Re-indigenizing the story of Bears Ears

One man's mission to bring Indigenous voices to the management of their ancestral land


This report was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Angelo Baca (Diné and Hopi) laced up his running shoes and took off down a trail near his hometown of Blanding, Utah. Angelo’s family and ancestors have known and lived in the region since time immemorial. To them, the lands known to so many Americans as “public” are their ancestral territory, their homelands. Angelo stayed present as he ran, calculating each step to avoid a twisted ankle. He wound down a desert wash, weaving a path through sagebrush, piñon and juniper.

 But unlike so many people who trail run on public lands, Angelo wasn’t alone: he was being followed. His outspoken leadership on issues related to Indigenous rights and Tribal sovereignty on his ancestral territory — and specifically his advocacy related to the Bears Ears region — had made him a target. 

 “They were tracking me. I tried to lose them on a couple trails, on different roads, and they still four-wheeled to go to find me,” Angelo says. He went off trail to make sure he was no longer being followed, but knew he was. “There was nothing else out there. It was pandemic time,” he says.

Feeling threatened, he never tried to find out who trailed him. “I’m already way the hell out there. So it was really easy to make me disappear and have no reason to know why I didn’t come back,” he says.

Fortunately, he escaped.

This happened in the same area where European settlers and the U.S. government killed Indigenous people, put them in concentration camps, forced them to walk miles upon miles away from their homes and stole their land. It was a cultural and physical genocide that traumatized the original caretakers and their descendants for generations to come. “So when there’s hesitancy on our side, it’s because we’ve been hunted. We have been rounded up. We’ve been killed,” Angelo says.

Angelo Baca and his mother, Ida Yellowman, in front of an ancestral dwelling in the Bears Ears region. – Photo by Rico Moore

The medicine of Bears Ears

Despite these threats and intergenerational cultural trauma, Angelo works diligently on behalf of the Indigenous people of the Bears Ears region as the cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikeyah (UDB), a Native American-led grassroots nonprofit organization working to promote healing of people and the earth through conservation of cultural lands. As part of its efforts, UDB has worked in partnership with the outdoor retailer Patagonia to improve the company’s relationships with Indigenous communities.

He is also completing his Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology at New York University with a dissertation focused on Indigenous representations and narratives of the Bears Ears region from within the communities of the region versus interpretations from outside. As a result, he thinks deeply and often about how stories are told and the impacts that different narratives can have. 

Bears Ears National Monument was established by president Obama in December 2016 after a years-long effort led by Tribal leaders that formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, comprised of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe. In December 2017, then-President Trump shrunk the boundaries of the monument by 85% (it was later revealed by a New York Times report that oil extraction was a primary factor in this decision). The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition sued the Trump administration over the decision. In a separate lawsuit, UDB, Patagonia and other groups also sued Trump. President Biden has since requested a report on the monument from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who in turn recommended the President restore the original boundaries. The Inter-Tribal Coalition recently launched a marketing campaign and requested that President Biden restore and expand the monument boundaries to 1.9 million acres.  

Bears Ears is not Bears Ears without its Indigenous people. In the same way, stories of Bears Ears are naught without centering the voices of Indigenous people. To ignore this history, these stories, re-enacts the white supremacist settlement and colonial dispossession of land, culture and life. Conversely, to amplify and honor by helping empower Indigenous voices is to move toward restoring what colonialism and extractive capitalism has so insidiously destroyed (and continues to destroy). This can help heal the earth by ensuring the original caretakers are the primary speakers and leaders in the management of their ancestral territories, which are often America’s public lands. Ensuring Indigenous people are among the leaders guiding land management decisions guarantees they have access to the lands, which is in turn healing for them. 

For example, running runs in Angelo’s blood. His grandfather, Hugh Yellowman, performed a sacred duty for his people by catching deer and killing them without weapons. Angelo says the object is not to pierce the hide. “You don’t want to destroy the skin by violence, by shedding their blood, because it’s going to be used in ceremony,” he says.

Bernd Heinrich recorded Angelo’s grandfather’s hunting practices in the book Why We Run as they were recounted to him by the folklorist and scholar professor Barre Toelken.

“What I saw was my friend [Hugh] Yellowman (in the 1950s he was about 40 or 45) jogging along on the trail of a deer in semi-open desert country. The deer runs in bursts and then stops, listens, and then sprints again. The hunter, by consistently jogging along the trail left by the animal, eventually tires it out. Then, approaching the exhausted deer, he slowly puts an arm-lock on it and holds his hand over the mouth and nose of the deer, smothering it. His hand is supposed to have corn-pollen in it, which is considered sacred.”

 “It’s trying to come to an understanding with the animal once you’re both exhausted,” Angelo says. “‘We’re asking for permission to harvest you now.’ The animal has to agree to it. They have to give up. It’s a really long process and those hides are extremely valuable, because it’s really hard to do that.”

