Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk: From Bears Ears to Brunot to Broads

Meet Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, one of the newest members of Broads’ Council of Advisors. Regina is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Towaoc, Colorado, former co-chair for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, and a dedicated public lands advocate.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk

Regina first became involved with Broads when invited to speak at the 2016 Bears Ears Broadwalk. While in search of the remote camping spot, she happened to meet another lost Broad, Northern San Juan Broadband leader Robyn Cascade. They decided that they would camp out and enjoy the night together if they couldn’t locate the campsite, but they eventually found it. The adventure sparked a friendship that continues today.

Regina’s involvement with the historic Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition started out as a fluke. As a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council, she was asked to attend a meeting since the assigned council member could not attend. The group was just beginning to form an alliance of five sovereign tribal nations to protect the Bears Ears region. As the Coalition gained steam, the Tribe’s Chairman encouraged Regina’s involvement because she was raised with a traditional connection to the land.

Regina grew up hearing stories from family members about Bears Ears, but this meeting prompted her to do more research. She spoke with elders and relatives in the community of White Mesa in Utah and found her ties to Bears Ears were closer and deeper than she first realized. The elders were pleased she became one of the voices working to protect these sacred lands.

She looked to her grandmother and other elders for guidance and support throughout the development of the plan to achieve designation of the Bears Ears National Monument. When the Trump administration illegally reduced the monument, it upset many of the elders, including her grandmother Stella. One week after Trump slashed the monument boundaries, her grandmother passed away.

Regina’s family ties to White Mesa keep her focused on the latest travesty—a proposal to bring radioactive waste from overseas to be stored at the White Mesa uranium mill facility. She worries about her grandchildren who live in the nearby community and the potential contamination of the region’s precious water.

“Your view changes when you become a grandparent. You see outside yourself and worry about the challenges your grandchildren will face.”

As an advocate, Regina makes sure her facts and experience are valid and true; she determines what is in her power to investigate and what she can truly work toward changing. “It’s never simple, never comfortable. If you don’t feel uncomfortable, there’s really no work being done.”

In 2018, she was a keynote speaker at the Headwaters Conference at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. She had an epiphany when she joined a break out session and realized the room held a “bunch of old white guys” from state and federal land management agencies who were obviously biding their time until they could retire. She saw no concern for native people. No one wanted to make any effort to evolve or change to improve management practices. “I was troubled and thought, we need to educate the next generation of land managers.”

She was offered a fellowship and went back to school to earn her Masters of Environmental Management at Western Colorado University. Her graduate project focuses on the Brunot Area—3.7 million acres of the San Juan Mountains region that the Utes relinquished under the 1874 Brunot Agreement. The Tribe surrendered the lands, but reserved its off-reservation hunting rights in the agreement. Regina plans to hold a multi-day event to build relationships and improve communications, educating about the region’s history and sparking open discourse between the tribe and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to uncover common goals.

As Broadbands look to expand their work with native tribes on public land protections, Regina sees her role on Broads’ Council of Advisors as an opportunity to help build those relationships and guide us on best practices to reach out to tribes.

As a former elected leader, Regina cautions against walking into a tribal office or leadership council declaring you have “the solution.” Don’t show up expecting to save the day. Instead, do your research on history of the tribe, the challenges they have faced over time. Understand the full picture of broken treaties, bad policy, and physical confrontations they have experienced. Why are they on a reservation instead of historical homelands—and how are those historical lands treated or protected? Do they have access to those lands? Understand tribal sovereignty and the relationship the tribe has with the state where they reside.

Take your time and build a lasting relationship. Too often, Regina says, people come into a tribal community and “drop in and drop out.” They say they want to help, but come and go so quickly that it has created a basic distrust in the commitment level of those outside the tribe.

“Why allow yourself to get close if someone is just going to disappear? If you want to help, take an interest in what is important to the tribe. Become like a family member, a sister, brother, aunt. Demonstrate you are committed to the tribe beyond a short-term whim to ‘save the little Indian.’ We see a different horizon.”

With Regina’s guidance, perhaps we can expand our perception and understanding, and begin to see, or at least understand that horizon as we build alliances with sovereign tribal governments and organizations.

In closing, Regina emphasizes the importance of being true to who you are. The passion and love and words from her elders taught her this—and guided her through the challenges of the past years under the current administration.

“And, don’t be afraid to love,” she adds.