs perpetrated against indigenous peoples in the United States and protect a land with unique scenic, geological, biological, and cultural riches for generations to come.

But as monument supporters exult in their victory, many citizens of San Juan County have greeted the president’s decision with a mix of anger and apprehension. Anger, because they believe that the public land comprising Bears Ears was improperly withdrawn by an overreaching federal government which failed to listen to local voices. Apprehension, because they feel that the Bears Ears Monument will threaten their livelihood by restricting or precluding ranching and mining on monument land, endanger the culture of their rural communities with a deluge of tourists and limit their access to land they have cherished and stewarded for over a century. These fears resonate across the rural West, stoking the rage of Sagebrush Rebels throughout the region, rage that has led to armed standoffs and occupations of federal land by the Bundy family and their acolytes.

Utah public lands in the Bears Ears National Monument. Click image to view larger photo.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

The polarizing partisan rhetoric that defined the recent presidential campaign has characterized responses to the monument designation, with Utah’s conservative politicians condemning President Obama’s act as tyrannical, deeply offensive, even immoral. Congressman Rob Bishop and his fellow Utah politicians promise to do everything in their power to overturn the monument and gut the Antiquities Act once President-elect Donald Trump assumes office.

Buried beneath the anger and absent from the ledes of most news stories is the fact that the monument’s boundaries closely match those of a proposal put forth by local residents and incorporated in Representative Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative legislation. There is hope that once the initial protests end, a recognition of how close the boundaries of Bears Ears fall to those that emerged from the stakeholder-driven Bishop process may settle in.

The shock, confusion, anger, and grief felt and expressed by many Americans post-election was coupled (for some) with a realization of the essential need to reach across ideological and cultural divides to find common ground with those who cast their votes for Donald Trump. The battle over Bears Ears illustrates the wrenching difficulties facing those who try to reconcile differences among groups with diametrically opposed views on many issues. In San Juan County, those differences are amplified by complex and oft-painful history laden with racism, religious persecution, and conflicts over land ownership and stewardship.

Over the past 18 months, my collaborator Steve Strom and I have spoken with tribal leaders, ranchers, archaeologists, conservationists, a range of local, state, and national political leaders, and others currently engaged in efforts to shape the future of public lands in the county. We’ve come to know people on both sides of the cultural and ideological divide who speak passionately about their deep respect for and love of their homeland.

The San Juan River from Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. Click image to view larger photo.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

Polarized as they are, they express the same belief: that, to them, the land is not just a place to live, explore, or make a living; it is everything. Land is sacred—linking ancestors, families, future generations, gods, and spirits—and is a source of strength, renewal, and identity. Natives and Anglos in San Juan County, regardless of spiritual beliefs or world view, have used the same words to explain to us their connection to place: “The land is who we are.” In their shared recognition of the sacredness of Bears Ears lies hope.

As tribal members pursued declaration of the monument, they prayed for healing: healing between the tribes and the federal government with its history of systemically oppressing Native peoples; among the tribes that comprise the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, some of whom share histories of bitter conflict; with the earth itself, which bears scars from decades of drilling and mining; and, perhaps most challenging, between the tribes and residents of San Juan County—Native and Anglo, Mormon and non-Mormon—who opposed the monument.

But true healing can only be achieved through listening, compassion, and leadership—and an acknowledgment that past wounds are many and, in some cases, shared. It will depend on a commitment to hear all voices, to seek mutual understanding, that will allow citizens to create a just and sustainable future that benefits all. In many ways, San Juan County’s challenge to find common ground and common purpose mirror those of our country as a whole.

The path toward healing might be found in the words of Navajo elder Jonah Yellowman, who speaks to the ties that bind together the region’s residents and all Americans, to whom the land in Bears Ears National Monument belongs:

“This is everybody’s land. We’re all God’s children. This is all of us.”



Rebecca RobinsonRebecca Robinson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer. She has written for numerous print and online news outlets about crime, education, health care, social entrepreneurs, California’s prisons, state and federal medical marijuana laws, and homelessness, among other topics. She began her work on the manuscript for Views from the Colorado Plateau at the 2015 Fishtrap Summer Gathering of Writers. Currently a freelancer, Rebecca previously worked as a staff writer for Monterey County Weekly and a radio producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Stephen StromStephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Read “Views from the Colorado Plateau: The Bears Ears in Two Histories” by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom, also appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of Utah’s Comb Ridge from Utah Highway 95 by Stephen Strom. Photo of Rebecca Robinson by Peter Crabtree. Photo of Stephen Strom courtesy Stephen Strom.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.