These hides were used in ceremonies, and Angelo’s mother, Ida Yellowman, still uses them in this way. Angelo says this is evidence that the Indigenous people of Bears Ears still frequent the region to hunt and utilize the land for their ceremonial life and subsistence.

“We say that it’s medicine. It’s not just like, ‘Here’s a plant, eat it,’ No, the fact that she’s got ceremonially harvested deer hides that we’re using for others’ ceremonies — for their healing — it’s other medicine begetting other medicine,” Angelo says.

Preparing for the process of harvesting hides and animals for food is also a ceremonial process dependent upon the lands of the Bears Ears region.

“Back in the day, it was process, it was ceremony,” Angelo says. “They’d go into the sweat lodge, and you’d cleanse yourself for days and prepare, and make sure you didn’t have any interaction with other folks to mess up your balance. You wanted to be focused and concentrate on the task at hand. It was in a prayerful way that you would go and do that harvesting because it’s a very powerful thing that you’re doing, taking a life and harvesting it. It’s actually feeding your family and providing skins for the ceremonies.”

Walking across the rolling desert landscape of the Bears Ears region, Ida Yellowman details how one would cleanse themselves in the absence of water. She says they’d make little sweat lodges (or hogans) and dig a pit by the doorway where a fire would be lit. “Then you heat the rocks outside and you put them into that pit, close it off, and you sweat. You can take water in there, put it next to the hot rocks. You will pick all these snips of the plants and put it in, and the aroma of that is beautiful and it’s all healing. All of this is healing, not just looking at it, but when you breathe it in, it works inside your body, it cleans your mind. So you’re not only cleaning your bad smell, you’re cleaning your mind, and re-start fresh,” she says. In this way the landscape itself is the source of healing and restoration for the Indigenous people of the region who have taken care of it, so it, in turn, takes care of them.

Ida’s parents were displaced from Montezuma Creek, Utah, as a result of water contamination and pollution from oil and gas extraction. As a little girl, Ida’s father would take the family up to the Bears Ears plateau, which would provide them with wild meat and vegetables, as well as the aforementioned ceremonial sources, and also land-based origin legends. 

This extends to the importance of the Bears Ears region in the healing of historical trauma associated with settler colonialism, Angelo says. “Even just having this as a place, that despite its historical trauma, can be a place to heal historical trauma,” he says, adding that this is missing from the conversation today. 

Angelo believes the next logical step is bringing together the disparate communities of public lands users and unifying them around Indigenous communities. These groups are largely ignorant of the centrality of Indigenous people in the successful millennia-long conservation of the natural environments and biodiversity. 

“Because we are the ultimate stewards, we’re the first caretakers. We’re the ultimate champions for protecting the land. We always have been, and how that’s been lost on all these communities who say that they care about the land is beyond me,” Angelo says.    

Ida Yellowman stands under a juniper tree in her ancestral home in the Bears Ears region. – Photo by Rico Moore

“The president stole your land”  

Although the outdoor recreation and conservation communities rarely, if ever, acknowledge the importance of centering Indigenous people in land management decisions and storytelling, there are examples of those who do recognize its critical importance. The resolution of conflict between UDB and the company Patagonia over marketing slogans is one example that shows how narrative and storytelling can ultimately lead to education, healing and strengthened partnerships. 

 Angelo’s organization, UDB, is a recipient of grant funding from the outdoor retail company, Patagonia. But, in 2017, UDB took a stand against Patagonia when the outdoor retailer took aim at the Trump administration’s shrinking of Bears Ears with the slogan “The President Stole Your Land.” 

In a 2019 presentation that UDB gave to the Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC) titled “Improving your partnerships with U.S. Indigenous Communities,” Angelo reviewed his experience working with Patagonia. He said Patagonia extending its hand to help with the Bears Ears effort is appreciated, and that this effort has been a learning opportunity. He also said it’s to be expected that mistakes and misunderstandings will happen, and when they arise they should be seen as learning opportunities and worked through constructively.

To this end, Angelo said he thought a lot of Indigenous communities had a disagreement with Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” marketing campaign because it didn’t account for the Indigenous perspective. “For us it was problematic, especially in the wording and the framing, and having this idea that was very oversimplified,” Angelo said during the TREC training.

“For the Indigenous experience, it’s usually always been something wrong and illegal on a regular basis, even since the very first president, Washington,” Angelo said. “He’s known as ‘town burner’ in the Northeast within the Iroquois League.”

The Iroquois Confederacy served as a basis for the U.S. Constitution, although it rarely receives this recognition. “[T]he Five Nations of the Iroquois lived under a constitution that had three main principles, peace, equity or justice and ‘the power of the good minds,’ that of the elders over the young,” Professor and Chief Oren Lyons (Onondaga) was quoted as saying in the New York Times. In this way, one of the first things settler colonialists stole from Indigenous people was their successful form of governance.

