An Interview with Mark Maryboy
We caught up with Mark Maryboy several weeks before the fourth anniversary of the inaugural gathering of Hopi, Zuni and 19 other tribes in Bluff, Utah. It was Maryboy who invited tribal representatives from Arizona, New Mexico, and the land around Bears Ears in southeastern Utah: lands their ancestors called home. And it was Maryboy who, on April 10, 2015, opened the gathering with two profoundly meaningful words: “Welcome home.” The tribes, some of which had painful history between them, made a strategic decision to look past their differences and unite to protect a land that was essential to their cultural and spiritual survival.
Their efforts led to the formation in July 2015 of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which subsequently entered into a nation-to-nation dialogue with the Obama Administration that led eventually to the declaration of the Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016.
The tribes represented in the Coalition, alongside a number of different parties across the conservation, recreation, and outdoor industries, are leading a legal effort to reverse President Trump’s December 2017 decision to slash the monument boundaries by 85 percent. While that effort is ongoing, Maryboy and others are taking a long-range view of how protection of Bears Ears might influence the future of San Juan County, where the monument is located.
“Protection of the land and [Native cultural] sites in the area will provide the basis for a durable economic backbone in the future," Maryboy told us. His brother, Kenneth, now chairs the three-member San Juan County Commission, which for the first time has majority Native membership. This seismic political shift, a result of the 2018 midterm elections, reflects county demographics - more than half the county's population is Native - and is the result of court-ordered redistricting to correct long-gerrymandered district boundaries that disenfranchised the county's Native residents.
Maryboy notes that the newly constituted commission will need to lead discussions that “will make people work together on a meaningful economic solution in the future. There is very little opportunity to make a living from mining and ranching in the area. We need to look to other areas like tourism.” As a co-founder of Utah Dine Bikeyah, the Native-led nonprofit whose advocacy for protection of the Bears Ears landscape led to the establishment of the monument, Maryboy supports the organization's efforts to engage the county in discussions regarding its economic future and hopes that it can work successfully with the new County Commission.
“It was sad to see that some of these important conversations were derailed by the fight over the residence of a Commission member [Utah Navajo Willie Grayeyes]”, Maryboy said, referring to the unsuccessful effort by county officials to disqualify Grayeyes by claiming, falsely, that he did not live in Utah. “And it upsets me that some white people want to secede from the county now that it has two Navajo commissioners. These things don’t help.”
He expressed cautious optimism regarding the ongoing dialogue among the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and the US Forest Service and BLM: the two agencies overseeing management of most of Bears Ears as litigation over the monument proceeds. “It is important to have tribal voices now. I hope that the Coalition devotes time to [building on] the cultural mapping we did at Utah Dine Bikeyah," which created a comprehensive list of sites considered culturally significant and sacred to the area's Native peoples. "The other tribes need to do this so that we come up with well-informed management plans.”
Maryboy ended our conversation on a philosophical note. “ I am happy to have been there during the critical stages at the beginning of UDB and the Bears Ears Coalition. Now we wait for the court decision to restore the monument. After a decision is made, good or bad, i will decide if i should stay engaged or let the young people carry on the work”.