After missing the past two Solstice Celebrations in Bluff, my husband, 5 yr-old son, and I braved the 17 degree weather and several inches of fresh snow in Monticello, and made our way down to Bluff for one of the most unique events in southeast Utah!
After the snow we received last Wednesday night and during the day on Thursday, it took some convincing to get my husband to agree to go, but we were glad we did- by the time we arrived in Bluff the temperature was up to 29 degrees, and the ground was dry- perfect conditions to celebrate the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year!
With the snowy roads leaving Monticello, we ended up getting to Bluff a little later than we’d planned, and barely had time to get a photo of the sculpture before the celebration began.
As always, the celebration started with a few words from Joe Pachak- the artist who oversaw the creation of the sculpture with help from volunteers. While I couldn’t hear everything he was saying due to the size of the crowd gathered around the sculpture, I also read a Salt Lake Tribune article that came out the day before the Solstice Celebration where Joe discussed his reasoning for sculpting the two dancing bears this year.
While I’m sure many people immediately assumed it had to do with the designation, and subsequent shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument, that wasn’t the only reason he chose bears for his annual sculpture.
If you live in the area, you know that we had a very late frost this year, which resulted in our fruit trees in Monticello producing absolutely no fruit this summer. So if we had no fruit in town, you can imagine that the berries, acorns, and other regular foods that bears eat in the Abajos, were also affected. Here in Monticello we had bears wandering into town and ending up in trees in people’s front yards, and on the San Juan River there were reports of bear sightings at camps along the banks of the river. The bears definitely had a hard year, so the sculpture was constructed partially to acknowledge that.
So if this sculpture was constructed to acknowledge the bears’ hard summer, why the ‘dancing’ bears, you ask? Pachak said that he consulted local Ute flute maker, Aldean Ketchum and his wife, and they persuaded him to to change his bear sculpture into a dancing pair in a posture from the Ute Bear Dance. Pachak liked the idea, feeling that this would make the celebration much more meaningful, and went with it!
If you’ve been to previous Solstice Celebrations in Bluff, you may remember flaming atlatls being thrown at the sculpture to light it on fire. To light the sculpture this year, a basket of nuts and berries was placed on hot coals at the bears’ feet, symbolically feeding them and hoping that 2018 will be a better year for bears in the area.
After Joe spoke about the making of the sculpture and the meaning behind it, Aldean Ketchum played a song on his flute, followed by a couple dance performances, then it was time to light the sculpture!
As always, it’s quite a sight to see a 15 foot sculpture go up in flames! And while it’s an awesome thing to get to experience, it also makes me a little bit sad to see these beautiful sculptures burn. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a good bonfire! But knowing how much time and work is put into these sculptures does weigh on my mind as I’m watching them burn.
We stayed about an hour until the flames and the nice, warm, heat of the fire started to die down a little and we remembered how cold it was out there! Another great Bluff Solstice Celebration is in the books and winter is officially here! (Although you’d never know it with the dry and unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having!)
Mark your calendars for the 2018 Bluff Solstice Celebration! (It’s on a Friday- yay!) Can’t wait to see what they’ll construct next year!
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