As with the theft of land, there wasn’t reciprocity but violence. In the 2019 UDB presentation, Angelo said that the Iroquois League of Nations had been at a breaking point because of President Washington’s military actions against them. “Basically, they did a scorched-earth campaign, burned down entire crops, entire villages, and just laid waste to one of the strongest coalitions of nations that ever existed,” Angelo said. “And to this day they still call every president since, ‘the town burner.’”

Angelo also took issue with another of Patagonia’s marketing slogans, “The Largest Protected Land Grab.” 

“Starting with the United States’ 13 colonies really co-opting those lands; the Louisiana purchase in 1803, which is huge, all that land west of the Mississippi being explored by Lewis and Clark; the California gold rush, which brought in thousands of people and really ushered in a new wave of genocide on the West Coast.” 

Angelo said it’s important to consider how this historical land dispossession and its impact on generations of Native Americans are reflected in Patagonia’s marketing slogan. Centering Indigenous people in crafting future messages could make them more equitable for Indigenous communities, he suggested.

Following on this, Angelo said that there is a long history of Indigenous presence prior to the arrival of Europeans. Explaining that settler colonialism, which continues today in myriad ways, comes to bear on current issues like Bears Ears. “And so it’s important to understand why the Indigenous perspective is important when we’re talking about these very sensitive issues, such as land,” he said.

As a result, UDB board members and staff provided a cultural sensitivity training to Patagonia. UDB also created a Media Orientation and Cultural Sensitivity guide for those creating narratives about Bears Ears to ensure they center Native perspectives.

In an emailed statement to Boulder Weekly, Patagonia wrote that then-President Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument, cutting its size by 85% in 2017, was illegal and motivated the company “to do everything it could think of to defend our public lands.” As a result, the company led a move of the Outdoor Retailer show from Utah to Colorado, mobilized a public comment campaign to protect national monuments, and joined litigation with the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni Tribes and other groups against Trump’s monument reductions. 

Part of this effort was amplifying the message, “The President Stole Your Land.”

Patagonia wrote that, “While those words captured our outrage, they also perpetuated an all-too-common problem: They overlooked the Indigenous communities that led the effort to establish Bears Ears as a national monument in the first place. And while some appreciated those words and the campaign, others did not.”

Patagonia stated its campaign “failed to reflect that the land had been taken from Indigenous peoples well before Trump. It also (once again) obscured Native American history. The response from Indigenous people was humbling and edifying. It was an important lesson for us then and it remains an important lesson for us today.”

Angelo tempered his criticism of Patagonia’s marketing campaign in the TREC training, saying that Patagonia’s response has been amazing. “The Native community has been very grateful to them and their efforts because as you think of an outside entity, an outdoor retailer, taking large steps like that to try to be an ally, and has never done that before, of course there might be little mistakes here and there. I feel like the intentions are good, and we’re all here to learn, and there are no fingers being pointed in blame,” he said.

In a similarly humble and respectful way, Patagonia responded
that it shared its company perspective with UDB leaders. “Since that time, we have worked to strengthen and earn the respect and trust of the Utah Diné Bikéyah and all those we have the privilege and honor to support and partner with.”

Angelo Baca smells a handful of sage as he hikes through the Bears Ears region. – Photo by Rico Moore

Bringing Native voices to the table

As a result of his ongoing collaboration with Patagonia, Angelo says he’s envisioning newer, larger endeavors to be able to serve as examples for other non-Native communities. He asks: What if the federal government and other businesses look to Patagonia as the model? They might follow their example, Angelo says; they might adopt similar cultural competency and respect for Native communities.

 Angelo adds it’s easy to paint Patagonia as the bad guy, as a business or corporation. “Settler colonial infrastructure supports capitalism,” he says, “but as we’ve seen, those are on the verge of collapse, unless there are models or demonstrations — examples — of how some kind of homeostasis can be achieved by them, pulling back certain destructive practices, and incorporating other restorative and healing ones.”

“If they want to do it with our guidance and permission, I have no problem with that,” Angelo says of Patagonia.

Based on Angelo’s extensive experience outdoors across the U.S., he’s seen a lot of good people who care about the land. “We can’t detract from their interests in wanting to know more. I think the future is in investing in that love and relationship for the land that they have, because we can’t do it by ourselves, we need everybody on board. That’s where we’re going to have to go into the future: for everybody being on the same page about taking care of these places in coordination with Native communities.” 

Patagonia wrote in an e-mailed statement, “Very soon we hope we’ll be able to lift up Indigenous communities and voices in a restoration and hopefully expansion of Bears Ears National Monument.”

Regarding his vision for the monument, Angelo, speaking on his own behalf, says, “It’s about having Indigenous interaction, participation and involvement from beginning to end, from stern to bow. We want to have us at the table making decisions with people that are very important, then drawing the line where we can’t compromise.’”