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Standing on holy ground

Utes feel spirits in Four Corners, and they suspect others do, too

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It's early morning. Aldean Kutcher hunches on a rock in Allen Canyon, playing mournful melodies on his flute. The sounds float softly down onto the road below.

It's easy to mistake him for Kokopelli — the mythical hump-backed flute player.

In the traditions of many Southwest tribes, Kokopelli is the magical traveling musician who pipes the soul songs for his people. He knows the ins and outs of the flute. He's a master.

He's a lot like Aldean Kutcher.

"In the Ute tribe, we see the flute as a learning tool," Kutcher says between songs. "The flute helps us understand the nature of things around us — the birds, the animals. Through the flute we can understand who we are and where we stand. We can relate to people from long ago. Here, in Allen Canyon, you can feel the lives of all living things. I feel that the ancient people are still here, that their spirits are still here. It's a good feeling."

For centuries — maybe millennia — the American Southwest has been a storehouse of similar spiritual feelings. Something in the air, something in the water, has attracted spiritual souls to the Four Corners region for generations. Kutcher's 106-year-old grandfather, Billy Mike, says people are drawn to Southeastern Utah because it is the center of the universe.

There is no one left who is old enough to argue with him.

The reputation of the area as an American Mecca is well-known, of course. Indian writers like N. Scott Momaday and Hispanic writers such as Rudy Anaya and the poet Alurista have been writing about the mystical aspects of the area for years. Anglo writers — Terry Tempest Williams, Frank Waters, Chip Rawlins — have also examined it.

For many of Mexican descent, the land in southeast Utah is the mythical land of Aztlan, the birthplace of the Aztec people and the homeland of all Mexican Indians.

For the Navajos and Utes, it is where Coyote — that old "trickster" — tipped over the bag containing the world's first humans, a trick that sent people scurrying to the four corners of the world. Except, of course, for the few wise ones who remained and waited for instructions from the creator. And that is where they are today, receiving those instructions.

"Some would say it's all superstitious," says Kutcher. "But we live in a world where so little is explained. And here, you can somehow feel the importance of everything around you and make it part of you."

One reason for the spiritual appeal of the area may have to do with landscape. Any place where three rivers converge — the Colorado, the Green and the San Juan — is by definition a place where powerful forces come together. And few spots in America seem as holy and haunted in the moonlight as Monument Valley. Add to that the eerie, legendary images embedded in the sandstone, the slant of the afternoon light, the abundance of eagles and other revered creatures, and you have a native Garden of Eden.

"When the Mormon pioneers first came to the area, they built their camp right on the Ute Spiritual Cross where the San Juan River meets Comb Ridge" says scholar Stan Bronson. "It caused a stir. But it also led the Utes to believe that it meant the Mormons must be spiritual people."

The Hopi, the Navajo, the Utes and the Paiutes also feel the pull of the area.

"To a Navajo person, everything has spiritual significance," says Tinna Holiday, a respected Navajo leader. "And the San Juan River is where the medicine men would go to pray."

Adds Mellor Willie, staff assistant for the president of the Navajo Nation: "Not far from here, the healers would go to gather sacred herbs. They would sing songs and say prayers along the way. If the herb was supposed to be used, it would be there when they arrived."

Some, like Bronson, even think the Four Corners designation — a concoction of government mapmakers — may not be happenstance at all. That in a place where unusual occurrences are commonplace, it seems natural the number "four" — sacred among most native peoples — would somehow come into play at some point.

And the presence of Anasazi artifacts as well as the fact The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chose to build a temple in nearby Monticello only adds to the spiritual aura.

Today, however, much of the spiritual elements are hidden beneath political and economic concerns. But whatever happens to the land, nothing will undermine its holiness in the minds of the residents.

"We belong to the land," says Kutcher. "The land doesn't belong to anyone."

The Utes will always feel that sacred bond with the land, write Robert S. McPherson and Mary Jane Yazzie in "A History of Utah's American Indians." And that will be the case, they say, "as long as there is a Bear Dance, as long as their language is spoken, and as long as they think of themselves as The People."

As for Aldean Kutcher and Kokopelli, Kutcher says the flute-playing figure has been commercialized to an alarming degree today. Still, he says, the honest religion of such things beneath the marketing gloss will endure. And people will always be drawn to it. "There are still those who know the importance of the Kokopelli story, know the importance of how a flute is to be made and what it means," Kutcher says. "And, for me, that's neat."

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com