Context and Subtext: Native Cosmology Edition

Sunset on the Comb Ridge  Bears Ears Country

During this project, Steve and I would marvel at just how naive we were before conducting our first interviews. Innumerable times I would remark, "Steve, we don't know what we don't know." This was especially true when it came to the belief systems that undergird Native and Mormon spirituality and cosmology. It is impossible to understand the complex blend of cultures, the powerful connection to the land, and the political landscape that informs the Bears Ears debate without an awareness of the deeply held religious beliefs of Natives and Mormons. 

As two Anglos writing about Native spirituality and cosmology, we do not want to attempt to explain a culture to which we do not belong and that we can only understand from an outsider's perspective. Thus, we let Native peoples speak for themselves to communicate the fundamental tenets of their spirituality and worldview. 

Below is a sampling of quotes gathered through our research and in interviews with sources who generously shared with us an overview of their spiritual beliefs. We hope this provides a greater understanding of why so many Native tribes and pueblos on the Colorado Plateau feel such a deep connection to Bears Ears country - and why they are fighting so passionately to protect it.

We are a spiritual people. However, our holy practices happen right here on earth, not in a church, but in special places like Bears Ears. We sometimes talk to the plants, others sing to the mountains, and we seek out our ancestors, who still roam this land, and we ask them for guidance in a language they can understand. In times long past, the ancient ones sanctified the land and its special places, and the blessings remain in force today.[i]

Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, "Bears Ears: A Native Perspective"

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To Native Americans in the Bears Ears region and indigenous peoples around the world, the earth is a living, breathing entity: a nurturer, life-giver, and beloved family member to be treated with unconditional respect.

In his opening prayer at the 2016 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, articulated his tribe’s relationship to the land: “The Earth is our mother. The water is her blood. The rocks are her bones, and the land is her skin… The ground beneath our feet is the ashes of our ancestors. The earth is rich with the lives of our kin… We know the earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.”[ii]

Unlike much of the Western world, which in the modern era has been dominated by consumption-based societies with much of their development and growth driven by natural resource extraction, traditional Native teachings instruct humans to take from the earth only what they need – and to remember their place in the order of Nature.

 “Just because we’re walking and talking and thinking individuals and we [have the power to] take a life, that doesn't make us superior,” says Octavius Seowtewa, Cultural Resources Advisory Committee Chairman and a medicine society leader for the Zuni tribe. “There’s not this concept of, this doesn't have a life, and this has a life. Everything has a life. A tree has a life, a rock has a life, even air has a life. Everything that was put here for our use has a reason.”

 “The basic idea behind conservation is never taking more than you need, and always offering something in return,” says Carleton Bowekaty, a Zuni councilman and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. “For ceremonial purposes, when we take certain herbs or visit certain springs [and] take water from there, we always make sure we offer something in return.”

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 “The hardest thing to explain to Westerners is that we can't separate our world into different elements,” Bowekaty adds. “It's not like a religion where we can set it aside on a Sunday or a Wednesday. We incorporate these prayers almost on a daily basis. It's a way of life. It's a cultural practice that has existed for eons that needs to continue.”

“We talk to these higher beings for these blessings that we ask for. The teachings from our ancestors tell us, your world's connected.”

Eric Descheenie, who is Navajo and has worked with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and Utah Diné Bikéyah, says that relationships with such beings are at the core of Native spirituality.

“The way I often articulate Native American thought – indigenous thought – is we have inter-subjective relationships with what I refer to as ‘other than human beings’,” Descheenie says. “From a [Navajo] religious standpoint, every day we’re supposed to get up and communicate with the Diné – most commonly referred to as the Holy People. They rise at dawn, before the sun comes up, before it hits the horizon. And we get up and make…offerings. As part of our prayers, there is an exchange that happens. We communicate with them, they communicate with us.”

Ancestral lands and archaeological sites considered culturally and historically significant by non-Native visitors to Bears Ears hold more than history for Native Americans; they are sacred places. Some are religious shrines, places of worship, and sites for ceremonies that have been practiced, according to Native peoples, since time immemorial. Mesas, canyons, valleys, mountains, buttes, plants and animals – indeed, the entire Earth and its flora and fauna – are also held sacred and believed to possess deep spiritual power.

“Wherever you go on this land is sacred ground,” says Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo traditional healer and spiritual advisor to Utah Diné Bikéyah. “There are ants that live here. There are animals [and] spiders and flying creatures here… Respect them.  Respect where you walk.” 

Utah Diné Bikéyah co-founder Mark Maryboy says,“There aren’t specific places that you can say, ‘that’s spiritual.’ With Navajo, everywhere [is spiritual].”

As Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Chairman Shaun Chapoose puts it, “Our value system is unique. What you see as a weed, I see as a medicinal plant. It’s a living landscape. It has a pulse.  It has a heartbeat.”

The essence of Native identity is grounded in place: the ancestral and modern-day homelands of indigenous peoples shape and define who they are.

 “Everything is all rooted from our mother earth that provides [for us],” says Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, also a member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.  “Our strong tie to the earth from a very young infancy helps us to pass along this comfort to our children.”

“One of the reasons we are where we're at now is because somehow [our ancestors] knew it was a safe place, and that's where they were directed to go,” relates Alfred Lomaquahu of the Hopi tribe.  “And it was a spiritual journey, like Moses in the Biblical times, we were directed by certain events to eventually come to this place which we call the center of the universe.

“You have to always remember our spiritual side, because that's where our strength lies: starting from us as different people, going to our tribes and then to the Coalition as a whole. …That's when the land accepts us as working for them, working for the land. Basically, that's what we're doing: the land is asking us to work for them.”

If one can speak of a shared Native American view of the land, it might be found in the words of Kiowa author, artist and poet N. Scott Momaday: “To encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deepest center of human existence. Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth; they stand for the earth immediately and forever; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places. At Devil’s Tower [in Wyoming] or Canyon de Chelly [in Arizona] or the Cahokia Mounds [in Illinois], you touch the pulse of the living planet; you feel its breath upon you. You become one with a spirit that pervades geologic time and space.”[iii]

[i] (Kevin Jones 2017)

[ii] (Steele 2017)

[iii] (Roberts n.d.)