Utah Travel Guide

Bears Ears Is Rich With Native American Culture—But Leave the National Monument to Experience It

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The area is replete with Native history and society, but you’ll have to leave the park to best learn about it.

Bears Ears National Monument weighs heavily in the historical memories of five Native American tribes and nations—the Ute, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and Ute Mountain Ute—whose forefathers once called this region home. But what was once an ancestral landscape—a place for hunting game, foraging for resources and worshiping the earth—today has no native population. And while tribal members still use Bears Ears for spiritual and subsistence activities, the communities themselves have been left on the wrong side of the Monument’s boundaries since well before it was named a National Monument in 2016.

Bears Ears, with its 100,000+ ruins and rock carvings, is one of the densest regions of ancient human habitation in the entire country, but thanks to a number of historical factors it is in many ways a landscape frozen in time. Cultural innovation in the region, however, is far from stagnant. Just outside the boundaries of Bears Ears, the Ute, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and Ute Mountain Ute, the descendants of the ancient people of the region, are inviting visitors in for experiences that offer a new perspective on the region and its thriving native cultures.

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A Brief Human History of the Four Corners

Around 1,500 years ago, the foraging people that moved across the high-elevation deserts of the Four Corners began to set down roots. Rather than following the seasonal bounty of wild plants and animals, they planted maize and squash and built dwellings strong enough to protect them in the cold, harsh winters. By around 900 A.D., scattered homesteads became pueblos, sometimes built in the defensible crevices of sandstone cliffs, and small communities developed into a full-fledged society with long-distance trade, spiritual beliefs, charismatic leaders, and complex sociopolitics.

And then, suddenly, less than 400 years later, the building stopped. The planting of maize and the throwing of pottery (for which the region’s ancient ancestors are known)stopped too. And the people, the Ancestral Puebloans who had so brazenly stepped out from the shadow of those who came before to build a world-class civilization were suddenly gone, too.

For years archaeologists bandied about theories as to the disappearance of the Ancestral Puebloans who, at the time, were known more widely as the Anasazi. Was it disease or warfare that took down the society? Did environmental factors like drought drive them to the brink of starvation? And most importantly, where did they go? 30,000 people (the region’s estimated population at its fall) don’t just disappear overnight.

But the Ancestral Puebloan people never left. Instead, as families left the population centers they’d once dominated—pueblos at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde and Bears Ears—they found new ways of surviving on the landscape, developing communities that, while they had less monumental architecture and fewer fancy goodies, were no less advanced than those of their predecessors. In short, they became today’s Pueblo peoples.

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Bears Ears and Native Americans

It’s a painful truth that, in the creation of the United States, Native American tribes were forcibly removed from ancestral lands and required to stay within boundary lines, divorcing communities from ways of life that had sustained them for centuries. Bears Ears is no different. From the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s to the “Long Walk” of the Navajo, a forced resettlement effort in the 1860s, Bears Ears has been sanitized of its modern Native settlements. 

Separated from one another over the centuries, these communities doubled down on distinctive cultural markers, including language and spiritual practices, with clear tribal identities. When the first white explorers reached the Four Corners, it was not the Ancestral Puebloans who they encountered but the Hopi, the Zuni, the Navajo, and the Ute. Different as their modern tribal identities were, they shared at least one characteristic: their ancestors once called Bears Ears home. 

Even after moving away from Bears Ears around the 12th century, the ancestors of the Hopi Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe continued to depend on the landscape, not only to utilize its natural resources but as a sacred pilgrimage site. And while the five descendant tribes of Bears Ears have not given up on their ancient lands—together they form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, one of the most important voices in earning Bears Ears recognition as a National Monument in 2016 and co-managers of the parkland—the most complex picture of their past and present cultural traditions is available only on the “Res,” the reservations assigned to each tribe during the 19th century.

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Visiting the Descendants of Bears Ears

Many of the indigenous-led tours and activities available around Bears Ears easily get lost among the opportunities offered by non-Native tour outfitters. While these may be fine for some activities, only tribal members can really offer insight into the modern culture and history of the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans of Bears Ears. Get a glimpse with these Native-led tours and experiences in each of the five native nations of Bears Ears past, present, and future.

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Navajo

Of the five tribes that co-manage Bears Ears, the Navajo Nation is the largest with a population of around 350,000 in three states: Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. In other words, without a guide, you’re bound to get lost in this expansive rural region. Luckily, a self-guided Navajo Cultural Tour developed by the Nation provides a snapshot of what makes the community tick. The tour, which starts in Tuba City, Arizona, takes visitors to some of the most interesting sites on the Res, including the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum, the Navajo Code Talker’s Museum, the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise store, and more. On the route, make a pit stop at one (or more) of seven historical trading posts, which acted as everything from courthouse to general store in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For a little something extra, schedule your visit for the first week of September when the annual Navajo Nation Fair, which includes an all-Indian rodeo, wild horse races, song and dance contest, and pow wow, takes over Window Rock, Arizona.

Hopi

The Hopi are widely recognized as skilled artists, basket weavers, and silversmiths. On the Hopi Arts Trail, a voyage through 12 remote villages in this far-away corner of the Arizona, visitors get the opportunity to investigate silverwork, pottery, basketry, and Katsina doll carvings in the galleries and home workshops of Hopi people. The route can be undertaken solo, but for more insight into the artwork and artists, arrange for a certified tribal tour guide. Other cultural tours among the villages in the backcountry can be arranged with Experience Hopi, including its eponymous tour which visits Hopi farms, artists, petroglyphs, and the Hopi Cultural Center.

Ute Mountain Ute

The Ute Mountain Ute are one of three federally recognized Ute tribes in the Four Corners region, whose reservation is headquartered in Towaoc, Colorado, next door to Mesa Verde National Park. Tourism here is centered around the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, 125,000 acres of mountainside stuffed to the gills with pictographs, cliff dwellings, and tribal culture. Camp on-site ($14/night) or rent a cabin ($15/night), and reserve one of several tours with a Ute guide, including the adventurous, cliff-dwelling-climbing Turning Red Tail Hawk experience.

Ute Indian Tribe

The recently renovated Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, Colorado, is a dynamic monument to historic and modern Ute culture. Here you can walk paths memorializing the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 18th century, visit the gravesite of the famed Chief Ouray, and learn about the significance of the Bear Dance. In the evenings, the museum hosts public events and discussions on topics like conservation.

Zuni

Thanks to the Zuni Pueblo’s Department of Tourism, there are several different ways to explore this Native nation. Their “cultural tours” introduce visitors to Zuni worldview and oral history, and visit the unique styles of construction found on the reservation. Try your hand at baking Pueblo bread and other ancestral foodstuffs on an Ancient Pueblo Cuisine or Traditional Zuni Cooking tour, or go in-depth into the history of Zuni textiles and embroidery.