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Ute leader: Regard drum and feather as you would a holy book or a cross

Published February 17, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Boom, boom, boom," goes Larry Cesspooch, mimicking the strong, deep and steady beat of a drum that sounds like the rhythm of a great heart.

"That is the sound of the Earth, the heartbeat of the creator," he says.

Quickly, he changes the heavy rhythm to a more rapid, ferocious beat that makes a listener feel unsettled.

"That is the beat of the warrior," he says.

Then, just as quickly, his tone lightens, gets faster and less foreboding.

"That is the sound of the powwow, of social dances," he says.

Cesspooch, a Ute who lives on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation in northeastern Utah, doesn't need his instrument to conjure up its sounds.

The drum is as much a part of him.

Like the eagle feathers used in gatherings and blessings, the drum serves as a talisman to a world American Indians know but can't always grasp.

The drums, with their thick, heavy beats, and the feathers, with their light, ethereal properties, are as much anchors as they are powerful symbols.

"We humans have to have things we can touch to understand," Cesspooch said. "We have to hear it, touch it, smell it before we believe in it. Feathers and drums, they are physical things you can hold onto and gather strength."

If only University of Utah officials had known this when seeking a symbol. Seemingly harmless choices, the drum and feather now are controversial in their continued use.

For those uneducated in American Indian symbolism, the logo might not be anything more than an eye-catching design emblazoned on everything from underwear to license plates.

But Cesspooch, 61, and others regard the symbols with a reverence unknown to even the most ardent Utah fans.

For Cesspooch and others, they are symbols that should be honored with as much respect as the Book of Mormon, the cross or a rosary.

One of Cesspooch's greatest honors came when his uncle died and the family asked him to become the caretaker of an eagle wing that had been passed down for three generations.

"When you accept something like that, it means you are accepting the responsibility of taking care of the family, too," he said. "It's not something you take lightly."

Cesspooch accepted the family's request and has cared for the eagle wing ever since. In turn, he said, the sacred gift has served him well as he has helped heal terminally ill people and acted as a pathway for other blessings.

"Sometimes it is so strong," he said, "I have to lay down after I use it."

Cesspooch believes if people were better educated about what the drum and feather symbolize, they would share American Indians' reverence.

"The people who use it in a negative context probably don't understand."