by Stephen Trimble
The leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition use the word “healing” whenever they define their relationship with the redrock of Utah’s public lands. Eric Descheenie says, “By protecting these sacred ancestral lands we can take an important step towards healing.” Descheenie, a Navajo, emphasizes this “indigenous truth” as the foundation for all discussions about why the newly-proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument needs our attention.
For Navajo leader Willie Grayeyes, “protecting Bears Ears is not just about healing for the land and Native people. It’s for our adversaries to be healed, too. I truly believe we can all come out dancing together.”
As the dancers from Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) and ZviDance strive to translate their experience in the Bears Ears landscape into choreographed meaning, the writers in Red Rock Stories (Torrey House Press, 2017) try to do the same in words.
In the utter simplicity of ink on paper, these writers take readers deep into the wildness and restorative power of southern Utah’s canyon country. These women and men have chosen to wield their words on behalf of this land, to counter those who see these canyons and mesas as nothing more than commodities to use and use up. And so when these storytellers evoke rivers running red in flood, when they summon the healing warmth of sun on stone, their words ring with both the solemnity of prayer and the fires of resistance.
In these pages which I had the honor of curating and editing you’ll hear the glissade of a canyon wren’s call breaking the stillness of a summer afternoon. You’ll share in the writers’ delight as they capture in language this place where, in Lauret Savoy’s words, “aridity conspires with erosion to expose Earth’s anatomy.” You’ll sense the ancient bonds to these mesas and mountains carried by Native peoples.
Words that grow from such deep roots can be contemplative and soothing, but Red Rock Stories means to raise the stakes. When politicians campaign to open up irreplaceable wildlands to destructive industry, when the white men in power scorn the traditional knowledge of Native elders and the sacred inheritance of ruins and rock art, when local officials disdain the shared national ownership of public lands, redrock writers move from quiet journaling to passionate advocacy.
We created this book to capture these emotions and deliver them to Washington, D.C.—and now, to everyone, in an edition for general readers. The contributors write with purpose and urgency, a need even more pressing since the presidential election of 2016. These writers aim to inform you, to call you to action, to change your life, to create the future. They just may have influenced President Barack Obama when he created Bears Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016.
We’ll need their message for years to come. The fossil fuel industry and its supporters in politics and the rural West never cease attacking, never relent in their crusade to wring maximum profit from public lands. We’ll need inspiration as we rally again and again to oppose schemes to develop, fragment, sell, or diminish the redrock wilderness.
These writers make their homes from New England to California, from Oregon to North Carolina. About a dozen of our 34 contributors live in Utah. We’ve created a community chorus whose lives span nine decades, a montage of poems and essays that includes Native and Hispanic voices, warnings from elders and challenges from millennials, personal emotional journeys, and lyrical nature writing. These pieces address historical context, natural history and archaeology, energy threats, faith, and politics. Together, they offer a nuanced case for restraint and respect in this incomparable redrock landscape.
Kathleen Dean Moore wrote her piece about the legacy we will leave to our children while she camped along the goosenecked canyons of the San Juan River during a five-day float trip. She fired off her draft the moment she reached cell service. Gary Nabhan wrote when pain from his recent knee surgery kept him awake in the middle of the night. He recalled a transformative backpacking trip into the Bears Ears as a young man, and I suspect that memory helped him to heal.
Perhaps Alastair Bitsoi catches your eye when he says, “Bears Ears will always be a significant healing space for young Navajos like me, who live in the concrete jungle that is New York City.” Maybe you’ll land on Ute Mountain Ute Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk’s speaking of the “personal healing like nothing else” that she finds in the Bears Ears.
We offer many ways into the argument for protecting these endangered lands. Mary Sojourner tells of meeting a guy named Bear Campbell in a Flagstaff bar and going camping with him in the woods below Bears Ears. David Gessner ponders the “freedom of restraint” and concludes that “here freedom becomes more than a jingoistic word used to wage war and sell trucks.” And Bruce Babbitt, who served as Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, makes the case for Bears Ears as a former Arizona attorney general and governor and former president of the League of Conservation Voters: “The best way to defend the Antiquities Act is for the President to use it.”
As Red Rock Stories went to press, while polls in Indian Country and across the West documented overwhelming support of Bears Ears and national monument designations, Utah’s elected officials thundered their demands to rescind Bears Ears National Monument. In response, one of our contributors, Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz, reassured the redrock writing community—and all of us—with these wise words:
“Our belief in our community—human, animal, plant, desert, mountain, stars above—will prevail and sustain us. Now we know what we must do, a line from a Pueblo song. The land shall endure. There will be victory. The land will go on. We shall have victory.”
Salt Lake City-based author and photographer Stephen Trimble tells stories about the land and people of the West. He is the editor of Red Rock Stories. He spends much of his time with his family in Torrey, Utah outside of Capitol Reef National Park where, as a young man, he worked as a park ranger. You can read more about Trimble and his work here.
Torrey House Press has donated 5 copies of Red Rock Stories to RDT’s crowdfunding campaign to help fund “Dancing the Bears Ears” which premieres in October. The campaign runs through June 23, 2017 and the books (excluded from your tax-deductable donation) are available to those who make a gift of $100 or more, while supplies last.
You can read more about this ambitious project and donate here.