What’s in a name?: Bears Ears and our many names to this place

Rising from the center of the southeastern Utah landscape and visible from every direction are twin buttes so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or “Bears Ears.”


Excerpt from Bears Ears National Monument Presidential Proclamation (2016).

What’s in a name? A name is important to the identification of one’s being and existence in their respective cultural and social systems that they come from. This excerpt of the Presidential Proclamation that designated the Bears Ears National Monument by President Barack Obama solidifies and cements the respectful and acknowledgement that this sacred place was shared and honored in different languages and traditions by using their original names for the place.

It is one of the reasons why naming who you are and where you come from is essential to Indigenous communities. It connects to you to a family, a lineage, maybe even a clan or community in relation to the one that you may be in recently or have never left. It makes your relationships and friendships part of a larger system of social and cultural frameworks of kinship, or what we call in Navajo as K’é, which means that we are never alone.

Indigenous ontology positions us in a universe larger and more complex than any one of us by ourselves can completely understand by ourselves but it is a process of accumulated data over generations of traditional knowledge in native communities all over the world. Our relationships with our families and to people in our communities, region, and environment are intertwined with the lands that we come from. Even now, our names and identification, in some way, are bound to the lands that come from, we live on, and we pray for and with. Those plants, animals, and spirits living on such lands are relatives and extended kin, not to be forgotten when we make our lives among so many other-than-human beings than just human beings.

Perhaps more significant than sharing the same name (Bears Ears) in different languages (Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Diné) is to theorize how they arrived at those names on their own. Granted, influence is always possible from your indigenous neighbors about a place and what a landscape is referenced as. However, as early inhabitants of Zuni and Hopi as Pueblo peoples who were first in this place, they had their name for it in their own language. Ute and Navajos would come into the territories a little later and also give it their names. Knowing this, it is obvious that there are periods of habitation, migration, and transitions of communities of peoples who stay, move, and visit through the Bears Ears region. Also, it is obvious that in different times with different languages the result is the same: Bears Ears is not just a place but an identification of the spirit and energy of the personhood of the animal and relative we know as the bear.

For this short documentary film, I named it “Shash Jaa’: Bears Ears” because that is what it is from my own Navajo perspective. Even using this name in my title challenges those who want everything to be easily digested in a Western framework and in English to momentarily stumble, eventually to succeed, in saying the name of the film. On a personal note, I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to hear people who have never spoken Navajo to struggle to pronounce the words in the title and make the effort to learn a word or two in the Diné language. These are rare moments for Indigenous scholars, filmmakers, and artists that they relish. It is satisfying when people make the attempt because it might otherwise be the only time some will try to make such an effort to learn more about Indigenous names let alone how to say them correctly.

This naming of the film comes from my primary indigenous language and gives it the weight it deserves. Any other Indigenous filmmaker from the five tribes who makes a film about the Bears Ears movement to pursue a National Monument designation is welcome to name the place in their own language. In fact, it would mean more and be culturally significant in acknowledging that place in a proper and respectful way. If it was given some generic English settler-colonial name, such as Hole-in-the-rock for instance, then it would be subsumed and adopted under the larger American Manifest Destiny narrative framing of “discovering” and colonizing the West, a framework not our own. In fact, our indigenous naming practices would pre-date this attempt to cut the landscape up in demarcated and “God’s-eye-view” mapping of the sacred landscape, raising issues of jurisdictional control over four states in this “four corners region” when such imagined border lines originally had no bearing on the sharing or naming of the place.

America, in its effort to be its own kind of thing and idea, departed from its European brothers and sisters by naming itself a new nation after certain Indigenous place names or their peoples. At first, there weren’t many original names or ideas implemented, with names like New London, New Hampshire, and New York. But, identity is long-term investment and America is determined to stick to its historical amnesia by dispossessing Indigenous peoples from their lands and then forgetting the peoples themselves. It names places after them even as it simultaneously draws power from the native peoples while it attempts to erase their presence and render them invisible. Examples such as Manhattan (Manahatta, or the “Hilly Island” of Lenape territory) or Seattle (named after Chief Sealth of Duwamish territory) illustrate the power of naming and appropriating those names while pushing the original people out.

This brings me to the last point about naming that is critical to understand. Naming, without the original people involved or giving significant input in that process, is not honoring or giving them adequate recognition. It is appropriating that name for the dominant groups own ends. When the current administration names the Bears Ears region Shash Jaa’ National Monument, it is disrespectful and disingenuous because you didn’t ask us, invite, or have meaningful dialogue with us about this decision. This name is reserved for Diné (meaning “The People”) or what is commonly known as Navajo people, to specifically call that place. Therefore, it is a divisive tactic and one that is known among all the five tribes that won’t work. The tribes called it Bears Ears National Monument in solidarity and unity not privileging any one tribe or their names but sharing and respecting each other’s language, heritage, history, and traditions.

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