Bluff, UT – As the nation marks the 110th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, more than 700 archaeologists have signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to designate a Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
“From an archaeological perspective, the value of the Bears Ears area is beyond question,” said Bill Lipe, a member of the board of trustees of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and a past president of the Society for American Archaeology. Lipe has researched the archaeology of the region for more than 50 years.
With more than 100,000 archaeological sites, the Bears Ears region is America’s most significant unprotected cultural landscape. It is famous for the incredible preservation of its back-country cliff dwellings, numerous rock art panels and surface sites (e.g. towers, shrines, and pueblos), unique artifacts, and Native American burials.
There have been efforts to preserve the archaeological sites of the Cedar Mesa/Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah for more than a century, dating back to a report in 1903 by T. Mitchel Prudden, a scientist who explored the region’s Ancestral Pueblo sites.
A coalition of five sovereign tribal nations – Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Zuni – called the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition – has proposed a 1.9 million-acre national monument that would honor Native American connections to the land and protect cultural resources.
“These archaeological sites, these artifacts are the footprints of our people,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Cultural Preservation Office for the Hopi Tribe. “We do not see these sites as ‘ruins’ or as being abandoned. The spirits of our ancestors still inhabit the Bears Ears. When these sites are looted or damaged, not only our history but our future is disrespected.”
The Antiquities Act was created in June 1906 in response to rampant looting of Native American artifacts in the southwest. Yet because of Utah’s unique politics, the Act has never been used to establish a national monument that would protect the antiquities of Bears Ears. Prehistoric granary overlooks Cedar Mesa. Photographer: Josh Ewing Petroglyph graces the Comb Ridge. Photographer: Josh Ewing
Grave robbing, looting, and serious archaeological site damage at Bears Ears continues at an alarming pace. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) documented 26 incidents of serious cultural resource damage since 2011 in San Juan County (where Bears Ears is located), with seven incidents in the past six months. The BLM currently has only one law enforcement officer assigned to patrol the Bears Ears area.
Despite ongoing damage to cultural sites, no bill has yet been introduced in Congress that would protect the Bears Ears area. The archaeologists’ letter urges President Obama to create a national monument should Congress fail to pass meaningful legislation this year to protect Bears Ears.
“Cedar Mesa was a formative place in American archaeology, where the Basketmaker culture was discovered,” said Lipe. “The Bears Ears holds enormous scientific potential to continue to inform us about the American pre-history. Each day it remains unprotected, we are losing a window to the past.”