July 28, 2021 | By:

Archaeology and History of Bears Ears

David Roberts, The Bears Ears: A Human History of America’s Most Endangered Wilderness. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021.

E. Burrillo, Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape. Salt Lake City: Torrey House Press, 2020.

Reviewed by John Miles, Book Review Editor, Rewilding Earth

What, more books on Bears Ears? Yes, and there cannot be too many books on this remarkable landscape at this moment when there is a chance that protection for this wonderful and sacred place will be restored. Trump took much of it away, now maybe Biden will bring it back. Not that David Roberts and R.E. Burrillo are entirely happy with the prospect of a Bear Ears National Monument – fearing federal regimentation that will squelch some of the attraction of the place. Roberts has explored and written about this part of the Southwest for decades, and seen it change with growing visitation. The status of national monument, he believes, will bring more visitors, more regulation, and less freedom to roam. “Could a new national monument,” he asks, “with designated campgrounds, hiking fees and permits, ranger-led tours, and sites accessed by paved trails and cordoned off behind guardrails perversely steal the numinous past from Native Americans by turning their legacy into a thing for white folks to ‘do’ on their vacations?” As an archaeologist and avid backcountry traveler, Burrillo shares these concerns and agrees with Roberts’s begrudging conclusion that more protection is needed even if it will take away some of the freedom to explore. These books present the many reasons for that protection.

Roberts characterizes the recent “chorus” of books and articles about Bears Ears as leaning “toward the environmentalist and Native American perspective,” and pledges not to add to that chorus. Instead, as he has done in his previous books about the Southwest, he sets out to tell stories from history and from his own explorations yet does not entirely avoid what he calls the “environmental and American perspective” because the core reasons for caring about what he calls in his subtitle “America’s Most Endangered Wilderness” involve environmental and Native American values. Roberts is a writer, adventurer, and explorer who has tested his approach of mixing stories of his personal explorations with historical accounts in his many previous books, and it works. Burrillo takes a similar approach, salting his overview of the archaeological stories of Bears Ears with accounts of personal explorations and trials.

While Roberts is a veteran writer and storyteller, Behind the Bears Ears is Burrillo’s first book. Both men have decades-long experience of the place, and both passionately care about it. Roberts came on assignment to do a magazine story in 1992 and was, as he writes, “instantly hooked” by its beauty, wildness, and the multitude of stories of human struggles with the land and each other. He returned many times from his home in Massachusetts to explore and write about the Bears Ears region. Burrillo arrived first in 2006, backpacking in Grand Gulch where he marveled “over how scarcely visited such a wonderous and heavenly place could be.” Like Roberts, but over a decades-shorter period, he observed rapid changes overtaking this recently remote place. “By the time I got involved in research and conservation efforts in the Bears Ears area, I was paying off a rather sizeable karmic debt that I felt I owed the place. And it isn’t ‘scarcely visited,’ anymore.” Burrillo credits his fascination with Bears Ears with his choice of archaeology as a profession, and much of his professional experience has been in and around the region.

Roberts and Burrillo tell many of the same stories about the Bears Ears region, the Native Americans who lived there for millennia, the explorers and conquerors who came from Spain and later from the Anglo east of the United States. They portray many of the same characters who have played roles in histories of the region and in the study of those histories. Their approaches are very different. Roberts is the adventurer-journalist-storyteller. He loves the American Southwest; but unlike Burrillo, who is dedicating his life to study of and advocacy for the place, Roberts has traveled and told stories of many parts of the world in his long career. Burrillo is the archaeologist, Bears Ears specialist, and activist. Both insert themselves into their accounts, telling rich personal stories of their experiences of the place and their personal encounters with leading players in the contemporary Bears Ears studies and battles, scholars and activists such as Fred Blackburn, Winston Hurst, Vaughn Hadenfeldt, Bill Lipe, and Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk. Neither confines their account to the currently contested boundaries of the national monument. They write about the region and the many influences that have affected it through time, Burrillo’s chronology reaching much further back, to Paleoindians, Roberts opening with an overview of the exploratory history of the region.

Themes of both books include the deep histories and contested nature of the region, the ill-treatment even to the present of the Native Americans who have lived there for millennia, and the challenges of protecting wildness and a wealth of artifacts, or at least the wealth that remains after a century and a half of looting. One reality that comes through again and again is the difficulty of living in the region, both during early times before colonialism and since. In a chapter titled “Manuelito’s Dirge,” Roberts tells the story of the Navaho removal by the U.S. Army to the Bosque Redondo far from their homeland and Navaho leader Manuelito’s long holdout as many of his people made the 300-mile forced march, scores dying on the journey. Ultimately this Bosque Redondo relocation tragically failed and led to the Navaho returning to their homeland with the government’s reluctant blessing. Another remarkable story Roberts tells is that of the incredible Hole-in-the Rock expedition of Mormon families charged with traveling to the San Juan in southeast Utah where they established what is now Bluff, only to have much of it washed away in river floods forcing many to move on. He tells tales of looters, uranium miners, cowboys, politicians, and myriad other actors in the history of the Bears Ears region.

