FLC historian synthesizes 11,000 years of Bears Ears history
Bears Ears National Monument is a fascinating, mysterious natural wonder in San Juan County, Utah. The monument has many geological formations, including towering cliffs, deep canyons, and sprawling mesas. The area is dotted with cultural sites, petroglyphs, and other historical pieces, evidence of the Indigenous nations inhabiting the region for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, Bears Ears National Monument has faced threats in recent years. President Obama designated the 1.35 million acres of land as a national monument in 2016, and the Trump administration reduced the Monument's size by 85% a year later. A slew of legal challenges followed, led by tribal nations and environmental groups.
The Biden administration restored Bears Ears to the Obama designation, but the Monument's future remains uncertain. Scholarly research supporting Indigenous knowledge of how to protect and sustainably manage its natural resources is needed now more than ever.
Enter Andrew Gulliford, professor of History, who dedicated the last 20 years to better understanding the region. His research culminated with the publication of Bears Ears: Landscape of Refuge and Resistance last year.
Gulliford said his main challenge in writing the book was recognizing when he was done. The pandemic allowed Gulliford to stay in the writer's seat and finish the publication, a love letter to the Monument.
"It's a wild landscape. I think it's under-researched and certainly under-painted," Gulliford said.
"Some critics said it had no historical significance or record as region. As a historian, I wanted to prove that it was a geographic entity for a long time."
The book, which covers 11,000 years of history in 406 pages, does just that. It's the only book Gulliford has written that focuses on just one county. Granted, San Juan County is a whopping 5,077,100 acres, and the book covers everything from the Paleolithic Era to the Atomic Age and beyond in rich detail.
Gulliford, who injects more of his voice than he has in past publications, still weaves together an objective account of the Monument.
"I've hiked those trails. I've been there," Gulliford said. "But I was not writing a memoir. I still grappled with presenting the reader with the facts and letting them draw their own conclusions. That's the role of a historian."
The synthesis of thousands of years of its history provides Fort Lewis College with a vital educational tool. It's timely, too: the institution is moving toward the Monument as its next destination for undergraduate research.
"It's important for FLC," Gulliford observed. "Look at the new FLOW program: it owns 38 launches on the San Juan River, which runs along Bears Ears' southern border. So, FLC is moving toward the Monument regarding programming and science."
"Because if you're going to understand the future, you must understand the past. These days, we don't think very clearly about the past. So, storytelling plays an important role in making sense of that"
The institution's interest in researching and preserving Bears Ears National Monument is not new. It is the traditional territory of many Indigenous nations. The region is a cultural touchstone for many students, staff, and faculty—many of whom have advocated for its protection through publications and protests.
"Bears Ears' preservation is a critical issue for our campus," Gulliford said. "Especially for our Indigenous students. We must recognize that this is their territory and support them in asserting some management of it."
To continue that conversation, Gulliford will continue sharing his evidence-based research to support the development of policies to protect the Monument. To that end, Gulliford will use portions of Bears Ears in his Introduction to Heritage Preservation class.
He will focus on developing a shared understanding of the economic and social impacts of failing to protect the Monument. It will provide the educational foundation for training conservation professionals, developing resources for public outreach, and raising public awareness of the importance of the Monument's conservation efforts.
In addition to teaching, Gulliford will be the keynote speaker at talks across the region, including a session at the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources & the Environment at the University of Utah in April. He is also working with FLC's Center of Southwest Studies to develop a weeklong program centered on Bears Ears education. The program will include a screening of the Battle Over Bears Ears documentary produced by PBS Utah. The screening will be followed by a discussion about the Monument led by Gulliford and Davis Filfred, board chair of Utah Diné Bikéyah.
In these conversations, Gulliford will play the role of storyteller and historian.
"I like stories," Gulliford said. "I like the simplicity of thinking linearly, and I feel compelled to help people understand our history that way. Because if you're going to understand the future, you must understand the past. These days, we don't think very clearly about the past. So, storytelling plays an important role in making sense of that."