On the afternoon of Nov. 8, Ute filmmaker and multimedia storyteller Larry Cesspooch entertained a Salt Lake Community College audience with Ute tales, kicking off a series of Native American Heritage Month celebrations at the school.
Hailing from the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Cesspooch is a prominent spiritual leader in the Ute tribe and is known for his modern storytelling. He is a lecturer, oral storyteller and, most prominently, a filmmaker, whose documentary titled “The Ute Bear Dance Story” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994.
During last week’s event, Cesspooch relied on his knowledge of the Ute way of life and the cultural artifacts he brought with him to tell two stories: Ute creation and that of his tribe’s forced relocation in the late 1800s.
“We hope that [today] is something that is going to help change your life for the better,” Cesspooch told the audience, who had been asked to stand for prayer before the stories began. “We hope only good will be with [the people of SLCC], and that [they remember], nothing is by accident.”
Stories from the Ute’s past
Throughout his time on stage, Cesspooch used Ute artifacts as props to demonstrate key concepts and to represent mythical characters.
While he is technically Ute, Cesspooch said he is more specifically from the White River Ute band, as he began to tell the story of his people’s history in the region. He said that “Ute” means “mountain people,” and that the White River Utes were originally from the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado.
The revered storyteller explained how the Utes met American settlers – people the Utes originally called brothers and sisters. However, when more settlers arrived, Cesspooch said they would claim Ute hunting land for their own, fell forests of trees, and finally, they petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to have the White River Utes relocated from Colorado to Utah, marching them west, away from their sacred homeland.
“The Utes must go,” Cesspooch said, explaining the settlers’ stance in the mid- to late-1800s.
After the Battle of Mill Creek – a pivotal moment in Colorado that ruined relations between settlers, the U.S. Army and the Ute tribe – the White River Ute band was forcibly relocated to northeastern Utah, where they have lived ever since.
This experience, however, does not solely live in the past for the Ute tribe.
How these stories can help
According to Cesspooch, there are 4,000 tribal members strong on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, with 8,000 total residents within their lands. Each tribal member knows the Ute history well.
Cesspooch said the Ute tribe is still very much involved in the Wasatch region that they now call home. For instance, water for the Jordanelle Reservoir and other residential areas in Utah largely comes from the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
Perhaps most important for the present is the fact that, according to Cesspooch, everyone – Indigenous or otherwise – has the power to remember the past and use their knowledge to unite people of all backgrounds in the present.
“Learn to use your gift, because everyone has one – it’s what the Creator gave you,” Cesspooch said. “Use them to accomplish something because someday your spirit is going to leave back to the circle of life and your body will return to the Earth.”
Near the end of his hour, Cesspooch held up what is known in Ute culture as a medicine wheel. Made of red willow and animal feathers, it represents the wholeness and unity of everything in existence and shows how everyone is related.
“[That includes] even extraterrestrials and bigfoot, who watch over the Earth,” Cesspooch said with a smile. “We are all relatives.”
After Cesspooch finished, some attendees stayed to craft do-it-yourself journals out of reused materials. While doing so, they spoke to Cesspooch and other tribal members who were present about what individuals can do – together – to remember and cherish Native history.
“Just remember that [Native American Heritage Month] is not just words. It’s an opportunity for Native people to share our knowledge about the Earth and our people and how we existed through everything,” Cesspooch said.
“What [the Utes] have has the power to save the world,” he added.
Clint Gardner, director of the Student Writing and Reading Center, said the Native storytelling event will return next year with a new speaker. The story hour led by Cesspooch was the third event of its kind held at SLCC, in which Indigenous poets, writers and orators bring unique perspectives to the stage.
As Native American Heritage Month continues for the entirety of November, a selection of events at SLCC are available to learn more and participate in Indigenous culture and activities. Visit the American Indian Student Leadership club webpage or follow @aisl.slcc on Instagram to learn more.