Ana in the Bears Ears area
My summer research proposal was originally aimed at exploring the ways in which shifting status of Bears Ears has affected the relationship—the sense of place—that connects pro-conservation stakeholders to this landmark of the Four Corners region. I intended to work alongside those pro-conservation stakeholders to conduct semi-structured interviews and transect walks, to explore the ways in which these relationships to the land are shifting. Upon entering the field, I quickly realized that this issue is far larger and more complex than I had initially imagined; my interviews led to tangential discussions of Mormonism, Nuclear Era uranium mining, the history of public lands management in the American west, the region’s numerous indigenous Native American tribes and traditions, archaeological excavations … the list goes on. Because of this broadening of my attention—and while my methodological approach has remained largely the same, leaning greatly on semi-structured ethnographic interviews—my research aim has also been broadened: now, I am curious to how sense of place (of all stakeholders, not just pro-conservation or pro-national monument) is affected by environmental decision-making—whether that be on a local or federal level—while looking at the Bears Ears issue as a case study.
Since entering the field, I have been spending my days conducting interviews, transcribing and analyzing those interviews, spending time outside (mostly in the mornings and evenings, as Utah would reach upwards of one hundred degrees during the day), as well as maintaining an extensive annotated bibliography that outlines all of this ethnographic work. I have also made the time to sit down and read literature that has already been written on these topics of research; Wallace Stegner’s The American West as a Living Space, Terry Tempest Williams Open Space of Democracy, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass have been driving forces in my research, all three of which have challenged and shaped the way I perceive the overlap between humans and the natural world. The literature that can be applied to this topic seems to be endless; I am excited to read more.
Pottery Shards on Cedar Mesa
I have interviewed fifteen different stakeholders, all contributing vital perspectives and data to this research. But getting in contact—and scheduling interviews—with those stakeholders, though, has been one of the most difficult processes of my research experience. After weeks of unreturned emails and phone calls, it was brought to my attention that—because there are a number of lawsuits, currently in litigation against President Trump, in response to his reduction of Bears Ears National Monument—many stakeholders were legally unable to speak with me, which significantly limited my subject pool. I had to get creative; as I could not get in contact with anyone from the InterTribal Coalition—as they are one of the main groups in litigation—I was able to speak with a woman who had previously served on the Coalition’s board, thus, could be interviewed. On top of this—as I was warned by one stakeholder—many anti-monument stakeholders have been wary to speak with me, as they have received negative media attention, as of late. As a result, I have only spoken to one self-identifying anti-monument stakeholder, though I am still working on getting in contact with more.
Cliff Dwellings in Road Canyon
Another difficulty I have come across—of which was somewhat unexpected—was on the more personal side of this research: I had no idea how trying, and at times, incredibly lonely, fieldwork could be. This experience has been a lesson in traveling on my own for the first time; it has instilled in me a great appreciation for coffeeshop WIFI access and for the kindness and generosity of those who have welcomed me into their homes, fed me, and let me use their showers as I have driven back and forth across the state, more times than I would like to admit. I have a newfound and great respect for ethnographers who spend months—and even years—in the field.
Regardless of these obstacles, it is so exciting to begin to reflect on the insight that these stakeholders have shared with me. Though there are so many ideas and narratives that are not included in this brief update, here is a look into some of the trends I am noticing:
- Sense of place has varied meaning to different stakeholders.
One concept that has been at the forefront of my attention, throughout this research process, is that sense of place varies greatly from stakeholder to stakeholder; what connects someone to a place—what someone values about a place—is wholly dependent upon their multi-faceted historical and current relationship to the land. One woman I interviewed, who is a former Ute Mountain Ute Councilwoman, explained this concept well: she told me, “I think the value of the land is great, it’s just who you ask and what position they may hold to the land.” This idea of varying perceptions of value seems to be central to my research: Bears Ears is not only a place of immense sacred value, but also has value in its natural resource deposits, in its recreation potential, and countless other attributes; it just depends upon who you are asking…and I can guarantee that you are going to get a vastly different answer, whether you are speaking to someone from a conservation group, a Tribal member, a mountain biker, an extractive industry
Caught Hadenfeldt and Petroglyphs
executive, a rancher, or any other variety of Bears Ears stakeholder.
- Public land management needs to be a more actively democratic process.
