1 of 7
Jason Olson, Deseret News
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.

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."

For many American Indians, however, getting out front may not entail anticipating science and technology so much as marketing their natural strengths. The Navajo 2002 Pavilion at the Winter Olympics, for instance, recruits tourists by selling an uncluttered glimpse at a world that busy people have abandoned. The Navajos are selling escape, a refuge from the storms of the modern world.

They are selling the world found in the sculptures of Allan Houser, the former art instructor at the now defunct Intermountain Indian School, the federal Indian boarding school in Brigham City whose bronze sculptures are showing up all over town.

The spirit of Houser's work pervades the Discover Navajo 2002 exhibit near Gateway, mainly because the spirit of the American Indian nation pervades Houser's work. His round, balanced bronzes sit well with a culture that emphasizes harmony and balance — a culture that sees the number "4" as sacred — as in the four sacred peaks, four sacred colors and four directions. It is a culture that thinks in pairs, from the spiritual legends of the two "twins" to the male and female hogans that dot the Navajo reservation. And the Navajo notion of "woman power" and "man power" blend together in Houser's work.

Born in Oklahoma in 1914, Allan Houser's great uncle was Geronimo and his great-grandfather was the Chief Mangas Coloradas. He studied art in Santa Fe as a boy but was soon doing work on commission. His sculptures can be found at the Department of the Interior and the United Nations. In 1992, he became the first American Indian to receive a National Medal of Arts. A year before his death in 1994, he said, "I'm not trying to find myself. I know who I am. I'm just exploring."

For American Indians, art has never been an "embellishment," a decoration. It has always been a vital part of identity. And right now, many tribes are struggling to maintain that identity through some economically difficult times. Whatever happens, says Jay Groves, executive director of the Ute tribe, "It all eventually comes down to economics. If we had the money, we could address everything else."

Adds Forrest Cuch, director of the Utah Office of Indian Affairs: "Our tribes are behind tribes in other states. If we compare our tribes to the Mississippi Choctaw or White Mountain Apache, we are 20 years behind. Those tribes have low unemployment and are generating income."

The struggle for financial footing has been a difficult one. In a state with 3.9 percent unemployment rate, counties with reservations spike much higher. The unemployment rate in Duchesne is 5.4 percent, for instance. Uintah unemployment is 4.0 percent and in San Juan County the unemployment rate leaps to 9.2 percent.

One reason is because many moneymaking ventures on the reservations have either collapsed or been compromised. The Skull Valley Goshutes are still wrangling over nuclear waste storage issues, while the Confederated Band of Goshutes has been trying to get into the trout business, with mixed reactions and uneven results.

"If the Navajos didn't have oil, our tribe would be obsolete now," said Mellor Willie, member of the Discover Navajo 2002 Foundation, which is why tourist stops like Monument Valley in the Four Corners area are becoming the focus of Navajo economic plans.

The once proud Bottle Hollow resort in Ft. Duchesne fell on hard times, though Cesspooch says plans are afoot to create a Native American Cultural Center there. And many White Mesa Utes, who live near Blanding, have taken to commuting hundreds of miles to Colorado to work in the tribal casino because casinos are forbidden in Utah.

To complicate matters, there exists a long legacy of misunderstanding and distrust between American Indians and mainstream America. And addressing those problems means slogging through a marsh of preconceptions and misinformation.

Stereotypes still abound.

The "Hollywood Indian," with his war whoops, sneaky ways and taste for "firewater" is still a viable figure in the minds of many Americans. Many Indians feel that white people never see them but only see the "impressions" they've been handed. Some other distinctions are simply cultural. Where some "Euro-Americans," as many Indians call America's white population, see poverty, there are really just different values at work. Living in a home without a telephone, a television and driving an old car is not "poor" in the eyes of Indians so much as uninterested in the materialism and "pride of ownership" that have become corrupting influences in mainstream society.

"We see white people cutting each other's throats to get little green pieces of paper, and then see that the little green pieces of paper never make them happy," said Waya Ge-tlv-hv-s-di, an elder in the Utah Native American Church.

In most tribes, points of pride have more to do with family heritage and personal relationships.

In short, cultural differences have led to an unease among the Indian people.

"To learn, we must feel comfortable," Cuch said. "And we don't feel comfortable."

Cuch lays a great deal of "Indian discomfort" at the feet of a white culture that has already decided what Indians are all about; who don't want to take time to get to know their culture.

"We have not healed from the North American conquest," he said. "And I don't think the Mormons here have healed, either. The Book of Mormon says the Lamanites were cursed with a dark skin, and some seem to think that pertains to our soul."

Cesspooch is even more adamant.

"Some of the things that people did to us yesterday are still being done today, only they're done in the courts now," he said. "It's just a different whip."

On the other side of the coin, because of employment and health concerns, a sense of fatalism and resignation pervades many Indian families. And that can lead to mental health problems, substance abuse and despair. Also, since "pointing fingers at others" is often seen as a form of weakness among American Indians, many injustices — the hideous cartoon that serves as a mascot for the Cleveland Indians baseball team, to name just one — have been left to stand without major protest. As Cesspooch said, "It just becomes one more thing."

The fact the various tribes live on the borders of the state and often have headquarters in other states also fuels the notion they are "marginalized." The Navajo Nation is headquartered in Arizona, and the White Mesa Ute Tribe officially calls Colorado home. Even the Utah Shoshones, who have autonomy, live in the shadow of Shoshones at Fort Hall, Idaho, and those at Ft. Washakie, Wyo.

"In many cases, those of us in Utah feel like stepchildren to our own people," said Mary Jane Yazzie, chairwoman of the White Mesa Utes in Utah.

Still, despite the political intrigues, funding hassles, illnesses and culture clashes, one does sense a genuine desire —on all sides — to deal with the issues and look for common ground. There is even a feeling the sky may finally be clearing and some true understanding is at hand.

"Fifteen years ago I had an idealistic vision of how things should go. I saw a path then," Thomas said. "Now, that vision is opening up for me again."

"What we have to do," Yazzie said, "is work toward keeping our children in school and making sure our programs function as they should. But I'm optimistic. Each year, I see improvement."

Stalwart and unchanging, Utah's tribes bring much more to the state than diversity. Their religious beliefs, artwork, legends and history are an anchor in reality — the reality that sits at the core of Allan Houser's art.

It is a reality that can only enhance the nation — and world — if the world will simply take the time to learn it.

Coming Thursday: The Navajos and economic development

E-mail: [email protected]