Rising on the north side of U.S. Highway 191 in the tiny Utah town of Bluff is a curious sculpture, fashioned from willows and branches and depicting two bears embraced in a traditional Ute dance step.
On Thursday night, the 15-foot-high effigy will go up in flames as Bluff residents and their friends gather for an annual celebration of the winter solstice — this year, with a nod to the former Bears Ears National Monument.
The fleeting sculptures are the handiwork of Bluff artist Joe Pachak, who began annually creating his flammable art five years ago as a way to reflect on the achievements of the past year and look ahead to the next.
“We are looking back as a group at the year and saying goodbye and observing it as the death of a year and birth of a new year,” the artist said.
About 400 people are expected to attend Thursday — nearly double the town’s population —marking the day the sun reverses its southward march, the nights start getting shorter and winter begins. That moment falls on Thursday at 9:27 a.m. MST, when the sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn and begins its northward arc across the sky for the next six months.
Bluff’s solstice celebration begins at 5 p.m. Thursday with a community dinner at the Cow Canyon Trading Post on US-191. The bear effigy will go up in flames sometime after 7 p.m.
The past year was momentous for Bluff, bracketing both the creation, then the near-complete elimination of Bears Ears National Monument at its doorstep. The monument is now a memory but its landscapes, which many Native Americans consider sacred, will, of course, remain in southeast Utah. And the dream of a monument will also certainly endure, as fights over the issue shift to the courts.
Bluff residents largely supported the controversial, late-2016 monument designation by President Barack Obama, but San Juan County’s elected leaders saw it as intolerable encroachment by federal officials and “special interests” into local affairs. They cheered President Donald Trump’s Dec. 4 order sharply narrowing its boundaries to encompass just Bears Ears Buttes and Comb Ridge.
Pachak began his bonfire tradition five years ago with an elk effigy after he had bagged one during the fall hunt. Building and burning the sculpture was his way, he said, of honoring the animal’s sacrifice that fed him all winter.
Drawing inspiration from the sandstone landscapes surrounding Bluff, Pachak is credited with discovering ancient artwork that has since sparked debate about the presence of now-extinct wildlife in the area. Some believe the petroglyph he found near Sand Island, just west of Bluff on the San Juan River, depicts a mammoth —evidence that the long-gone furry pachyderm roamed the region while it was inhabited by Native Americans.
So not surprisingly Pachak chose a mammoth for that year’s solstice celebration, followed by a bison, a desert Bighorn and two blue herons last year.
This year Pachak chose a bear, but the decision wasn’t all about the national monument. Bears, the artist explained, “had a very hard summer. Because of a late frost, the acorns were frozen out and all the berries were frozen so they descended into Bluff from Cedar Mesa. They walked through town looking for food.”
But Pachak revamped his idea after consulting flute maker Aldean Ketchum, who had performed in the 2002 Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony, and his wife Wanda. Respected members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe from nearby White Mesa, the Ketchums persuaded Pachak to alter his bear effigy to create a dancing pair. Wanda instructed him how to arrange the bears to reflect Ute traditions.
“The woman faces west and puts her right foot forward to start the dance. We are trying to be culturally sensitive,” Pachak said.
“We are going to have a basket of nuts and berries and put the basket on hot coals in front of the bears’ feet and that will light the bear,” he said. “We are going to be feeding them symbolically and hope they have a better year next year.”
Pachak credited the Ketchums for guidance that will make the celebration more meaningful and more connected to lands their tribe has inhabited for centuries.
“Their philosophy comes out that they want the best prayer to get to the most people,” Pachak said. “Extractive industry is the exact opposite. It’s a group taking the lion’s share off the land and not reclaiming it when they leave.”