At the beginning of the summer—as I noted previously—I read Terry Tempest Williams’ work The Open Space of Democracy. Throughout this text, Williams explores the intersection of spirituality, social change, and politics in democracy. She notes that democracy can only evolve from an abstract idea to an effective governing system, when citizens become active participants, and those in positions of power—within that governing body—are listening to and considering each of those participants’ voices equally. Williams’ cry for active participation from all citizens mirrors the unanimous desires of all of the stakeholders, that I have spoken with, thus far. Many of the Tribal members I have interviewed have expressed a desire for Native voices to have a louder and more weighted voice in the discussion of public land management: for sovereign government to be given equal voice to that of the United States federal government. Many conservation groups seem to back this idea; there is a movement among conservationists to work alongside and for Tribal groups, functioning as an extension of those Tribal voices, working to make sure that those historically-silenced voices are being given a say in the democratic process.
On the anti-monument side, there seems to be a desire for stronger representation, too. A representative from a Salt Lake City localist, freedom-oriented nonprofit expressed that local voices are lacking representation in the federal government; he advocated that while Trump’s reduction of the National Monument was an act of service to the majority of San Juan County’s residents, Obama’s original designation of Bears Ears National Monument vastly disregarded most local voices, following suit of most federally-made decisions.
Thus, while the opinions of what should be done in public land management don’t necessarily line up across stakeholder communities, the notion that the federal government is lacking in their active democratic process seems universal. The idea that public lands are every American’s land seems to be broadly held; so why aren’t these public lands managed as such? Why aren’t the public’s voices being taken into account in this supposed democratic process?
- Spirituality and personal relationships do not immediately shift nor disappear, as a result of shifts in environmental policy.
One of the themes I have found myself most drawn to, in this research, is the exploration of how sense of place is affected by shifting environmental policy, whether that be different levels of protection over the land or varying amounts of federal/local government intervention on a stakeholder’s interaction with the land. What I am starting to recognize is that sense of place is deep-reaching—as I mention previously, it is the productof a multi-faceted historical and current relationship to the land—and is not quickly created nor destroyed. While many stakeholders have expressed to me a feeling of threat towards their sense of place, anticipating the destruction of sacred archaeological sites, the dismantling of landscapes as a result of mining and drilling for natural resources, limitations in land use and access, or even increased government presence, there seems to be a general consensus that while spirituality and personal relationship can be affected by these factors, it does not mean that sense of place will shift in an instance. A rancher—who has been grazing her herds on and around Bears Ears for over fifty years—told me that Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument “doesn’t affect my spiritual connection with the land. It belongs to me there, whether you call it a National Park, BLM, or Forest Service; that connection and that spirit will always be with me.”
Sleeping Spot in Castle Valley
This rancher’s statement brings to mind another concept that Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Open Space of Democracy. In her discussion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, she comments that there is a sense of “wholeness” in wilderness; she quotes her travel companion, Carol: “If we choose to continue to only focus on particular areas, then this whole region becomes part of an intellectual and political project of fragmentation. Do we have to keep cutting it up into smaller and smaller bits and pieces until we finally call it a compromise? This notion of wholeness seems to hold true, regarding Bears Ears. Regardless of the boundaries—whether they are those initially proposed by the InterTribal Coalition, those designated by President Obama in 2016, or those currently in place since President Trump’s reduction in 2017, the sense of place that countless stakeholders hold to this land—what deems worthy of protection—is far more expansive than a line on a map.
With these preliminary insights in mind, I will move forwards into the last month of my summer research. I am intending to shift my attention to the analysis and synthesis of the already-conducted interviews. While I would not be opposed to conducting more, if the opportunity arose, I am really looking forward to focusing my energy on first, transcribing the fifteen interviews that I have already conducted, and then moving onto an in-depth folkloric analysis of those transcriptions. I got this idea from my Community Methods for Environmental Research course, taught by Professor Sarah Fox; essentially, I will be going through each of the transcriptions, highlighting reoccurring themes and particularly important passages. After having these themes and central concepts identified, I will then be able to write a research paper that successfully outlines the most important insights from this research, in an accessible manner. While I feel as though this fieldwork will never feel fully complete, I am relieved in knowing that I will continue on with this research for my thesis class, this coming year. I am excited to further develop this project over the next two semesters, and to see how the research questions evolves, as well as to draw some further, and more developed conclusions!
Thanks so much for the update, Ana. Good luck wrapping up your project, and we’ll see you back on campus in a few weeks.