Visit's surprises and discoveries show why preserving Bears Ears is crucial

By Carolyn Dale - Summer 2017

The sheltering cave held rock walls of ancient houses, fire-blackened sections of ceiling, a curving wall of an underground ceremonial kiva, a fireplace heaped with tiny corncobs, and chunks of broken pottery underfoot. My husband and I stood looking in silent awe.

This unexcavated early Puebloan site may be hundreds of years old, or thousands. We don’t know because no interpretive signs were posted, no guidebook was at hand, and no parks ranger or local tribal member was present to show us around.

We ran into an archeologist, though, on our hike into Arch Canyon, in southeastern Utah, where we had arrived by accident, after missing a turnoff for Butler Wash ruins. The ancient, unexcavated sites we saw that day—dozens of them—are within Bears Ears National Monument. Recently, President Donald Trump asked the Secretary of the Interior to review the monument’s designation, apparently with the goal of reducing the protected area. This would be an enormous loss.

I’ve had few travel experiences as amazing as arriving in this area full of uncharted, ancient sites. We usually research a trip ahead of time, and guidebooks and online photos, maps, and reviews provide a good picture of what our visit will be like.

Not this time. A few dots on the Indian Country map indicated ruins off the highway heading west to Natural Bridges, and when we saw a parking area by the side of the road, and a metal box for hikers to register, we stopped and set off, following a narrow streambed trail through rocky, steep hillsides.

After some time, we met a man dressed in khaki who was walking out, and when we asked about early Puebloan sites, he seemed puzzled and asked how we knew about them. As it turned out, he was an archeologist and university professor who worked in the area. He kindly pulled out a topographical map and gave us some directions.

“Up the stream half a mile, there’s a large area of slickrock. If you scramble across that and head uphill, you’ll find the site I’ve called Dance Hall.” Then he described a couple of additional sites accessible from the path.

After another hour, we located the places he described—and spotted dozens more. It’s hard to believe that within a short distance from a modern highway we could literally stumble upon unexcavated, ancient sites that once were villages, seasonal camps, and meeting places.

The current boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument hold more than a hundred thousand such sites. They resemble the cave-sheltered structures tourists see at Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, and other national parks and monuments, but without the excavations, guard rails, prohibited areas, gift shops, and entrance fees. Or protections; some of the sites in Bears Ears have been looted and vandalized.

We weren’t alone on the trails that day—we saw half a dozen other people—and the land was being managed by two federal agencies, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. This was six years ago, before former President Barack Obama expanded the size of Bears Ears National Monument during his final days in office.

At one site, when we found some particularly nice broken pieces of pottery, we added them to a row of similar shards placed on a large, flat rock. When I listed our find in a notebook stored inside an old, heavy metal ammunition box, I suddenly became a player in the documentation of history.

In one old house where the cave ceiling had fallen in, a heavy chain barred access to a sensitive area, possibly where people had been caught and buried by the rubble. We moved about carefully, in reverential quiet.

In another dwelling, a crude ladder aided climbing up to more caverns. Cold wind whooshed eerily out from deep tunnels lacing the hillside behind it, and our voices echoed softly off the walls.

From the front entrances of these ancient houses, we stood and gazed out toward rocky hillsides green with grasses and trees in the May springtime, and down toward the small stream on the canyon floor.

If President Trump wants to reverse the recent expansion of Bears Ears National Monument, what other uses does he see for such land? Apparently these hillsides are ripe for mining, for natural gas extraction, or, at the least, for cattle grazing.

Five Indian tribes have joined forces to protect Bears Ears. Two Ute tribes, Dine (Navajo), Hopi, and Zuni consider this ancestral land and use it for cultural and ceremonial purposes. The tribes also say it bears a historical record of how their nations have met and dealt with each other in recent centuries.

The Antiquities Act protects some sites that date back to 12,000 BCE, and it seems all parties to the disputed future of Bears Ears agree that some protections need to stand. I think another key question is about preserving current history and the meaning we derive from it.

This land has been under the jurisdiction of the United States for less than two hundred years. Its history of human habitation dates back between 18,000 and 26,000 years. Are we really going to break up and erase these canyons’ history for more natural-gas fracking?

Leslie Marmon Silko, a Puebloan author, writes of European settlers in North America:

“And as the elders point out, the Europeans have hardly been on the continents of the Americas five hundred years. Still, they say, the longer Europeans or others live on these continents, the more they will become part of the Americas. The gravity of the continent under their feet begins this connection, which grows slowly in each generation. The process requires not hundreds, but thousands of years.”

At a place like Arch Canyon, within Bears Ears, it is possible to make that connection and feel that process, for me, my husband, and others we met on the trails that day, who are not Native American. This place is different because it is living history, currently being used, and still being discovered.

The corncobs we saw in a fireplace aren’t likely to be thousands of years old. The grooves polished in stone from centuries of grinding corn look freshly used, as are the handgrips and footholds in pockets of rock that let us climb up into someone’s former home.

On May 26, the final day allowed for the public to have a say on the future of Bears Ears, more than 100,000 people had written their views at the time I entered my comment on the federal website. That’s about one person per archeological site in the area.

Maybe this public effort will be enough that Bears Ears can be saved as a place where a sixth culture, the Euro-American dominant culture, also came to have a positive interaction with the others.


More than 100,000 ancient sites have been found within Bears Ears National Monument.