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Sacred space: Interfaith efforts to protect Bears Ears

Faith leader gathering at Bears Ears

Guest commentary by Conrad Rocha

The Presbyterians (Andrew Black; Harry Eberts, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Norma McCabe, Native American consultant for the Presbytery of Grand Canyon to the Navajo Nation and pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Kayenta, Arizona; Conrad M. Rocha; Jim Brown (HR), former executive director of the General Assembly Council of the PC(USA); Virginia Bairby, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Taos, New Mexico;
Milinda Benallie, ruling elder and clerk of session at Kayenta Presbyterian Church in Kayenta, Arizona)

The sacred land of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah is now under major threat. On Dec. 4, President Trump signed two proclamations rescinding the national monument status of almost 80 percent of the Bears Ears National Monument and around 45 percent of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Considered sacred to the Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute, Mountain Ute, the Navajo Nation and to over 30 tribes nationwide, a coalition of tribal leaders spent years advocating for Bears Ears National Monument, which is home to thousands of Native American archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. However, under the new proclamation, Bears Ears National Monument will be split into two separate sections where some of the 100,000 known religious ruins remain, and the rest will be opened up extractive industries including oil and gas and mining.

In anticipation of the Dec. 4 decision, Presbyterian pastors and elders joined interfaith leaders from throughout the West in a journey to Bears Ears National Monument to stand in solidarity with tribal leaders that have held this land sacred for millennia. The “Coming Together to Protect America’s Sacred Places” initiative brought indigenous spiritual leaders from Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition together with Jewish rabbis and Christian clergy (from Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ and Catholic faiths) for a cultural dialogue and exchange about the importance of protecting the monument and other public lands in America.

Andrew Black (left) and Brophy Toledo of Jemez Pueblo

“This trip was an opportunity for spiritual leaders from all four corners, from various faiths, denominations and traditions to all come together to protect America’s sacred places,” said Andrew Black, Presbyterian minister, trip organizer and director of community relations and education for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “We recognize that an attack on one sacred place is an attack on all sacred places and we have come together to highlight for the nation the moral and ethical implications of such attacks on our land, water, wildlife and the whole of creation.”

United Church of Christ Southwest Conference Minister, William Lyons, summed it up well when he stated, “Bears Ears is one of only a small handful of national monuments created at the request and by the design of Native people. To reduce its size is not only a tragedy for the land and the wildlife, but this effort overflows with racism against the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain tribe, Hopi tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian tribe.”

As a Presbyterian, I echoed the hope of those gathered to lend our voices as privileged Americans to the voices of our beloved Native American siblings, those closest to this land who are being ignored.

Black further noted, “Bears Ears National Monument is one of the most unique, picturesque and sacred areas in America. Recognizing this, tribal and spiritual leaders from various faith traditions throughout the West came together to lift up Bear Ears National Monument as a place of great healing, wholeness and spiritual value – not only to the region, but to the nation as a whole. For the administration to shrink the monument and fragment this pristine landscape is a grave injustice that fails to understand the sacred interconnectedness between the area’s land, water, wildlife and people who have been on this landscape for thousands of years.”

Speaking to this and in support of the recent visit by spiritual leaders, Davis Filfred, member of the Navajo Nation, Bears Ears Commissioner and U.S. Marine veteran,stated, “We encourage all people to come to Bears Ears because there is nothing like it in the world. We want people to come to see the land, how we use the land and how it is sacred to us.”

While visiting Bears Ears, the spiritual leaders met with representatives from the Utah Diné Bikéyah, a local nonprofit actively working to protect Bears Ears and whose mission is to “preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of ancestral Native American lands to benefit and bring healing to people and the Earth.”

Calling tribal and religious leaders to come together to continue to protect Bears Ears National Monument as a place of sacredness and healing, Joseph Brophy Toledo, traditional leader from Jemez Pueblo, said, “If you take care of the Earth, the Earth will take care of you. The healing of one is the healing of all. If we express our concerns as one, we can be heard louder. Sacred sites are like our churches, kivas, white house boundaries, and places of great healing and magnetism. As EarthPeople we ask you help us, help you. Our purpose is to help, not hurt, to build, not break.”

Jeff Swanson, pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) who is also a retired military chaplain and veteran, said of the journey: “As a veteran of our nation’s combat spanning from Vietnam to Iraq, my spirit was calmed at Bears Ears. I departed wanting other veterans and Americans to behold the expansive beauty that will embrace their being.”

Water prayer

During the trip, a service of healing and blessing at Kigali Overlook was led by Sister Joan Brown, the executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, a creation care and climate justice organization. A natural basin rock was anointed with water from 34 locations from around the world. I used water from Fatima, Portugal, a Catholic pilgrimage site.

At the service, I said, “This water reminds me that Catholic and Jew, Reformed Protestant denominations and Native American spiritual leaders can come together and united seek to save creation which God deemed good.” I also noted that “in this year in which we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that we recognize that Luther sought reformation not separation, and so we come together, despite our differences, united in the desire to honor the miracle of creation as it is manifested in Bear Ears.”

Seeking to prevent irreversible damage to sacred sites, wildlife corridors and delicate watersheds, the group of spiritual leaders ask individuals and congregations to stand in solidarity with our nation’s tribes by reaching out to their congressional members and asking them to support Bears Ears National Monument and the protection of the 1.35 million acres in the original declaration.

CONRAD M. ROCHA is a ruling elder and stated clerk/synod executive of the Synod of the Southwest. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.