Hite • Before Davina Smith began her prayer run from Bears Ears National Monument to Salt Lake City, she traveled to the base of the 8,700-foot Bears Ears Buttes with medicine man Jonah Yellowman.
Smith and Yellowman, who are both from the Monument Valley area on the Navajo Nation, gathered dozens of plant species growing in the high meadows and ponderosa pine forests near Bears Ears and placed them into a medicine bundle.
“That is literally our medicine cabinet,” Smith said. “It’s the power of Bears Ears.”
After going through a ceremony to prepare to carry the bundle, Smith returned to Bears Ears on Tuesday, slung the leather medicine pouch across her back and started running towards Salt Lake City, a journey of 330 miles that she hopes to complete in less than two weeks.
It didn’t take her long to cross the current boundary of Bears Ears National Monument, which was reduced to 15% of its original size by President Donald Trump in 2017. But it wasn’t until Day 3 of the run that she crossed the original monument boundaries as designated by President Barack Obama near the end of this second term.
Five Native American tribes — Diné (Navajo), Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute Indian — sued the federal government in an attempt to restore original boundaries, and both Smith, who is executive director of SLC Air Protectors, and Yellowman, a board member of Utah Diné Bikéyah, support those efforts.
“Growing up in San Juan County, Bears Ears is very important to me,” Smith said, “and it was designated with co-management,” referring to the tribal Bears Ears Commission Obama created with his original proclamation before it was altered by Trump. “It wasn’t about us taking over — it was nothing like that — it was about working together.”
But Smith said the monument controversy was only part of the motivation for her journey, which SLC Air Protectors dubbed the Indigenous Youth Solidarity Prayer Run. She is also hoping to foster alliances between people advocating on behalf of various issues across the state from land, air and water protections to education, health care and affordable housing. And she wants the run to inspire youth.
In the first days of her run, Smith passed a number of abandoned uranium mines like the ones she grew up near in Monument Valley that once employed her grandfather. On Thursday morning, she started running at dawn not far from the Daneros Uranium Mine, which has recently been approved for expansion and is owned by a Canadian-headquartered company, Energy Fuels, that actively lobbied for the monument reductions.
“It’s still here; it’s still happening,” Smith said of uranium mining that has been linked to high cancer rates in Diné, Ute and Anglo communities in the Four Corners region.
Her run also took her past swaths of dying juniper trees that may have become more vulnerable to disease due to climate change. “I feel we’re not seeing the signs [of climate change] because there’s a paper that is green that speaks so many more volumes than our human lives and the lives of animals,” she said.
Smith began the journey running alone with the help of a support vehicle, and she expects more runners to join as she nears Salt Lake City. Her goal is to run up State Street to Capitol Hill on the evening of August 26, and she is inviting people to come out for the event. “I would love for everyone to come together and get to know each other,” she said.
For now, that’s a long way off. The Salt Lake Tribune met up with Smith in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area near Hite, and she was already planning for the long climb to Hanksville.
“I’m sore,” Smith laughed, adding that she is almost 45 years old and ran 40 miles in the first two and a half days. But Smith has been inspired by her grandmother, who once spent a night in jail after firing a gun in the air when fence-building crews approached her house on the Navajo Nation.
And Smith said she plans to carry her medicine bundle to the Capitol in a basket her great-great grandmother made after she returned from the Long Walk, the U.S. Army’s forcible removal of Diné people from their lands in the 1860s.
“Although we’ve gone through centuries and centuries of atrocities and injustices, that basket is still here,” she said. “And so for me that shows that we are still here. Indigenous people are still here.”
It’s a message she hopes her four children and others will take away when she arrives in Salt Lake City.
“The most important thing is this bundle that I carry,” she said. “I want people to heal. I would love for people to unite, and I would love for our younger generation to see that there are possibilities.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.