In the early to mid 1800s, much of the region now known as Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada was still a land of myth and rumor based on the not-so-reliable accounts of mountain men, trappers, and prospectors. But after the Civil War, a strengthened federal government became much more interested in its western reaches and launched several expeditions and surveys. What was documented in the official reports astounded government officials but also unnerved them because tens of thousands of settlers were already streaming west to claim homesteads, stake claims, and generally have their way in a region with little to no regulation or oversight. Some of these places deserved protection from rapacious developers, leaders decided, but Congress had no legal means to set them aside.
Senate Bill 392, otherwise known as the Yellowstone Act of 1872, changed all that by withdrawing more than two million acres from sale or settlement. This brilliantly foresighted act of Congress dedicated the land “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,”—creating the first national park in the world.
The United States National Park System now encompasses 422 national park sites, including southern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, established in 2016 by President Obama. With a different environmental ethic, less than a year later, President Trump reduced the size of the park by 85 percent. We can only wait to see what president-elect Biden will do, but all signs point to him reversing Trump’s act.
This week, we’re excited to hear from a guy who knows the treasures and secrets of Bears Ears as well as anyone alive—R.E. Burrillo, the author of Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape. An archaeologist with a degree in anthropology, Burrillo also helped write a portion of the lawsuit filed against the Trump Administration when they reduced the park size.
Kristine Morris reviewed Behind the Bears Ears for the November/December issue of Foreword and with an assist from Torrey House Press, we connected reviewer and author for this delightful conversation.
Kristine, we’re all ears.
What was it that originally drew you to archeology, and particularly to your study and work on behalf of the Bears Ears area?
Boy, that’s a tough one to answer in anything less than a 400-page-book. What first drew me to the place itself was reading David Roberts’ book In Search of the Old Ones after spending a few years in what I call the “recreational archaeology” scene—people who enjoy going to look for rock art, or cliff dwellings, or other cool ancient stuff the way others get fixated on birds or waterfalls. I think that fixation itself can be traced back to my roots as a Goth Kid who really dug (please forgive the unintentional pun) cemeteries and abandoned places. The study came naturally, as I got more and more curious about the place, and as I climbed higher on the rickety ladder of academia.
As for getting involved with work to save it, I started looking for opportunities following a really catalyzing and embarrassing hike in the territory just north of there right before I left graduate school, and before long groups started hitting me up and asking me to use whatever skills and talents they thought they saw to help with their efforts.
In her beautiful introduction to your book, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, leader of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, wrote, “Our Mother Earth is me, and I am her.” What might it take for non-Native peoples to understand and embrace this spirit of identification with, and love for, the land?
We really need a major shift in our culture, in a lot of ways. We preach individualism to the point where nobody asks for help when they desperately need it, especially men; where the idea is to cinch up your bootstraps and punch your problems into submission. We don’t really have a sense of solidarity. The reason social media does such a great job of sewing divisiveness in our culture is partly because it’s such a great tool of propaganda, as Sacha Baron Cohen said, but also because we are hardwired by our upbringing to be divisive. We don’t think of ourselves as a single community. And that’s just Step One. Step Two is to expand that sense of community beyond our political borders, to include everyone else in the world; and beyond our Judeo-Christian perceptive border, to include the animals, the plants, the air we breathe, etc. Much of Indigenous philosophy has a surprising amount in common with Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, in this regard. The idea that we’re all “one,” so to speak, and that the differences are either of no consequence or else totally illusory. We need, in short, to stop being a culture of spoiled and self-centered swine.
In your book, you mentioned feeling that you had to pay off a “karmic debt” that you owed to the Bears Ears area. If you are willing, please share with us what this was. Was the debt personal or ancestral? Do you feel the debt has been paid, and how was it paid?
I did the overwhelming bulk of my healing there, when I was sick with Lyme disease for somewhere between two and four years (I have no idea when the infection ceased and the healing process actually began). Everywhere else felt awful, and distant, and depressing, and I never felt “better” when I was anywhere but there. So I owe that to the area. But even outside of that very personal experience, so many of my friends and colleagues and I have had such great times, shared great adventures, seen and experienced really wonderful things in that area, and while that’s all good and well it’s also mightily selfish. If you feel no guilt whatsoever about enjoying a place without giving anything back to it, you are the very swine I was carping about in the last bit.
What do you mean when you use the term “mosaic” to describe the nature of the human history of the area?
This is a little tricky, but essentially: every part of the vast and very ecologically heterogenous Bears Ears area was occupied or utilized by one Indigenous group or another throughout at least 13,000 years of history. But not all at once, and not all for the same reason. When it was hunter-gatherers, they focused mostly on waterways and deep canyons full of rich plant and animal life. When it was farmers, they focused mostly on open mesa tops where they could grow. Shifting climates meant shifting upward or downward in occupation zones, and local environmental changes—resource depression, etc.—necessitated shifting around laterally within those zones. Does that make sense? At every point in history, Indigenous people were using some part of that area, even if not all of it at once, because of just how damn much it had to offer them. This group here in this period, that group there in that period, etc. That’s the mosaic.
Is the mosaic nature of the Bears Ears area unique to it, or is it shared by other areas that were originally inhabited by Native communities?
