In his proclamation establishing the Bears Ears National Monument, President Barack Obama included this moment of poetry: “From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.”
The reverent awe of his words is echoed in Angelo Baca’s award-winning documentary, “‘Shash Jaa’: Bears Ears.” It is a quiet film that reveals the critical importance of Bears Ears to the history and culture of several native communities. The documentary tells the story of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—composed of the Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni—coming together to protect Bears Ears and to advocate for it being designated as a National Monument in a collaborative management partnership with tribes. The film reiterates President Obama’s message: that “the traditional ecological knowledge amassed by the Native Americans whose ancestors inhabited this region, passed down from generation to generation, offers critical insight into the historic and scientific significance of the area. Such knowledge is, itself, a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come.” The film, which culminates with the designation of the National Monument in 2016, reminds viewers of the power of collaboration and of the role Bears Ears plays in the life and culture of native communities.
The film’s director, Angelo Baca is the cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of ancestral Native American lands to benefit and bring healing to people and the Earth.” Diné Bikéyah (pronounced di-NAY bi-KAY-uh) means “people’s sacred lands” in the Navajo language.
In late January, Baca visited the National Trust for Historic Preservation to talk with staff about his film and about the work of protecting native cultural resources. In this short (six-minute) interview, Baca provides insight into how preservationists can be better allies to native communities, along with some tips and tools for working with tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Additional footage from the interview is available on SavingPlaces.org.
Note: The National Trust and Utah Diné Bikéyah are coplaintiffs in the litigation filed in December 2017 challenging President Donald Trump’s revocation of the Bears Ears National Monument. “‘Shash Jaa’: Bears Ears” will be screened on Saturday, March 17, as part of the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the manager for online content and products at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Follow her on Twitter @priyastoric.