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New book examines Bears Ears

The distinctive Bears Ears can be seen for more than 100 miles in every direction. Different tribes in different languages all have the same name for the rock formations – Bears Ears. Author Andrew Gulliford has released a new book about the region: “Bears Ears: Landscape of Refuge and Resistance.” (Andrew Gulliford/Durango Herald file)

When the debate raged over whether then President Barack Obama should establish the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, some people worried it could have an unintended effect of bringing more attention – and therefore more visitors and their impacts – to that corner of Canyon Country.

Certainly visitation has increased over the last decade, but whether it’s the result of the national monument designation, the national media hype surrounding it, or simply because more folks are flocking to public lands everywhere is up for debate. But one thing is certain: Giving a name, Bears Ears, to a vast swath of land that previously had no established monicker has shown a brighter literary spotlight on the region – or at least given publishers some catchy words to slap on book covers.

In the seven years since five tribal nations first proposed Bears Ears National Monument, no fewer than eight books have been published with “Bears Ears” in the title, from R.E. Burrillo’s “Behind the Bears Ears,” to Rebecca Robinson’s and Stephen Strom’s “Voices From Bears Ears,” to at least two hiking guides to the area. Now, Fort Lewis College professor and Durango Herald columnist Andrew Gulliford adds his unique tome to the mix with “Bears Ears: Landscape of Refuge and Resistance.”

Buy the book

“Bears Ears: Landscape of Refuge and Resistance,” by Andrew Gulliford, is available at Maria’s Bookshop. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/3BTe86O.

Gulliford tries to explain the somewhat opaque subtitle in the acknowledgments, noting that he is using the idea of a place of “refuge and resistance” as his organizing theme as he aims for the goal of blending personal memoir and environmental history. If that’s still a bit vague, he gets to the point, and to a better subtitle for the book, when he writes: “So here is a Bears Ears history.” For that is exactly what this book is, a comprehensive – sometimes encyclopedic – synthesis of some 13,000 years of human history in San Juan County, Utah.

In the first chapter, the reader is pulled back to the time of the Paleo-Indians, when nomadic peoples moved stealthily through what is now known as Bears Ears in search of deer, elk, even mammoths. From there, Gulliford weaves a tapestry of place, intertwining broad, sweeping swaths of the region’s past with meticulously researched and detailed threads about individuals, events and even artifacts, including a beautiful (and toasty) turkey feather blanket.

Tourists find potsherds and pieces of chert and put them on display on what is called a museum rock. This practice should be discouraged because visitors see the abundance of artifacts and pocket a few of them, which is illegal. Anything on a museum rock should be lightly scattered. (Andrew Gulliford/Durango Herald file)

Along the way, Gulliford relies on a multitude of sources to illuminate historic moments that have been obscured by time. He digs into the lives and expeditions of cowboy archaeologists – who might also be considered looters and pothunters – delves into the grisly tale of Lucile Garret and her kidnapper, the ax murderer Jimmy Palmer, and explores the tragic legacy of uranium mining and milling on the Colorado Plateau. In these moments Gulliford manages to combine painstaking historical research and accuracy with thrilling storytelling.

The book’s latter chapters are devoted mostly to the region’s land-use politics of the last several decades, with an emphasis on the battle over national monument designation. In these sections Gulliford, who clearly is in favor of the added protections for the landscape, is fair and balanced in his approach, showing sympathy for opposing viewpoints. He unwaveringly condemns looting and pothunting at ancient sites, but also calmly explains whence the tradition comes and gives a voice to community members taken aback by 1986 and 2009 raids on suspected vandals.

If there is a weakness with the book, it comes when Gulliford does the “personal memoir” part of his stated goal for the work. Sometimes it works nicely, such as when he talks about tying his puppy to a juniper tree while he shimmies across a ledge to a cliff dwelling. But other times it feels forced, and serves to distract from the bigger story rather than enhance it. In one instance, Gulliford immerses the reader in the tale of Posey and the “last Indian uprising” only to yank us out of the moment with, “I’ve hiked the Posey Trail off Highway 95 … I’ve walked the slickrock uphill on an autumn afternoon …” The “I’ve hiked …” construction is repeated in key moments throughout, which can be annoying and totally unnecessary.

Gulliford doesn’t need to tell the reader that he’s invested in and passionate about the landscape of which he writes because he otherwise shows it in his writing. This comes across especially well in the section about the humble, tiny, ancient Four Corners potato and the people researching it. The little tuber, Gulliford writes, provided sustenance to the Ancestral Puebloans in the Bears Ears area and is still used by their descendants at Zuni and Hopi. Now it is being cultivated and put to wider use. “These are not just small potatoes,” Gulliford writes. “They are an ancient agricultural legacy, an Indigenous farming heritage, and new research shows that the tiny tubers are only one example of ethnographically significant plant species.”

Gulliford’s “Landscape of Refuge and Resistance” stands out among the various books on Bears Ears as the definitive history of the region, one that is scrupulously researched, compellingly told, and that will stand as a reference for anyone interested in this spectacular and culturally rich corner of our region.

Jonathan P. Thompson is a journalist, editor of LandDesk.org, and author of “Sagebrush Empire: How a remote Utah county became the battlefront of American Public Lands.”