In Part I, Linda C. Smith, RDT’s Executive/Artistic Director, talks about the origins of RDT’s new commission, inspired by the recently proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. To tour the Bears Ears is to enmesh in oneself in the cultures of Native Americans who have lived in this area from time immemorial. It is not only an opportunity to see this sacred land, but to hear the stories of the people who call this land home.
Here in Part II, The Process, she talks about how artists are not only informed by the land they traverse, but how they inform the land … and each other in the creative act.
The area known as Bears Ears National Monument affords ample opportunity for artistic expression and public discussion; in fact, nearly all attributes of the American Southwest have been the subject of ancient renderings, architecture, pottery, weavings, rock paintings and incised glyphs, as well as modern paintings and musical compositions in great numbers.
In Native American traditions, all of these expressions of art and artifact coalesce around dance, the sacred (and sometimes secret) vehicle by which sense was/is made of their culture, both ancient and contemporary. RDT believes that the arts and the humanities will vividly animate together the enduring but fragile lands we consider sacred while providing a safe space for what is otherwise fractious discourse about these same lands.
RDT’s primary goals are:
- To explore the area known as Bears Ears National Monument in order to understand the geography, the history, and the culture of the people who have inhabited the area from time immemorial.
- To understand why this area is considered “sacred” by countless indigenous populations who have inhabited these ancient lands.
- To create choreography, a new contemporary movement ritual designed to find the power of our collective gestures to help preserve our life-giving sacred lands for all.
- To stimulate a dialogue to raise consciousness about the beauty, the fragility, and about the necessity of preserving these lands for future generations to enjoy.
- To develop inter-disciplinary programs that will use the arts as a tool to educate, to heal and to promote creative solutions to problems.
- To generate a process that combines the artistry of two contemporary dance companies who will work together and inspire one another to create multiple choreographic responses to the Monument.
Sunday, May 7, 2017:
I picked up choreographer, Zvi Gotheiner and five of his dancers who arrived from NYC to join with eight RDT dancers, a videographer, a board member and two Navajo guides to prepare for our journey into the Bears Ears. We gathered in the RDT studio for an orientation.
The Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) is a nonprofit organization that works toward the healing of people and the Earth by supporting indigenous communities in protecting their culturally significant, ancestral lands. Diné Bikéyah (pronounced di-NAY bi-KAY-uh) means “people’s sacred lands” in the Navajo language.
Gavin Noyes, the Executive Director of the UDB had agreed to help RDT understand the history of the region and to hear the concerns of The Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, a formal intergovernmental body of sovereign tribal governments (Navajo, Hopi, Ute and Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni) which created a proposal to protect Bears Ears as a National Monument.
A grant from Utah Humanities enabled RDT to invite the dancers and the general public to hear a presentation by author Stephen Trimble and by members of the UDB, including Evelyn Nelson, Mary Benally and Jonah Yellowman. The native elders spoke of the land and its history in very poetic and personal ways. They asked us to “listen” to the land. They asked us to respect their history and to use our senses to gather the stories that are embedded in the earth, in the plants and in the rocks. Stephen Trimble told us, “We can’t understand Bears Ears unless we see the landscape for what it is, a living library of indigenous knowledge, a font of strength and healing.”
Here’s a video of Jonah Yellowman’s portion of the orientation. You can see more videos from this event here.
I left the orientation feeling the weight of great responsibility. Creating choreography that would capture the essence of this important land was going to be challenging. The project was not created to be political. We wanted to find a personal connection to the land and to deepen our understanding of “sense of place.”
Monday May 8, 2017
7:30 AM Nineteen people (including our Navajo guides, Mary Benally and Jonah Yellowman) embarked on an incredible journey. Gavin Noyes created an itinerary for us that included hiking, exploring, listening, contemplating and improvising. Videographer, Martin Buhler was there to capture everything on video to create a documentary about the process.
Traveling in three vehicles, we began to open our eyes, hearts and minds to the breathtaking landscape. We soon realized that our sense of time was changing. There was little cell phone coverage and although we had an itinerary, we reacted with spontaneity. Everything became an adventure. The dancers were gathering inspiration for the daily improvisation sessions led by choreographer Zvi Gotheiner. The things they saw, heard, sensed and experienced were going to be translated into movement.
The trip took the dancers south through Hanksville, Utah and lunch at Stan’s Burger (next to Silver Eagle Gas Station) on Hwy 95. The scenery began to unfold…The Lake Powell scenic overlook and the bridge over the Colorado River. We searched to find the Fry Canyon Ruin and the petroglyphs on the left side of the highway at mile 80.9. There are no signs.
