It was a sunny afternoon when Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk walked into the Bears Ears Education Center. It was apparent in the way she carried herself, Regina embodied traits of a contemporary Indigenous woman: courageous and confident. She stood up straight and had a gentle, but strong smile. Before one word was said, I noticed she had red circles painted near her temples. I wanted to ask her why she had red paint on herself, but instead we simply introduced ourselves.

If you’ve been following Bears Ears National Monument, from near or far, then I’m sure you’ve heard the name, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk. She’s of the Uintah and Weeminuche bands, and is an enrolled member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. In 2013, she was elected to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council, and in 2015, became the co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Today, she’s currently the Cross-Cultural Program Director for the Montezuma Land Conservancy, and a master’s candidate at Western Colorado University in environmental management with a concentration on public land policies - so it’s certainly safe to say, she’s doing everything in her power to take an unwavering approach to her advocacy work. 

Regina is in the midst of a whirlwind life journey that, up to this point, has been filled with wins, setbacks, light, indifference, and most importantly, healing. For me, hearing Regina talk is like a motivational, ASMR-filled experience: her voice is soft, soothing, and enchanting, but her tone is divine and strong. She’s empowered, and her adamant stance in protecting sacred landscapes is only a part of her compelling life. 

Leadership experience

image1Regina with Coalition leaders standing in front of the White House after presenting their proposal to the Obama Administration and Department of Interior in 2015.Although her journey in land preservation began when she was a young girl, her initial step into a leadership position started in 2015 when the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was in its early stages. As former co-chair, she stated, “I was very honored to be able to work alongside four other Tribes, and it was pretty astounding that we could come together beyond our traditional enemy ties to really see a vision of tomorrow of protection and access for our people.” She spoke about how everyone came to the table thinking about their individual Tribes and how, moving forward, they could have collaborative conversations as Five Tribes. 

Regina discussed how apparent it was they were becoming leaders for all people: locally, nationally, and even globally. With other national monument or park designations, the general public have opportunities and spaces to express their opinions. “Historically, we’ve always had other organizations within the federal systems that made decisions in our best interests.” This was the first time Tribes were using their own voices to make a request. It set into motion that Tribes could and should have crucial input in making land management decisions. 

image0 2Regina and a few Coalition leaders and elders in the West Wing of the White House in 2015.From resource extraction to increased visitation, irreversible damage is happening to the land. “We were seeing such great disrespect to sacred spaces, landscapes, and resources'' - such as plant and animal life, that will be utilized by generations to come. Indigenous youth will use the land and the resources Mother Earth provides for traditional purposes, so putting preservation efforts into action is a top priority. She further elaborated that figuring out how to work within the confines of federal regulations was, for her, a bit challenging, but achievable.

Not only did Regina overcome these challenges, but she also found the experience profoundly healing. “Healing our relationships, healing our relationships with one another, with the land, with other governments, with people in general. ‘Healing’ encompasses what Bears Ears represents for many people.” Healing allowed space to acknowledge painful histories and to understand that progress was possible.

Generation to generation

The consistent theme in Regina’s life has and always will be about protecting the land. But in order to completely understand how this theme fit into her life’s work, she first needed to reach out to elders and grandparents. Unlike the written word, her family and her Tribe pass down Traditional Knowledge through oral history. She found herself making connections with elders to understand their past. At the time, she still had her grandparents, which gave her opportunities to seek their knowledge and guidance. She was also able to fully grasp where she came from, emphasizing that knowing where a person comes from doesn’t necessarily mean a physical location, but instead a person’s history, ties, lineage, and family. 

She learned that her great-grandfather was one of the last family healers. Regina’s father told her how her great-grandfather was willing to help anyone, including people outside his own Tribe. But the invaluable help he provided wasn’t possible without his wife and the women in his family. “Grandmas, daughters, and grand daughters - they would be the ones to help go harvest some of the herbs. Part of all of that really laid in the role that females played, but don’t often get spoken of or recognized.” 

image2Regina with her grandmother from White Mesa, Stella Eyetoo. Regina spoke of how she was able to sit down with her grandmothers and listen to their stories. Through this, she was able to provide them with a safe place to talk through their traumas and intertwine their healing with hers. “I was doing what my grandfather did. I was helping somebody else heal through just talking and learning.” Her grandmothers’ stories were more than just stories - they gave her a sense of guidance when it came to the work she did with the monument. “I understand why my grandmothers felt safe enough to talk to me, but at the same time, it wasn’t just talk, it wasn’t just sharing, it wasn't the healing, but it was also a lesson.” She started to see that knowledge and lessons coexisted. “You just have to learn to sit, listen, and take in and process. Because at some point, the tables will turn and you become the teacher.”

The healing aspect of the land 

Bears Ears is a living landscape, and when you immerse yourself into the beauty and calmness of Mother Earth, it allows you to regain your footing in this fast-paced world. Making a connection to the land is something that Regina feels everyone can benefit from, but only if you allow it. “We’re not giving ourselves to this space,” she stated. Some people disassociate from the land and feel the need to listen to loud music over wireless speakers and only want to capture perfect photos. “We consume our technology. We want it better, faster. We want it bigger, we want better quality, but why shouldn’t we ask that of ourselves when we’re out there?” Being - just being aware and conscious of the world around you is how you reground yourself physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Listen to wildlife, take in the scenery, breathe in the fresh air because that’s for you. But as she says, “people don’t accept those gifts that Mother Earth and the elements are sharing with us and keeping it sacred.” 

Being out on the land gives people a chance to find or revitalize their spirit, but it requires a reciprocal relationship. “If we come out to heal, we must be open enough to share something,” giving an example such as supporting the work of an organization or simply sharing a drink of water with Mother Earth. “It isn’t just about consuming and taking, it’s also about leaving and helping.”

The healing Regina experienced was especially helpful when her work and advocacy took her to different places, including Washington D.C. The one thing her grandmother wanted her to do was to come home as much as she could. “She would always tell me, ‘Always remember to come home. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, always remember where home is.’" And when most people think of home, their minds automatically think of a place. “Home is with your family, home is where you get to celebrate dance, sing, and be with people that have that same connection and understanding.” And thanks to her work with the other Tribes, she was always invited into their homes and welcomed to their dances. “Home is where you feel safe.”

Being respectful of the landscape

If you find yourself venturing into the Bears Ears region, it’s important to Visit With Respect. “When visiting these places, if you come upon these places, you’re walking in somebody’s home,” Regina stated. It’s important to watch where you walk or to return an object back where you found it. But knowing why you should be respectful goes back to acknowledging the people who once lived there, and whose spirits still reside there. 

Even within her own culture, Regina practices respect. She was taught to refer to the land as Mother Earth - she’s part of the family. And, as a safety precaution, Regina indicated that “I always come out here with paint on me just because our red earth paint is one of those guiding and guarding protections of us. This is something that my family, and my grandfather particularly taught me - it’s that as long as you wear a little of her [Mother Earth] on you, the protection and what you know is right, will be okay. You’re going to be okay.” 

More than a story

image3A young Regina in her buckskin dress holding her oldest son in a cradleboard.Highlighting a perspective like Regina’s is important because like oral histories passed down from mother to daughter, she’s also passing down strength and spirit. There’s spirit in stories that future generations can learn from, evolve from, and eventually, thrive on. By sharing her story, I give others a chance to step inside my world - a young Indigenous person’s world that’s full of culture, language, respect, and knowledge so deep and so part of your being, that stories like Regina ignite you to be better and aim for the stars - that’s how you make your ancestors proud. Being proud of where you came from, and how far you can ultimately go. She’s an elder and a leader that every person can learn from.