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Raising a Moral Voice to Protect Sacred Lands

Raising a Moral Voice to Protect Sacred Lands

Panoramic of Utah landscape

Recently, I made a pilgrimage to Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah in the company of 20 faith and tribal leaders. Our group undertook the journey to stand in solidarity with the indigenous tribes that have held this land sacred for millennia, and to raise a moral voice for the importance of the protection of indigenous sacred sites and public lands that are endangered by the Trump Administration’s decision to diminish or eliminate many national monuments, including Bears Ears, which was reduced by 85% in the largest ever rollback of federal land protection.

On our journey, I was moved by the way the sacred land brought our group together spiritually. Coming from many faith and spiritual backgrounds, we were united as one by the joy and renewal the beauty of the land brought to our hearts. We stood in awe before grand, multi-colored canyons. Delight rippled through our group when we saw wild turkeys ambling through the woods and when a large buck turned his antlered head toward us and held us in his gaze. Each of us felt the healing and rejuvenating power of the land as we walked in a flourishing forest.

Each of our national monuments is a unique treasure handed down from our ancestors, a treasure that we must protect for our descendants. In the case of Bears Ears, five native tribes put aside past differences to work together with a unified vision to identify scores of sacred sites and then to map the traditional tribal pathways and large animal corridors that linked those sites as one ecosystem.

Woody Lee, a Utah Diné Bikéyah leader, and Joseph Brophy Toledo, traditional leader of Jemez Pueblo, told our group that Bears Ears National Monument is uniquely the work of indigenous tribes to preserve their heritage, the land where they go to hunt, gather medicinal herbs, and seek healing. Their work is now a gift to the American people, an awesome and beautiful expanse of land where people from every walk of life can go to be filled with the wonder of God’s creation.

The sacred land of Bears Ears has already been lessened. In a secret set of proposals that later was leaked to the press, Secretary of the Interior Zinke recommended diminishing numerous national monuments, including Bears Ears. Instead of preserving the entire, complex ecosystem, Secretary Zinke has seen fit to draw circles around separate antiquity sites and preserve just those isolated locations. This misguided action stands to disrupt the ecosystem of a monument that stands as a living testament to the inter-connectedness of the natural world.

The streams, forests, bears, deer, elk, and mountain lions that flourish in Bears Ears do so precisely because the complex web that gives them life has not been broken. This web of relations is what drew me to Bears Ears. What happens at Bears Ears happens to me, to my family, to my community. This beautiful land that is sacred to more than 30 indigenous tribes is sacred to me, both because of its flourishing beauty and because an attack on one sacred site is an attack on the sanctity of all sacred sites, including the synagogue where I go to be in community, to pray, and to heal.

I have written to Secretary Zinke, President Trump, and my congressional representatives to tell them that indigenous tribes, my own religious community, and the American people need and deserve Bears Ears and the other national monuments to remain whole and healthy for future generations. I urge you to do the same. 

Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev is the scholar-in-residence at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the leader of The Beit Midrash of Santa Fe and teaches spirituality and medicine to family practice residents at the University of New Mexico Medical School. Nahum is an associate of The Meeting Ground, a multi-cultural team that produced a DVD to train cross-cultural peacemakers, and has developed a series of workshops entitled “The Hebrew Prophets Now!” that apply prophetic insight and inspiration to contemporary challenges.

Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev
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