BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT — Dressed in elaborate headpieces made to resemble bison heads, two Pueblo men circled and lunged at each other, their white moccasins kicking up red dirt from the ground.
As the sun climbed high in the sky, they performed a traditional dance honoring the bison. The ceremony, which is usually held in winter, was the last in an hour-long ceremonial dance to celebrate the Pueblo people’s homecoming to a landscape where their forebears once dwelled.
The fifth annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering last weekend brought together Native people in support of the monument. The three-day event drew 800 people this year, according to organizers from Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that formed in 2012 to advocate for the creation of the national monument.
Sweating under the bison headpiece, dancer Chet Martinez said the opportunity to dance for Native people at the Summer Gathering energized him. A member of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico, Martinez was visiting Bears Ears for the first time.
“Even though we are spread out as a Native race, this gives us a chance to come together and unite and combine so we all can be as one,” he said.
Held at the Kigalia Ranger Station, it was the first time the contemporary version of the traditional Pueblo ceremonial dance has been performed in the Bears Ears region, organizers said.
“The origins [of the dance] definitely evolved here during the migration, so it’s really powerful that this particular dance came full circle,” said Kevin Madalena, a geologist from Pueblo of Jemez who works for Utah Diné Bikéyah.
This year’s event took on additional significance as the Bureau of Land Management is currently developing a land management plan for the monument, said Alastair Bitsóí of Utah Diné Bikéyah. Along with a coalition of tribes that advocated for the monument, Utah Diné Bikéyah is currently suing the federal government over the 2017 reduction of the monument.
President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 on 1.3 million acres in San Juan County. The next year, President Trump shrunk the monument to 200,000 acres. The lawsuit argues that a reduction of that scale is illegal.
This year’s gathering focused largely on the Pueblo people. There are 19 pueblos in New Mexico, and each is home to a federally recognized Tribe. The Hopi in Arizona and the Ysleta del Sur in Texas are also distinct, federally recognized Pueblo Tribes.
Despite the Pueblo people’s ancestral ties to the Bears Ears region, only two Pueblo leaders were included in the coalition of Tribes that pushed for the initial monument designation. That was an oversight, said Eric Descheenie, who worked for the Navajo Nation at the time.
“We ought to have reached out to these people and said, ‘Come join us, let’s work together,’" said Descheenie. “[The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has] a task ahead of them to figure out how to honor these peoples, and make sure their voices and needs are not just understood but applied.”
Utah Diné Bikéyah hired Ahjani Yepa from the Jemez Pueblo this year to reach out to Pueblo people in New Mexico and involve them in the effort to restore the monument. She said that while the Pueblo and Navajo, or Diné, are historical enemies, it’s time to put that aside.
“To see so much sharing and appreciation for one another is what Bears Ears is all about,” she said. “It’s about coming together as tribes, and it’s about healing with each other and with our outside world, our environment.”
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.