Undivided: Diné Bikéyah – Held by Our Land, Held by Our Ancestors

The essay below was written for Bikepacking Roots’ Bears Ears Loops Landscape and Route Guidebook to provide bikepackers with one perspective about how the landscape in its entirety is sacred to Indigenous groups. The designation of Bears Ears National Monument marked the first time in history that a National Monument was created in response to the voices and advocacy of the Indigenous groups who call the landscape home. Leaders from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe formed the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition in 2015 to represent a consortium of tribes unified in protecting and promoting the cultural, archeological, scientific, historical and natural resources of the Bears Ears region. Just 11 months later, the Trump administration reduced the Monument’s size by ~85%. And in a direct affront to the request of the Intertribal Coalition, the southern unit of the reduced Monument was named the Shásh Jaa’ Unit (using the Diné name for Bears Ears). The Coalition had insisted upon the use of the English “Bears Ears” name for the Monument rather than in any one tribe’s language in solidarity and unity.⁠

A Navajo’s relationship with the land begins at birth when their umbilical cord is buried in the ground. For nine months, my umbilical cord attached me to my mother, and it was by this pathway that I was nourished, protected, and grew. It tied me to life. When my umbilical cord was buried, this represented a transition from being nourished by my mother to a life of nurturing by Mother Earth. Thus, an immediate sacred relationship was established to tie me to my home, our sacred land, Diné Bikéyah*. In this way, as I grew I would always know my source of nourishment and maintain this connection over my lifetime. Therefore, I like to say that I was destined to ride bikes and to love and protect our land.

The Diné** way of life is inseparable from the land and based on the belief that the physical and spiritual world blend together, and all living things on Earth are considered relatives. The inseparable interrelatedness between human beings and the universe establishes the responsibility to honor and respect, maintain balance, and live in harmony with our connections to the universe. We believe the universe includes the elements of nature (e.g. plants, animals), Mother Earth, Father Sky, the Creator, the Diné holy people, spirits, and cycles within nature such as seasons, night, day, sun, moon, stars, and time. When we care for all our relations and are in harmony with others, our self, and the universe, we refer to this in Navajo as Hózhó. Translating the complex meaning of Hózhó without reducing its expansive meaning is difficult because it encompasses both a way of living and a state of being. What is certain is that it expresses for us such concepts as beauty, harmony, goodness, well-being, order, and success. My journey by which I strive towards living in a state of Hózhó includes connecting with the land.

When I look across our Navajo homeland, I am reminded of our Navajo creation story. Diné history begins with our creation story, and according to this story, Diné were created and have always lived between the four sacred mountains in the four different directions: Mt. Blanca to the east in Colorado, Mt. Taylor to the south in New Mexico, San Francisco Peaks to the west in Arizona and Mt Hesperus to the north near Durango, Colorado, thus creating our Navajo homeland. Between these mountains, my umbilical cord was buried in a special place by my grandma, tying me to the land for the rest of my life. I am comforted knowing this and that the land will take care of me, give me strength, healing, and always remind me to never forget who I am. This is why our land is everything to us.

There are many ways I connect, maintain, and strengthen this connection with the land, and one of them is through biking. Every time I’m on my bike, I feel the nurturing of Mother Earth and I hear the stories told by our land that is living. I can’t hear these stories by looking at a picture, I have to go there. It is essential we go and set foot in places like Shásh Jaa’. We oftentimes hear phrases such as land conservation and protecting public lands in the outdoor industry which is heavily driven by preserving the ability to recreate in these places. We too advocate, but what drives our fight to protect our land is our belief that the land is us – our identity, culture, and way of life is held within Mother Earth. It is the same mindset you’d have if you were fighting for your own life or that of your loved ones.

Navajo society is traditionally matrilineal, meaning that one’s clan identity is derived from the mother. When Navajo people introduce themselves to one another, it goes beyond just telling someone your name and where you live. We share in our introduction our clan because this defines us. Our clan is our identity that makes our relationships and friendships part of a larger familial system of kinship, or what we call in Navajo K’é, which means that we are never alone.

Being on the land, we experience time not linearly but rather as a blend of the past, present, and future. When I am on the land, I feel so much closer to my ancestors and my relatives, including the plants and animals. I stand on the land as part of the land because my ancestors took care of this land since time began so that I can be here. We owe everything to them because we would not be here without them. This is why my elders would teach me to respect the land. Today, we take care of the land and fight to protect it for future generations. So when I set foot on the land of Bears Ears where time merges together, my ancestors that hunted, gathered, and lived here, built canyon dwellings, carved stories on the cliff walls, created the pottery, baskets and other things that we see here – the blood of those people is in my veins.

Therefore, when we are biking on the land, we should ask ourselves whose land are we on? You are never alone when you are outside. Instead, you are held by the land and held by my ancestors. Take a long pause while you look out onto the landscape, hear the birds, or smell the sage and remember that the land and everything living on it are our relatives, our family, and we need to take care of them. Remember there were people here long ago, ancestors of people today that share the same spirit and just like them also have a sacred connection to this land. The land connects us all together with one another and my K’é. I encourage you all to connect with the land and develop a relationship with the land with this context in mind so you can see and feel the heart of the people and understand what it is we are trying to protect and defend.

**In our Navajo language we refer to our land as Diné Bikéyah, which means “The people’s sacred land.”

*The Navajo people commonly refer to themselves as Diné, the Navajo word literally meaning “the People.”