1 of 10
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Shantel Begay makes a duck decoy at the Utah Indigenous Day celebration, part of Native American Heritage Month, at the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.
It's a rush, knowing you're doing something for your tribe and spreading your culture,. —Nicole Tapoof

SALT LAKE CITY — Voices and drums from Utah's Native American tribes filled the Natural History Museum of Utah on Monday night in a song that some say is at risk of being silenced forever. 

The museum played host to Indigenous Day, an annual event put on by Utah's Division of Indian Affairs to celebrate the art, language and traditions of the state's eight tribal nations.

Shirlee Silversmith, director of the Division of Indian Affairs, said this year's program was highlighted by performances of youth groups from elementary to high school age in hopes of connecting them to their American Indian heritage and ensuring it endures.

"My hope is that the tradition of learning the language, history, songs and dances will endure through many generations and never be lost," Silversmith told the audience at the beginning of the evening's performances.

Silversmith's life work has become preserving and sharing an accurate understanding of her American Indian heritage while helping members of the Native American community to lead successful lives. She has seen tribes in other parts of the country whose languages have become "extinct," a fate she hopes Utah tribes will avoid.

"It's important for me that we preserve our culture," Silversmith said. "We don't want our languages to be lost or our traditions to be lost. We want our languages to be a part of the future of our people."

In the months of preparation leading up to Monday's performances, Silversmith said the young dancers came anxiously to each practice and reveled in learning the history behind the traditions they were representing.

Lt. Gov. Greg Bell was on hand at Monday's event to officially declare the date Indigenous Day and speak about the importance of reaching out to and respecting cultures that aren't your own. Bell even took part in the traditional Bear Dance with some of the youth dancers.

Kayla Tapoof, who holds the title of Miss Ute Tribe, participated in several dances throughout the night, including the Bear Dance and the Circle Dance. Tapoof said she looks for any opportunity to participate in the tribal dances.

"It's amazing. I don't know how to describe it," she said. "It's part of me."

Tapoof, who beamed in a traditional dress and colorful beaded crown, said she hopes to be a role model for Native American youth and encourage them to hold on to their heritage while pursuing education and successful careers.

Kayla's sister, Nicole, the reining Miss Uintah High School and a member of the Ute tribal nation, said she looks forward to events like Indigenous Day because they allow her to meet new people who share her heritage. Throughout the night, Nicole Tapoof spoke in Noochue, the Ute language.

"It's a rush, knowing you're doing something for your tribe and spreading your culture," she said.

Nicole Tapoof said she hopes Utahns will understand the state's Native American culture "is for everyone" and will seek out opportunities to learn with them.

A highlight of the evening was the Hoop Dance, performed by four students from the Alpine School District who transformed piles of plastic hoops into wings, globes and more as they imitated animals and insects in their energetic dance.

Silversmith added that she believes events like Native American Heritage Month and Utah's Indigenous Day are important because some accounts of history taught in Utah schools are inaccurate and not culturally relevant.

She invited anyone wanting to learn more about Native American culture and history to visit the website for the Division of Indian Affairs or to contact her.

"I want people to know about our history — the real history," Silversmith said. "I think as I've experienced education in the state of Utah, there has been such a small, limited attention to Indian history."

Ann Hannibal, spokeswoman for the Natural History Museum, said attendance of Monday's event was capped at 500 visitors. While she was unsure if the event met its limit, it filled every hall.

"There's just been this wonderful energy that surrounds this event," Hannibal said.

Hands-on activities also were available throughout the museum, giving guests a chance to learn about traditional sand painting and to make their own Fremont tribe figurines, natural duck decoys and decorative magnets depicting the state's rock art.

Jaynie Hirschi, an archeologist for Hill Air Force Base, helped visitors sculpt their own Fremont figurines out of sandstone-colored clay. She said she hopes the outreach program will be able to participate in future events and raise awareness about base's archeological efforts on its Utah testing grounds. 

Burt and Brenda Matthews of Fruit Heights said they brought their young children to the event in hopes of helping them respect and admire history and other cultures.

"It's knowledge," Brenda Matthews said, "and the more knowledge they have, the more successful they'll be growing up."

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @McKenzieRomero