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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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'Art is a Powerful Tool'
by Heather Scofield - Durango Herald

Four colors are deeply sacred to the Utes – black, yellow, white and red.

The colors are commonly found in the "stylized symbolism" that Ute Mountain Ute artist Norman Lancing incorporates into his paintings and etched vases that seek to turn historic wounds into today's inspirations.

"Art is a powerful tool of expression for us," Lansing said. "It goes back to ancient times, it goes back to the basics of our culture."

Despite the historic and rooted nature of homemade arts, crafts and wares, Southern Ute tribal member Elise Redd said few Utes have shared their precious creations with the world in recent years the way Lansing and his also-artistic daughter, Babe, have. Ute artists tend to keep their crafts in the family.

"It's hard work," said Southern Ute tribal member Denise Thompson of most artistic Ute creations. "Why sell it?"

Redd said the dwindling number of Utes learning about and producing traditional garments, art pieces, jewelry and beading projects is symbolic of the larger challenges they face in preserving their culture.

But the recent opening of the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum has helped to ignite some renewed interest in the arts, crafts and wares that once were a critical part of the nomadic tribe's survival, said Redd, who leads a Southern Ute member-based group of artisans.

Monthly art, sewing, beading and cooking classes are now held in the tribe's multi-purpose building, where sewing machines and materials are made available to all tribal members. And the classes are drawing members of all ages, Redd said. A recent beading class drew elder tribal members, young mothers and even a few boys of middle school age.

"They were really good at it," Redd said of the boys' first try at adorning a pair moccasins with beads as small as a pinhead.

Redd believes it's an important step toward preserving the tribe's historic practices of creating detailed garments, beaded moccasins and cradle boards. The hand-crafted items last generations, said Thompson, who was sitting at a sewing machine in the multi-purpose building on a recent day, working on a quilt. Thompson, who teaches native language and culture to Southern Ute children, is among those who attend Redd's monthly art sessions.

Like the tribes' oral storytelling traditions, their arts and handmade garments historically were used to teach lessons and tell stories across generational lines, Thompson said.

For instance, the sacred colors often used in Lansing's work symbolize the four directions and the circle of life, Thompson, Redd and Lansing said. Medicine wheels, pipes, bears and buffaloes also hold great meaning and frequently are visible on Ute wares, such as hand-beaded moccasins and shawls, the trio said.

In Lansing's work, the message shared often is one of Native Americans' spiritual connectedness and the burden many Utes believe they carry in protecting the Earth, animals and environment.

"I want our people to understand how important the environment and spiritualism is to our culture," Lansing said. "The Earth is sick, and people are causing it. I can give the gift of awareness so future generations can carry it on and make changes."

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