As far as I can tell, it’s wholly unique. And it’s the reason the Bears Ears area is totally unparalleled for density of material history (“archaeology”) in North America and quite possibly the world. Because there aren’t any gaps. When one spot didn’t fit the current needs or culture or whatever, the spot next to it did. So far as I know, every ecotone known to North America is represented someplace in Bears Ears except arctic, rainforest, and seafront.
How has this characteristic complicated your work on behalf of the area and its Native communities?
Well, in terms of the Native communities, I help when and how they ask me to. I try not to butt in. But the biggest complication is fragmentation of management zones. Because of how varied the environment is, different parts of it are managed by one of four different management agencies: BLM, Forest Service, Park Service, and Utah State Lands. That can be downright maddening when it comes to things like management and permitting. Bears Ears National Monument was supposed to fix that by bringing it all under one aegis, and hopefully will again.
Bears Ears has become a kind of “ground zero” in the struggle to protect sacred lands from being despoiled by extractive technologies, hunters, ranchers, and visitors. Why is this area so central to arguments for and against protection, and what progress has been made in teaching people about its importance?
Much of that, I think, is circumstantial. In the final days before proclaiming Bears Ears National Monument, President Obama reached out to tribal and conservation groups in the northern Southwest and asked which was a higher priority—Bears Ears or Greater Grand Canyon. He was trying to decide which one to declare. Had it been Grand Canyon, I think there would still be yelling and screaming about that, but everyone said Bears Ears was a greater priority at the moment. But meanwhile it’s also getting “loved to death,” as so many people have pointed out, and that’s not really true of many places that aren’t already parks (e.g., Grand Canyon), recreation areas (Lake Powell), and so on. It’s a big blob of federal and state lands that gets visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. I can’t think of a comparison case. And the cultural resources there, rivaled only by places like Mesa Verde and Chaco—which have much better legislative protection—are particularly sensitive and vulnerable. So the imperative is rather extreme.
What is your response to the Trump administration’s assaults on National Parks, Monuments, and lands sacred to Native tribes?
Outrage, of course, but that’s only to be expected. I wasn’t expecting his “assaults” to be as assiduous as they are, but I’m also glad that so many of them have been thwarted. I mention this in the book, but look up the case of the Outer Continental Shelf withdrawal. And we have yet to see whether or not the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante reductions will stand up in the courts. So outrage was one reaction, but being spurred to action was the other.
How can such actions be prevented? Does the Coalition’s commitment to peaceful action seem to be effective?
Well, again, we have yet to see the outcome of the lawsuits against the Trump administration for attempting to reduce the two Utah monuments. So their commitment to peaceful action may or may not work out, but I’m hopeful. Litigious action seems to be the way to go, in instances like these. The days of “civil disobedience,” to use the old term, are certainly not over—e.g., the Black Lives Matter and Dakota Access examples. But the experiment is still running and we haven’t yet seen its result.
How would you describe your relationship with tribal leaders in the area, and how was it achieved?
Well, I’m a bit of an introvert, which is why I went into archaeology rather than cultural anthropology. So I’m not especially close with any tribal leaders, outside of a small few. Those relationships are a result of me simply being a consistent and respectful ally. I don’t like to get up into anyone’s face, really.
Given the history of betrayals Native tribes have experienced at the hands of the US government and the discrimination they face from the non-Native population, what do you think might be done to develop a good relationship with Native tribes, learn from them, and work together to protect historically, culturally, and/or ecologically sensitive places?
Listening rather than talking is a key component—or listening more than talking, I should say. Be collaborative and allow people a seat at the table, not just symbolically but effectually. And treat traditional cultural knowledge as knowledge rather than simply dismissing it as “myth.”
If you could devise and implement a plan to protect and preserve Bears Ears and other threatened, sensitive places, what would your plan look like?
Funny you should ask: the Inter-Tribal Coalition contracted a cultural resource management firm to create a resource management plan (RMP) for Bears Ears National Monument on their behalf, in the hopes that it might be implemented—or at least taken as a suggestion—if/when the monument reduction is overturned. I haven’t seen it myself, because I wasn’t part of the contracted party, but if I had to guess I would say that I couldn’t possibly do a better job than that.
When you were so ill with Lyme disease for four years, what kept you going? What keeps you going today?
Science helped. Doing a tremendous amount of research on the etiology of the thing itself, finding out that there have been exactly zero recorded cases of someone dying from Lyme (all of the associated deaths are from other causes, most notably suicide), and that I would one day have a “normal life” again—insofar as I ever have one. Visiting places that I loved, like Bears Ears, helped a ton, as did journaling and reminding myself of what I enjoy, why I enjoy it so much, and that I’ll get to do so again someday as long as I don’t quit fighting.
What are you working on now? Can we hope for another book?
Ha! Well, mostly I’m working at my day job for the moment. Cultural resource management. But yes, I’m sure I’ll be coaxed into another book before too much longer, either by others or by the voices in my own head. It took roughly twelve years to cobble together all of the information and stories and so on that went into the Bears Ears book, and so a ton of stuff had to be cut from the original draft simply for the sake of space. I kept most of it. I’m thinking of a B-sides book.
What message would you most like readers to get from your book?
Think outside yourself. If you’re suffering, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. If you enjoy something, it’s important to know where it came from and/or why you’re even able to enjoy it. Remember that your actions have consequences for others.