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Bears Ears And The Scramble To Piece Together Eons Of Stories Of Human Life

Jonathan Till was examining some new donations - a basket, a ladle, a flute and clay pots - back when I met him last year.

“Normally, we don't take things that don't have any good excavation or locational information behind them,” said Till, an archaeologist and curator at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, which features archaeology from the area. “If I don't know where it's from, how does this inform us?”

A local patriarch had collected the artifacts long ago, Till said. And when he passed away, no one could say where they’d been found. The curator thought they might be more than 800 years old - up to 1,000-years-old, but he couldn’t be sure. If he knew where they were originally found - at a kiva, for instance - the pieces could tell him lots more.

“Imagine taking Genesis, the book of Genesis,” said Till, “and then cutting out each word, or just cutting out letters, or groups of letters, and then tossing it up into the air and then giving me a handful of letters from that.”

Credit Judy Fahys / KUER News
Jonathan Till shows a ball of yucca twine, one of the extraordinary objects at the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding. He says objects like these offer insights into history, and local Native American tribes help scientists understand how they fit into ancient human stories.

Bears Ears is full of meaningful snippets like this. Ruins, graves, pottery, tools, even trash heaps - archaeologists say there could be over 100,000 significant sites where these objects help tell a story, the human story.

“Think about the question: What are the circumstances around us becoming farmers? How do we go from hunter gatherers to being farming people? And how do we go from hunter-gatherers to being city dwellers, to being urbanites? You know these are all crucibles that much of the world has gone through. If you want to tackle that question, this is where you want to tackle it.”

The land around Bears Ears holds stories unfolding over more than 12,000 years. What we believed. Why we fought wars. How we coped with wild swings in the climate.

“This is it,” said Till. “This is the place on the planet where we can talk about how we become modern day human beings.”

While the heart of the Bears Ears debate is about preserving human history, the national monument fight isn’t just about ruins. It’s also about the important stories scattered across San Juan County’s landscape, archaeologists say.

Till says he’s not concerned about the national monument’s boundaries. What does worry him is enforcing laws and educating visitors, regardless of the monument’s size. He wants the necessary resources dedicated to preserving stories, their pages left intact.

The Trump administration has said conserving the cultural resources is important, but it’s also recommending trimming the monument’s size.

Blanding historian Janet Wilcox wants that, too.

“This landscape is used by lots of people in lots of ways,” she says, sitting on the living room of a home where she’s been writing up San Juan stories for decades. “I think it needs to be a shared landscape.”

History, including Anglo, ancient and Native American, is a local tradition, Wilcox says. In fact, government researchers and universities used to pay locals to dig up pottery and other artifacts.

Credit Judy Fahys / KUER News
Janet Wilcox is a founder of the history magazine, Blue Mountain Shadows, which chronicles history in San Juan County. She says protect modern traditions is important, along with preserving ancient history.

“So, you would go out and plant in your garden, or in your bean field or wherever, and you were digging stuff up,” she says. “You know, it was everywhere.”

Pot-hunting is illegal now, and Wilcox agrees artifacts should be protected. But she calls it extreme and impossible to try to preserve everything -- especially on 1.3 million acres.

“I don't know how many archaeological sites have to be excavated to have the whole story, to tell you the truth,” Wilcox says. “And I think a certain amount of that is really important. We need to know it. But I don't think is critical to survival today.”

Like many people who live here, Wilcox says restrictions on the monument shouldn’t sideline other local traditions, like hunting, ranching and cutting firewood.

“What I think I hear you saying,” I begin, “is we shouldn’t let the dead stop....”

“The living. Yeah. Exactly. We need jobs here, and we need a tax base, and we need to keep working to improve our schools, you know. So, yeah, I think the living are more important.”

Josh Ewing is taking me into places in Bears Ears that aren’t found on maps. We head down a dirt track, over slickrock and we come to a lush, redrock canyon. Patterned pottery sherds litter the sand. A stone-block ruin is tucked high in a sandstone alcove. Petroglyphs are scratched into a wall nearby.

“Well, I brought you to this area,” says the leader of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit, “because it illustrates the archaeological importance of a broad spectrum of the monument and not just some small, little part that politicians might choose as important.”

He says the monument boundaries should stay the same. “Places like we’re at here are very likely to be eliminated from national monument protection.”

The Antiquities Act says monuments should include the smallest area needed to protect the objects. This monument might seem vast, Ewing says, but it fits that definition.

“At Bear's Ears, even relatively small reductions in size would leave out hundreds -- if not thousands -- of objects that were intended to be protected by the original proclamation.”

Hundreds of archaeologists pressed for the monument’s creation last year. This year the Trump administration is considering smaller boundaries.

The White House is getting advice from the state of Utah, which used to keep two field archaeologists on the payroll to help interpret cultural landscapes like this. But they were laid off years ago.

So, as the Bears Ears question comes into sharp focus, it not clear if anyone drawing the new maps can hear when the pages of history are being torn away.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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