Shash Jaa’ (Bears Ears)
Diné/Hopi/United States, 2016 | Angelo Baca
Produced with an all-Navajo crew, Angelo Baca’s Shash Jaa’ (Bears Ears) is a documentary about approximately 5500 square kilometers (1.35 million acres) of land in southeastern Utah (United States) that are considered sacred to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, the Hopi Nation, and the Zuni Tribe. The film also documents Baca’s relationship with his Navajo-only speaking grandmother Helen Yellowman.
Despite past disagreements, the five tribal nations have united to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to protect the land from environmental destruction associated with recourse extraction and development. They advocate in the U.S. capital of Washington, DC for the land to be classified as a protected national monument. In October 2016, the Bears Ears National Monument was established to protect public land from private exploitation. A year later, this protection is again under threat.
The collaboration among the nations extends a longer history of the Navajo sharing stories and exchanging knowledge about the land with their pueblo neighbors, the Hopi and Zuni. Even after the arrival of non-indigenous colonizers, including Catholic missionaries and Mormon “settlers,” who were quick to “relocate” the land’s historical inhabitants and exploit the land for their own purposes, these three nations continued to share knowledge. This practice has broader implications since traditional knowledge (TK) and indigenous knowledge (IK) have been increasingly recognized for their historical and scientific significance helping people to think in ecologically sustainable ways. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), for example, has been deployed to manage the polar and rainforest environments. Since the early 1990s, the United Nations’ Biodiversity Convention has relied upon TEK.
Boca and his grandmother reflect on past land theft for oil drilling, which contaminated water, killed livestock, and caused human illness during the extraction of crude oil and ultimately contributed to carbon emissions during consumption of the refined product. Drilling transforms the natural environment into property — re-characterizing it not as a living entity but simply as an economic resource.
For the Navajo, the land is deeply connected to identity and dignity. They do not want to see what has happened elsewhere happen at Bears Ears. It is where they go to pray, do ceremonies, hunt, and gather herbs. It is where they connect with ancestors and with nonhuman forms of life who also call the land home.
Resource excavation also risks destroying archeological sites that date at least 12,000 years. These sites contain art, artifacts, and architecture from the Clovis and Ancestral Puebloans. Carved into the surface of rocks, petroglyphs are important elements of human history and heritage. In addition to native archaeological treasures, Bears Ears is also the site of material artifacts of non-indigenous peoples — ranchers, prospectors, and early archaeologists — who carved inscriptions into the rock that contribute to the history of European and U.S. colonization in the area. Finally, Bears Ears is a natural history resource full of fossils that tell the story of nonhuman forms of life.
The film’s website includes additional information and resources, including the text of the presidential proclamation by Barack Obama to establish Bears Ear as a national monument.
This project was selected for a jury prize.