Over 700 archaeologists have signed their name to a letter addressed to President Barack Obama which urges him to protect the almost 2 million acres of land in southern Utah known as Bears Ears by designating the area as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Efforts to protect the more than 100,000 archaeological sites located within the area have been ongoing for more than a century – longer than the Act itself, which celebrates its 110th anniversary this month, has been law.
The Bears Ears is a pair of buttes (each reaching an elevation of approximately 8,700 ft.) in San Juan County, Utah, which resemble the ears of a bear rising from the horizon. Widely considered the most significant cultural region in the country still unprotected, the area is famous for its incredibly well-preserved sites which include cliff dwellings, unique artifacts, ancient towers, pueblos and shrines, Native American graves and a number of rock art locations.
Representatives from five tribal nations (Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain, Ouray Ute, and Zuni) together formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015 to pursue protection of the area, which would ultimately include Cedar Mesa, White Canyon, Indian Creek, Comb Ridge, the Abajo Mountains and the Valley of the Gods. The confluence of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers is also contained within the proposed area. The coalition’s goal is not only to protect the many cultural resources found there but to honor the connection Native Americans have with the land.
“These archaeological sites, these artifacts are the footprints of our people,” Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, the director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office is quoted as saying in a press release from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. “We do not see these sites as ‘ruins’ or as being abandoned. The spirits of our ancestors still inhabit the Bears Ears. When these sites are looted or damaged, not only our history but our future is disrespected.”
The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, gives the U.S. President the authority to set aside culturally significant public lands as either a park or a conservation area in order to protect their features (both scientific and natural). These areas are collectively referred to as National Monuments. With the goal of ending the destruction or excavation of prehistoric and historic sites, the act has been used over a hundred times.
Looting, grave robbing, and other serious damage at the archaeological sites at Bears Ears happens at an alarming rate. Since 2011, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has documented 26 separate incidents of serious damage in San Juan County and seven of those occurred in just the last six months; they currently have just one assigned law enforcement officer to patrol the entire Bears Ears area.
In the letter, the archaeologists remind the President that Cedar Mesa is a formative place in regards to American archaeology, and that Bears Ears holds the tremendous scientific potential to provide information about the earliest times in the history of North America.