Jonah Yellowman lives in the north end of the Navajo Nation, between Monument Valley, the famous backdrop of many Western movies, and Mexican Hat, Utah, named for a nearby red-rock formation that looks like a sombrero. Yellowman is one of about 70,000 Navajo who live in homes without running water. His house also lacks electricity. Trees are sparse on the Navajo reservation, so to gather wood for cooking and heating, Yellowman goes to the woods in Bears Ears National Monument, about 50 miles north of his home.
“We survive off that land,” Yellowman said of Bears Ears, a 1.35 million-acre expanse of high-desert plateaus in southeast Utah. “Where I live, we don’t have any trees. Also, we use different kinds of plants and herbs for basket weaving—people survive on that. People use it for hunting.”
Yellowman is a board member of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Native American-led organization that in 2011 called for the federally owned Bears Ears region to be protected from mineral extraction, commercial forestry, and most vehicle use. Numerous Southwest tribes lived in Bears Ears and consider it sacred, and Utah Diné Bikéyah’s proposal sought to preserve traditional uses of the land while giving tribes a role in managing the area. When legislative efforts to conserve the area failed, leaders from the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute tribes joined Diné Bikéyah in lobbying former President Barack Obama to designate Bears Ears a national monument. The monument, announced last December, was a watershed moment in U.S.-tribal relations: Obama’s proclamation took the unprecedented step of designating a commission of tribal leaders to consult on management of the monument.