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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ute Bears

Art and becoming native

At the Ute Indian Museum in Colorado's Uncompagre Valley, on Chipeta Day, an annual event hosted by the Friends of the Ute Indian Museum, I signed up for the plein air art festival.  I'd never done anything like that before, and only recently started to revive my artistic side -- hibernating since I was in high school -- so I wasn't sure if I was ready, but with a little encouragement from both my art instructor and my girlfriend, I did it anyway. 

I came up with a pencil drawing of a mother bear with cubs overlooking a Ute tepee with a bear and tracks painted on it, in some cottonwoods, at dawn, with a hint of the San Juan mountains in the distance.

Ute Bears (2010).  Ebony pencil drawing (inspired by "Queyaaguak Nuche Dthamoguah (Bear Guards the Utes)," sculpture by Carol deB. Whitaker (2006)).

In a recent blog post, I asserted that becoming native to place is fundamentally important to developing places that are ecologically, economically, socially, and culturally resilient. But what exactly does it mean to be native? Afterall, anyone born in the Americas is a native American. But nativeness is a many-layered concept. And is the notion that one can "become native" an oxymoron? I don't think so. But I do think that we might look to the original natives for some idea of what it might actually mean.

I think that becoming native to the Land of Shining Mountains may not necessarily require going back to living in Ute-style tepees, or back further yet to brush shelters, but it might mean reconsidering the transhumant way of life that sustained the Utes for centuries, if not millennia.  Mobility was more important than stability, as it still is for non-western societies in most of the mountainous and arid lands of the world.  This is primarily because of the seasonality of these environments, and the unevenly scarce distribution of resources in both space and time, all of which conspires against permanent year-round settlement on small amounts of land.  Like the bear who hibernates through the winter, the Utes left the mountains for the valleys when the snow began to fly.  Resilience in the Rocky Mountains and western North America does not look like the ways of living that have worked in eastern North America, Europe, or other resource-abundant places.  And native lifeways show us that here, just as mobility trumps stability, resilience is a more appropriate goal than sustainability.