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Deep roots

Utah's Indian tribes, in spite of their challenges, offer an anchor in reality

Published: Friday, March 22 2002 6:29 p.m. MST

A classic evening silhouette of Monument Valley in the Four Corners area, made famous by director John Ford. The tourist stop is economically important to Navajos.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

They are images that exist outside of time.

When Ute flute player Aldeen Ketchum sits in Allen Canyon to play for the deer, is it 2002 or 1802?

The bucks and does that come to listen are offspring of ancient herds, the wood for his flute came from a tree descended from ancient trees.

Ketchum learned to play from his grandfather, who learned from his.

"Through the music we can relate to people who lived long ago," Ketchum said. "The flute is used for many things, like healing. It helps us understand who we are and where we stand. To make a flute, everything has to be in balance. Flute music is for all living things."

Aldeen Ketchum sits like the legendary hump-backed Kokopelli and plays for the deer — an image out of time, like the image of Lena Judee chanting her people's music.

When Judee, a classically trained singer, chants the ancient songs of the Navajo, she becomes her own ancestor.

"In the Navajo culture we pass things down orally," she said. "And when something is passed on to you orally, there's no room for interpretation. You listen to it over and over again to learn it. And whoever teaches you, pays close attention to make sure you get it right."

The daughter of a Navajo medicine man, Judee studied voice performance at Brigham Young University. She sings in Italian, sings country music and loves opera. "I sing everything," she said.

But the Navajo songs own a corner of her heart.

"When you learn a new tongue, there's an entire culture that comes with it," she said. "You have to switch gears and move into a whole new world. It's a beautiful thing, a very old thing."

When Judee chants is she herself, her grandmother or the very mother of her race?

When wrapped in the joy of the song, not even she can tell.

Reverence for tradition — whether flutemaking, singing or simple, work-a-day chores — has kept Utah's largest American Indian tribes — Navajos, Utes, Paiutes, Shoshones and Goshutes — grounded for generations. They are as rooted as juniper trees.

That is a virtue.

Less virtuous is the fact the same "staying power" applies to the problems that have plagued the five tribes in Utah for decades. For more than 100 years tribal leaders have pointed to a need for more education, more employment, better health care and less substance abuse. The social ills have been so bedeviling, in fact, that the phrase "plight of the American Indian" has become a cliche. Newspaper stories about the trials of America's Indians today are not much different than stories 10, 15, 20 years ago.

There is, however, a sense of urgency to the problems now. American Indian youths often feel trapped between two cultures, the Associated Press reports. And recent statistics show that the confusion has led to 10 times more deaths from alcohol, twice as many suicides and rising crime rates. The government recently pumped $8 million into programs to help American Indians, but the problems often run deeper than things rehab can cure.

"The heart, mind and spirit of the people are the same as they have always been, but the things around them have changed," said Larry Cesspooch, public relations director for the Ute Tribe. "And I've come to understand we're never going back to that 'old time' again. What we have to do is see where things are going and get out in front."

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