Shall We Dance

Dancing Bears Ears

By Amy Brunvand

Israeli choreographer Zvi Gotheiner performs the deep listening of strangers in a strange land.

On May 7, I put on my “Protect Bears Ears” T-shirt and took the yellow and black “Protect Wild Utah” sign from my front yard. Then I rode the bus downtown to join the crowd protesting in front of the Bureau of Land Management office at the Gateway mall. President Trump’s new Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, was visiting Utah in order to tour both the brand new Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante which was declared a National Monument by President Clinton in 1996. He was under orders from the President to consider reducing the size of both National Monuments, and there were fears that he might try to rescind Bears Ears altogether. We wanted to be sure that Zinke would see a large outpouring of local support despite disinformation from some Utah politicos who were saying that people in Utah didn’t support the National Monuments.

After Zinke’s entourage drove by, I headed over to the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center to engage with a different side of Bears Ears. Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) was hosting a panel to talk about their current project, Sacred Lands/ Sacred Waters, a crowdfunded dance commissioned to celebrate Bears Ears National Monument. Dancers from RDT and from the New York-based company ZviDance were going to spend a week in the Bears Ears area where they would meet members of local Indian tribes and experience the landscape directly in their own bodies.

When the project started nobody could have predicted that the Monument’s very existence would be threatened, and I was curious to learn how the artistic project was going in light of political developments. The panel also included several members of the Navajo (Diné) tribe and I wanted to hear an Indigenous perspective.

To me, the choice of Israeli choreographer Zvi Gotheiner seemed problematic. On one hand, he has had a long relationship with RDT, but on the other hand, his work Dabke, performed by RDT last April, generated accusations of cultural appropriation because dabke folkdance is an Arab tradition. Lately, politicians who opposed the Bears Ears Monument had been making distinctly racist remarks about American Indians, so cultural sensitivity seemed especially important. With all this to think about, I was particularly glad there was an opportunity to find out more.

To indigenous activists from Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), the creation of a Bears Ears National Monument is a chance for healing. Gavin Noyes, Executive Director of UDB, explained that Bears Ears is not primarily about tourism or recreation, but about protecting an important cultural landscape. “This is the first time Southwest tribes have come together to protect a landscape where they all once lived,” he said. “Bears Ears is a model of putting history and differences aside to fight for the same causes. Native American traditional knowledge is an essential element of this landscape in need of protection.” Then he suggested, “Read the proclamation. It is a work of art in itself.”

Jonah Yellowman introduced himself as an Oljato Diné and talked about how song and dance are essential in Navajo culture, for example in the way that someone might bless a journey like the one the dancers were about to take: “There is a group of songs that Bitter Water clan has,” he said. “My different relatives, they like to dance. When they sing, they like to dance, too. It’s going to be a horse song, and it’s going to be a mountain song, so it’s going to be a travel song. We sing songs when we travel.”

“I can’t carry a tune for the life of me, but I can dance,” said Mary Benally, also on the UDB Board. She described her childhood near Butler Wash, growing up in an animate landscape. “Every living being we were told to respect because they have a purpose in life. So much beauty! You see that ugly rock over there. You pick it up. You look at it up close, there are minerals and so much beauty! It’s like the rock formations are singing to you, the plants, the animals, they talk to you. As a dancer, I can just see what you can do with it. I can hardly wait to see you turn it into a dance.”

Another Navajo tribal member, Evelyn Nelson, described cultural traditions using plants from the Bears Ears region: “Out of cedar we make hogans, the whole thing is made out of cedar. No nails. And when you build a fire it smells good. It’s beautiful living in it. From Bears Ears we get berries and piñon and tea. Walking down the path you will see flowers, God has welcomed you. You will smell the fragrance. It’s so beautiful down there you will feel it, you’ve been blessed.”

Someone in the audience asked the panel if they weren’t afraid that the remote solitude of the area would be spoiled if it were made into a National Monument. The panelists said that co-management by Indian tribes and education about Native American culture would be essential, but another part of their answer surprised me; they were confident that the land would speak to visitors the same way it spoke to them. In light of the struggle to create a monument and the attacks against it, this idea that people will come together because they love the same place seemed astonishingly generous.

In this context, the idea of sending dancers from Salt Lake City and New York to the Bears Ears region also made more sense. The Monument is for the public, so rather than presuming to have any existing cultural knowledge, these dancers were deliberately acting as strangers in a strange land, engaging in deep listening to hear the people and landscape speak. The artistic creation would arise from this immersive experience to create a work with ancient roots, but also something brand new. The project was not so much about people giving the land a voice, but about people opening their ears and hearts to hear the land speak its own voice.

As RDT Executive Director Linda C. Smith explained, “Remember, when we went into this project it wasn’t political at all. When you listen to people, who feel strongly about this place you will be given a message. This adventure will be a journey for us, but we are not going in with a political message, we are going in with open hearts and minds.”

Still, the timing is perfect. Art can help open up a community dialog about big questions, and due to circumstances, Sacred Lands/Sacred Waters has already taken on more relevance than any merely commemorative artwork could have done.

During the trip, Smith kept an online journal about the experience. “The work has begun to translate our sensations and memories into a movement ritual and everyone feels a great responsibility,” she wrote. We hope to create a work that will respect the Native American culture and include many different realities about this fragile and important landscape, one that has inspired artists and hikers, families and adventurers for generations.”

Like Mary Benally, I can hardly wait to see this project turn into a dance.

Amy Brunvand is the librarian for the University of Utah’s Sustainability Office.


Sacred Land/Sacred Waters will premiere as part of Repertory Dance Theatre’s Sanctuary program, October 5-7, 2017. Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

(Dabke will be performed again by RDT at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, March 16-18, 2018.)


This article was originally published on September 2, 2017.