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Earth to Sky: Indigenous Knowledge and Co-Management in Bears Ears National Monument

“It’s not about bringing five gallon buckets to fill,” Chris said, “but what can I fit in my pocket?”

Over a recent Zoom call, Christopher Lewis - Zuni fiber artist, Board Member for the Greater Bears Ears Partnership (formerly Friends of Cedar Mesa) Board Member, and Native Scholar on the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project -  shared some insight about the approach he takes to his harvesting practice.


A man weaving in his lap with native plants Image via Semira Crank


With the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project (CMPP), Chris works alongside other scholars to document the 4,000 mostly unpublished textiles, baskets, wooden implements, and hide and feather artifacts excavated from dry caves in the Greater Cedar Mesa area during the 1890s. Alongside his work with the CMPP Chris is a fiber artist, oftentimes using materials he harvests from the land in his basket making. His work has incorporated reviving ancestral weaving patterns, basketry and other textile arts in Zuni and other Pueblos.

Describing his approach for harvesting the yucca, sumac and willow he uses for weaving and colorful minerals he incorporates as pigments, Chris expressed the importance of preventing long-term damage, ensuring that he, and those in the generations to come, may continue to harvest those same areas.

 “I picked, but I didn’t pick just one area,” he explained, while regaling a recent outing to collect wood and plants. “I walked around and picked a little here and a little there, so I didn’t deplete an entire area. If you pick out an entire area, the next year you’ll go back, and there won’t be any more plants. Leave something for the following years, for future generations.”


A close up of a man weaving with native plants Image via Semira Crank


Chris elaborated on the intentional techniques used in harvesting - never pulling plants by their root, or just cutting the leaves so they can resprout - all to avoid depleting an area of its plant population and preserving the health of the ecosystem.

“All of that is taught to us. We learn that way not to deplete or abuse what we’re given - and that there’s always something for us when we go back.”

Yet, this is not the way that public lands in the United States have been managed in our lifetimes.

Chris recounted the devastating impacts of mining he has seen up north in the La Sals, an area he frequents to collect certain plant material and mineral: “I look at that and think of how much is lost…When we start doing large scale operations like that, the things done will have long term effects over time. The scars will remain. What’s being dug out of the ground and leaching into the water table, the dust, what’s being carried in the air - all of that has long lasting effects.”



Defining Indigenous Knowledge

Many of the principles Chris shared are considered Indigenous Knowledge, defined in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s recently-released Land Management Plan (LMP)(Se abre en una ventana nueva) as:

“The on-going accumulation of knowledge, practice, and belief around relationships between living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by Indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways. This knowledge includes the relationships between people, plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes, and timing of events such as hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry. It encompasses a world view which includes ecology, spirituality, human and animal relationships, and more (ACHP 2021: 15).”

The understanding of which plants and minerals to look for, where to find them, when to harvest, the proper technique to harvest, and how to thank the land they are taken from, are all elements of Indigenous Knowledge that are passed down through generations. Historically, Indigenous Knowledge has more often than not been disregarded in favor of information garnered from Western scientific methodology. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has requested an alternative approach as federal agencies move forward with the planning process:

The Coalition asks that Indigenous Knowledge and Native ways of knowing are “given equal consideration with knowledge from processes framed by Western scientific paradigm,” stressing the need for a holistic, “Earth-to-Sky” approach that recognizes the landscape as an interconnected ecosystem.

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into the planning and management of Bears Ears, will not only take steps toward fulfilling the Monument’s mandate for Tribal co-management, but also honor the landscape itself. A landscape view of Bears Ears National Monument Image via Scott Henderson

Stepping into an Era of Co-Management

The release of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s LMP arrived on the heels of the historic cooperative agreement (Se abre en una ventana nueva)between Tribes and federal agencies, made earlier this summer. On June 18th, 2022, leadership from each of the five Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Tribes came together with representatives from federal agencies to sign an agreement, formalizing the co-management of Bears Ears. The signed agreement ensures that the Coalition Tribes will have more say in the day-to-day management of Bears Ears National Monument, and that Tribal expertise and Indigenous Knowledge will guide joint decision-making for the monument moving forward. This agreement also represents a step towards addressing the federal government’s history of removing Indigenous people from their ancestral lands and moving toward a future of healing and repair. “Instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park,” said Carleton Bowekaty, co-chair of the Bears Ears Commission and Lieutenant Governor of the Pueblo of Zuni, “we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future.”  The Coalition’s LMP is the synthesis of varying perspectives and priorities from all five of the Coalition Tribes, addressing how Bears Ears National Monument should be managed for generations to come, by bringing not only Tribal leadership but Indigenous Knowledge into the forefront of the planning process for the first time. The trajectory towards co-management instills hope, not only for the future of the Monument, but that it may also serve as a precedent for future agreements between the federal government and other Tribes and communities of color. A bird's eye view of Bears Ears National Monument Image via John Gregor

Take Action

While the recent cooperative agreement and release of the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s LMP are certainly reasons to celebrate, everyone has a role to play in ensuring the values, methods and holistic approach to management outlined in the LMP are put into action. A historic land use planning process for Bears Ears National Monument is currently underway. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) are hosting a combination of virtual and in-person scoping meetings, as well as accepting public comments through October 31, 2022. This planning process is an opportunity to express support for Tribal co-management, and for managing Bears Ears in a ground-breaking way that’s never been done before on public lands in the United States. Get more information(Se abre en una ventana nueva) on scoping meetings and additional topics to consider for your comments on the Greater Bears Ears Partnership website(Se abre en una ventana nueva).

Visit with Respect

Another way to be active in the protection of Bears Ears is by learning how to Visit with Respect. While BEP believes that most visitors are well-intentioned, the cultural and physical landscapes are still at great risk of being loved to death. As visitors to this landscape, it is our responsibility to preserve these cultural sites out of respect to the region’s Tribes and Pueblos, who trace their ancestry here, and for all visitors who come after. To learn more about our Visit with Respect campaign(Se abre en una ventana nueva), take a moment to visit our website(Se abre en una ventana nueva), or swing by the Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff, Utah!   Please note, Friends of Cedar Mesa is now the Greater Bears Ears Partnership! In the coming weeks, you’ll notice us using our new name, logo, email addresses, and even a new website…make sure to check it out at abre en una ventana nueva)