bears ears

Bears Ears National Monument is home to more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites considered sacred by many tribes. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

When the Museum of Northern Arizona opened its new permanent exhibit this past April, Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau, it was with the approval of 40 representatives from tribes located across the plateau.

“Tribal communities were asked what they wanted the public to know about them, and so this exhibition reflects their stories, their values and their way of presenting themselves in the modern world,” says Robert Breunig, MNA president emeritus.

Similarly, the Colorado Plateau Foundation operates under the belief that those who live and breathe on the land are best suited to find solutions to issues prevalent within its communities. The Native-led foundation in turn gives grants to Native-led organizations whose focus is on preservation of land, water and culture.

“We are informed from the people we serve,” says foundation CEO Jim Enote. “In 2011, we convened leaders from all the tribal communities on the plateau and over two days they said what the priorities were.”

Since then, the Flagstaff-based foundation has given more than $1.6 million in grants to over 70 organizations working to protect water, sacred places and threatened landscapes, and preserve Native languages and knowledge of sustainable community-based agriculture.

“I live on the plateau, our staff lives on the plateau,” Enote says. “Even though I wear the title of CEO, I still set up a scarecrow and irrigate and haul wood.”

That aspect is important in making the foundation stand out among others that support similar organizations because, rather than working remotely and blindly giving money for causes they don’t understand, they have firsthand experience with many of the issues brought to them.

As a member of the Zuni tribe living in New Mexico, Enote has a unique perspective on how the loss of traditional knowledge is affecting communities. He uses Fort Wingate near Gallup as an example.

“If you were to go there you’ll walk around and say, ‘OK, this was an old fort that was decommissioned, so it’s a historic place.’ You would see these old barracks and things like that,” he says. “But if a Zuni person was to go there and they knew the name, Anshe K’yana, that means Bear Spring. If they were to go there 50 years from now, or 100 years, they would say, ‘There was supposed to be water here, where is the water?’ But if it is Fort Wingate, that really does not tell us much about the life-sustaining nature of that place. If those languages are not maintained, thousands of years of experience living on the plateau could be lost.”

The Colorado Plateau spans across the Four Corners region and encompasses places sacred to Native tribes such as Bears Ears National Monument, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly and more.

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“Some people will talk about protecting sacred sites, [but] I prefer to talk about protecting sacred places because a site can be a put on a map and it would be easy for a government or another institution to say, ‘We will protect that rock,’ or, ‘We will protect that spring,’” Enote says. “However, if we refer to them as places, then we are talking about the context of the area surrounding that petroglyph or those springs.”

While the spread of grantees across each of the four priorities is fairly even, Enote says there is a slight majority of those focusing on the preservation of sustainable agriculture practices.

There are few supermarkets on tribal lands, forcing residents to drive great distances to shop for produce. Enote says the younger generation is realizing it does not make economic sense to drive so far when they can have food security for years to come by learning how to successfully grow crops on the land.

“While some tribal communities are still growing food as they have for many generations, there has been an erosion of that agricultural knowledge,” he says. “I have been growing and planting for 61 consecutive years. My grandparents put seeds in my hand, in my little baby hand, and I dropped seeds in a hole and each year after I planted. After high school, when I traveled, I was like a Johnny Appleseed planting everywhere I went.”

In supporting regional organizations dedicated to looking for solutions to these issues, the Colorado Plateau Foundation gives back to the community as a whole.  

“We have seen some Native-led organizations do good work,” Enote says. “They might be mom and pop organizations or small community organizations, but after a few years we have seen them struggle with leadership development, with fundraising, with board development, with their tax reporting, and unfortunately some of them would struggle and then fail. Our grants are intended to help them get stronger so they can continue their good work.”

After sending money to grantees, the foundation remains involved in their journey, following up with organizations to see how they’ve been able to make strides toward their focus and even hosting an annual Learning Community where all the grantees gather for two days of workshops to learn ways in which they can improve.

“There’s a sense of building a community of grantees and they have a sense of knowing they are not alone,” Enote says.

“In the past, people would look to government for solutions,” he continues. “Now, young people are saying, ‘We can be the solution.’ We have young Native people coming out of universities well-equipped with the tools to establish their own nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit organizations. Many are led by women, they’re intergenerational, and I think this is really the future of building opportunity for solutions on the Colorado Plateau.”

For more information on the Colorado Plateau Foundation, to apply for a grant or become a partner, visit www.coloradoplateaufoundation.org.

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