Burrillo, on the other hand, spends most of his time explaining what archaeology has, and has not yet, revealed about how the indigenous people of the region struggled with the nature of the place. As discoveries were made in the 19th and 20th centuries that major indigenous communities had flourished in the region, like Chaco and Mesa Verde, and then been depopulated, it was a compelling mystery as to where the people had gone and why. Burrillo notes that archaeologists prefer to use the term “depopulated” rather than “abandoned” because repeatedly through the long history of the region people had left, but then returned to repopulate earlier locations.  Much has been learned over the past century, much of the veil of mystery removed, and Burrillo brings the reader up to date on what is known, what is theorized, and how the work toward understanding is proceeding. His account follows the chronology of habitation and, in parallel, how Southwest archaeology has evolved in its methods and understanding. He explains how the field has evolved from crude excavation early on to a much less intrusive approach today, and how this is in no small part reaction to injustices archaeology has perpetrated against native people and their sacred lands, one of which is Bears Ears.

Roberts is much the more polished writer and storyteller. His narratives move steadily, his asides clearly tied to the narrative thread, the characters vividly portrayed, and the action compellingly recounted. He uses historical material well to source his stories, and his many trips to the Bears Ears country and extensive understanding of the land allow clear descriptions of the settings of the Navaho’s trials, the Mormon expeditions, the uranium boom, “Posey’s War” in 1923, and the last “Indian war” (at least the last physical altercation that was called a war). Roberts also sprinkles pointed comments throughout his book. Here are a few examples:

Eurocentric notions of “truth” do not fit well with certain kinds of Native American tolerance of ambiguity.

The iconic Winston Hurst saw monument status as a disaster, summing up the National Park System in a pithy epithet as a bureaucracy that ran tourist-thronged reserves where “everything not compulsory is forbidden.”

I know of no finer mea culpa written by a scholar than Winston’s “Collecting This, Collecting That,” and no finer forging of an ethical code out of the follies of youth than his. If only every archaeologist in the Southwest, and every local citizen and visitor from afar who picks up an arrowhead and puts it in her pocket, would read the essay, take it to heart, and ponder what a growing number of us believe is the best, most respectful, and deepest way of communing with the ancients.

Indeed, the racist treatment of Native Americans is built into the Mormon faith, in the form of the Doctrine of the Lamanites.

Roberts not only tells stories but wrings insights from them that provide very nuanced perspectives on what is at stake in the current contest over Bear Ears.

Burrillo’s contribution does not rely as much on great storytelling as does Roberts, who strives not only to inform but to entertain. Burrillo exercises his archaeological chops through the first nine chapters, then recounts how the “Conquerors” (mostly Spanish), the “Wranglers” (mostly Mormons but even British ranch investors), the “Pillagers” (pothunters, uranium and coal miners, tourists), and the “Builders” (mostly those seeking to “build” protection for the area) have contributed to the history. Those first nine chapters explain what archaeologists think happened in and around Bears Ears before the “Historic” period, using the timeline called the “Pecos Sequence” from the Paleoindian period >13,000 BP up to the Protohistoric period from 1850-1500 BP. Burrillo tells this long story without any archaeological jargon, explaining how archaeologists delineated the periods and what is known about them. He critiques the methods of many of his archaeological predecessors and explains how archaeology has evolved in the world and the American Southwest. “The history of the archaeology of Bears Ears,” he says, “is a coming-of-age narrative that traces an intriguing path from colonialistic treasure-hunting to cross-cultural collaboration.” The story of how this has come to be is a most interesting one, well told by one of the current players.

Burrillo admits that what he does is perhaps not “archaeology” in the classic American sense, writing that “’Conservation science’ or ‘environmental regulatory compliance’ comes closer to the mark.” He sees his role as “Helping to prevent the rich material history of places like Bears Ears from being wantonly destroyed by forces too ignorant, disinterested, or malicious to minimize impacts on their own. This is where I think people like me, wily pilgrims with sturdy backpacks and open weekends who geek out on the beauty of really old stuff, can do the greatest good on its behalf.” He insists, though, that there are limits to what educated white guys like him can do. “As for interpretation of what that really old stuff means to its creators and their descendants, that’s a task better suited to them. The deep history of Bears Ears is mostly Indigenous after all, so the future of its archaeology should be mostly Indigenous as well.” Burrillo closes with an Afterward by Indigenous archaeologist Lyle Balenquah, one of those who can delve deeper into what “that really old stuff” may mean than he can, a most appropriate way to end the book.

All who love Bears Ears, want it protected, and want to know how and why it should be protected, will be rewarded from reading Roberts’s and Burrillo’s books. I have read a half dozen books about this remarkable place, and visited a couple of times, and I gained new perspectives on what is at stake from these books. I come away convinced that national monument status must be achieved and that Indigenous people, members of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition who drafted the original monument proposal, must be deeply involved in co-managing the monument with the federal government. Burrillo describes how surprised he was to learn that in the languages of all the tribes involved in the Coalition, “Bears Ears is known as Bears Ears.” Very different languages “have different names for every other area, landform, waterway, animal, vegetable, and mineral in the region. But they all refer to those twin sandstone formations by their respective terms for the ears of a bear. I know of no other such case, anywhere.”

These people share more than a name for this remarkable place. The rest of America has a stake as well.

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Richard s Cimino
2 years ago

Excellent read. I recently scouted the Bears Ears and The Escalante NM for planning a May 2022 Birding and Landscape field trip. I’ll be purchasing both these books for additional information to use during the field trip.

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