Blending past and present: A new exhibit spotlights the lush art of the Utes

What do you see as you barrel down Highway 191 between Moab and Monument Valley in southern Utah? Red rocks, turquoise skies, glittering sand, and RVs?

Ah! The town of White Mesa, where you stop for a snack or gas. Who lives here, you might wonder as you look around. If you don’t know, you’re like a lot of people who journey along Utah 191.

The White Mesa Ute Mountain Ute people live here. They’re one of many Ute groups, and they share language, stories, ceremonial cycles, and traditional observances with the Ute Mountain Utes of Towaoc, Colo.

UTE COURTING FLUTESThrough July 31, a good place to learn about both groups of Ute Mountain Utes (the Weeminuche) is Edge of the Cedars Museum State Park in Blanding, about 10 miles north of White Mesa on Highway 191.

Edge of the Cedars Museum curator of education Rebecca Stoneman has organized an exhibit of Towaoc and White Mesa Ute Mountain Ute art called, “Nucheuneken: the Ute People’s Creations,” to show off their rich, dynamic culture.

The roughly 200 items in the show illustrate how crafts pass from generation to generation, which traditional arts still flourish, and how people use contemporary and ancient media to express cultural and personal values.

“The main thought here is, how does art bridge the generations?” asks Stoneman. “How does it bridge traditions and express itself in contemporary ways?”

Often, the Ute Mountain Ute family passes down artistic knowledge. White Mesa flute-maker Billy Mike taught his grandson, Aldean Ketchum, the art of carving instruments. Today, Ketchum performs on his flutes with symphonies and opera companies around the world. In 2002, he appeared in the Olympic opening ceremony in Salt Lake City.

“Nucheuneken: the Ute People’s Creations” features a collection of his and his grandfather’s instruments. Ketchum recorded some of his songs on his red cedar flute and an eagle-bone whistle. The CD plays in the gallery housing the Nucheuneken exhibit.

Ketchum’s wife, Wanda, passes White Mesa Ute traditions on by weaving and sewing intricate beaded designs onto her children’s pow-wow regalia for the Bear and Sun dances.

For pow-wows, each family, and sometimes each dancer, has his or her own colors and motifs. “A person is often identified by looking at the regalia,” explains Stoneman.

The Towaoc Utes learned beading in the mid-1800s from plains tribes, who acquired the craft from traders. Multicolored and in many sizes, beads were adapted to traditional Ute Mountain Ute decorating techniques. People could get beads more easily than porcupine quills, shells and stones, which adorned clothing in earlier times.

So, tiny glass beads, pony beads, and crow beads caught on. The Towaoc Utes introduced them to White Mesa.

“We have an amazing assortment of beadwork,” says Stoneman of “Nucheuneken.” “Some of it’s a hundred years old. Some is contemporary.”

Like beading, basketry is both a contemporary and ancient art among White Mesa Utes.

MEDICINE BASKETS AND A BEADED POUCHOriginally nomadic, they needed light, strong containers to carry food and belongings from camp to camp. Heavy pottery would have broken, so the women wove small, plain baskets to carry water and berries; big burden baskets with head straps for large objects, and platter baskets shaped like plates for general purposes.

In the mid-1800s, they began making ceremonial or wedding baskets for Navajo medicine men, who used them in healing rituals.

Today, a few elderly ladies living at White Mesa weave ceremonial baskets for the Navajos, and some of the women at Towaoc create platter baskets for traders, tourists and the local casino. Burden, berry, and water baskets have vanished, because they don’t sell.

“Basket-weaving is hard,” comments Stoneman. “Your arms get tired. Your hands have to be strong.”

“Nucheuneken” features ceremonial and platter baskets by weavers such as Bonnie Lehi and her daughter, Bonita, Lola Mike, and Amanda May. May creates miniature baskets along with fullsize ceremonial pieces.

In addition, the show offers contemporary arts, such as painting, photography, and ceramics. The Ute Mountain Ute pottery factory in Towaoc employs a dozen people creating what Stoneman describes as “beautiful, functional, collector’s pieces.”

The Towaoc potters also create functional items such as plates and mugs, trimming them with ancestral designs.

“With the new media, you’re putting traditional design, story, and image together to represent who you are in a new way,” says Stoneman. “Both the White Mesa Ute Mountain Utes and the Towaoc Ute people are continuing a way of expressing themselves in the 21st century. Art is making a transition.”

The evolution will continue as long as new materials emerge, and people continue traditional celebrations, social gatherings, and religious ceremonies.

“The objects [in the show] are individual expressions that are pulled from cultural tradition,” she continues. “They’re an extension of each artist. This is what people are doing right now.” She pauses for emphasis. “You can’t see this anywhere else.”

Stoneman hopes “Nucheuneken: the Ute People’s Creations” will give visitors a chance to realize that the Ute Mountain Utes are doing what many people do: balancing families, careers, and traditions into an authentic life.

“I wanted to use the exhibit to let the people of White Mesa and Towaoc tell their story,” she says. “It’s important to know what others are doing. I think that we’d probably have fewer disagreements and a better understanding of who each of us is as human beings, if we took the time to learn a little bit more about one another.”

From Arts & Entertainment, May 2008.