The first view of the Bears Ears buttes was a thrilling sight. Late in the afternoon the caravan stopped at the Moki Dugway at the top of a cliff. Located on Utah Route 261 just north of Mexican Hat, Utah, the Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the 1,200-foot cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. The gravel road is steep with hairpin turns and no guardrail. However, if you dare to drive this road, you’ll see some absolutely spectacular views.
Dancers arrived in Bluff at about 7:00 PM. We all gathered for dinner at the Twin Rocks Café and couldn’t stop talking about our first impressions. I asked Zvi to sum up the first day: “Unbelievable”
Tuesday, May 9th
8:00 AM: We met our Navajo guides, Jonah Yellowman and his niece, Ida Yellowman who is a registered nurse for a contract outreach nursing service. Ida drives more than 300 miles per day, serving uranium cancer victims on the Navajo reservation.
It was raining as we visited petroglyphs just outside of town. Jonah is a spiritual advisor to the Navajos. He offered a blessing to help protect us on our journey and reminded us that we needed to ask permission before we entered the sacred lands.
Jonah took the opportunity to tell the dancers about some Navajo beliefs.
Everything we heard seemed to open our minds and nourish our imaginations.
The Navajo people, the Diné, passed through three different worlds before emerging into this world called The Fourth World, or Glittering World. The Diné believe there are two classes of beings: the Earth People and the Holy People.
It is believed that centuries ago the Holy People taught the Diné how to live the right way and to maintain harmony or balance on Mother Earth.
The number four permeates traditional Navajo philosophy. In the Navajo culture there are four cardinal directions, four seasons, the first four clans and four colors that are associated with the four sacred mountains–Mt. Blanca to the east, Mt. Taylor to the south, San Francisco Peak to the west and Mt Hesperus to the north near Durango, Colorado. The four directions are represented by four colors: White shell represents the east, turquoise the south, yellow abalone the west, and jet black the north. The four directions become a philosophical and spiritual anchor.
The sun came out as we drove north to White Mesa. The first stop was a visit to a kiva near Cave Tower Ruin. A kiva is a room used by Pueblo Indians for religious rituals, spiritual ceremonies and political meetings. We began to get a sense of how the area had been the home of indigenous people for thousands of years.
We headed up the mountain on a bumpy dirt road between Bears Ears. The monument is named after twin buttes which rise high above the pinon-juniper woodlands and the canyons that bisect Cedar Mesa. At each turn, the view became more spectacular. Ida and Jonah shared stories of Ute, Navajo, and ancestral Puebloan sites and stories about traditional cultural practices (gathering firewood, pinyon nuts, herbs, hunting).
Ida reminded the dancers that the land does not belong to us. “There are souls here,” she said, “the spirits.” She asked us to leave the land as we found it.
Ida pointed out the birthplace of Chief Manuelito and told us how the prominent Navajo leader rallied his nation against the oppression of the United States military. Manuelito led a group of warriors in resisting federal efforts to forcibly remove the Navajo people to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, via the “Long Walk” in 1864. After being relocated to Bosque Redondo, Manuelito was among the leaders who signed the 1868 treaty, then led his people on the “Long Walk Home,” ending a period of imprisonment in United States government internment camps and establishing a reservation for the Navajo.
The RDT caravan stopped for lunch high on the mountain and Zvi invited the dancers to improvise on the Bears Ears Mountain. It began slowly. Alex and Chelsea explored a duet; one by one each dancer entered the space. It took time. The movement was laced with images of the incredible sights and sounds of the monument and of the touching stories of the inhabitants.
Alex remembers feeling a pounding energy coming through his legs, through his body, through the group. A circle was formed … a community. There was a kind of group heartbeat in the movement. We all felt it. Suddenly Ida anointed Efren with dirt and ashes in a kind of Shamanic healing ritual … and we were changed.
We gathered for dinner. It was a time for reflection and a time to hear more about the history and culture of the native people and of tales of ancient and contemporary monsters. Ida Yellowman and RDT Board member Ivan Weber shared heart-breaking stories of racism and abuse endured by the Diné. (see Ivan Weber’s comments in a future blog.)
We began to see Bears Ears as a refuge for people who have suffered injustice and persecution for generations.
In Linda’s next diary installment, she talks about the group’s visit to Moon House Ruin and The Procession Panel, an area of cliff dwellings and petroglyphs outside Butler Wash. Thursday evening the group gathes with Native Americans from various tribes in Bluff, Utah where dancing, food and stories bring everyone together in one of the most memorable, and communal moments of the trip.
Linda C. Smith is a founding member and now Executive/Artistic Director of Salt Lake City-based Repertory Dance Theatre.
To follow this unfolding project and to participate in the conversation, click here. You can also make a donation to #DancingTheBearsEars if you wish and be eligible for some exciting perks between now and the dance’s premiere in October, 2017.