There is something to be said about experience, about story. Every person has their own and no story is exactly alike. Yet, somehow, all stories have the power to connect us. The human experience, though unique, shows evidence of a life lived. Stories allow people to relate to another’s pain, another’s love, another’s fears or another’s hopes. Whether fantastic and magical, historical or embellished truth, humanity craves stories.
Eugene Tapahe grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories of the Diné, the Navajo, the people. Growing up in a remote area in the Navajo Nation without modern conveniences, Tapahe felt his creativity flourish as he engineered games with stones and sticks. He never doubted that he was an artist. Artistry was always a part of his story.
In the ’80s, he studied art on a scholarship at Brigham Young University (BYU), which was then classically- and male-driven, causing Tapahe to become disenchanted with fine art. So he left that program. After graduating, he took a job at BYU and spent his days at a computer: his connection and use of the land that he enjoyed so much in his youth began to fade. Though he lived in Provo, with the mountains at his fingertips, he seldom took notice of them or went out into the canyons to explore. He merely worked, then went home.
Photography became Tapahe’s way to reconnect with nature. He would go to the land of his ancestors. Alone. No phone, no distractions, no people. Just his camera. His work was more than taking pretty pictures. It was sharing his experience, his story, his connection with the land. With every photograph he took he wanted viewers to “feel the majesty of the untouched land.”
“The land isn’t ours,” Tapahe says. “We don’t own the land. If we all were to disappear — if all us human beings left — the land would flourish. The blue skies would be clear. I mean, you just look at COVID! During COVID when everyone was quarantined: everyone was inside, no one could drive, no one could go anywhere. What happened? The skies got clear. The weather changed and people found out the climate was healing. That has always been my focus.”
In fact, it was the devastation of COVID-19 that led Tapahe, his grown daughters, and two family friends to start Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project. The project is rooted in the Ojibwe Honor Dance, which originated in the 1920s on the heels of the Spanish Flu epidemic and soon spread beyond the Ojibwe of Wisconsin to other indigenous groups in North America. It became a dance of healing. As Tapahe explained to PBS Utah, during the pandemic he had a dream, which spurred him to take the dance to the land. Because of the pandemic and mandatory quarantine, the Salt Flats were completely empty, devoid of human touch, so that’s where they went. Tapahe’s daughters and friends danced in their jingle dresses — colorful fabrics adorned with patterns and silver prisms that create a unique sound when moving together, like the crackle of dry leaves in the wind, or the sound of cascading rain. Once the dance was complete, Tapahe took photographs of the dancers in their regalia on the land.
“This project was a healing project in the sense that it is healing the land,” Tapahe says. “It was healing the ancestors in the land that were living before us. So our idea was that if we honored those ancestors and did those healing jingle dress dances on those lands the ancestors, their spirits, would come back and help us heal during COVID.” All involved were deeply moved by the experience. “Dad,” one of Tapahe’s daughters said, “we can’t just do this one time. We need to take it to the land.”
None of the group could have fathomed that a one-time-event would turn into a national project. After the Salt Flats, they went to Yellowstone. “We knew what we were doing was spiritual and needed,” Tapahe says. He admits he was protective of the project. The group never shared where they were going beforehand, not just to protect others from the danger of traveling during COVID, but also to maintain the sacredness of the ritual. As the project grew, people would contact them to ask them to dance for specific individuals affected by the disease. As more followers amassed, so did their purpose. Their sense of responsibility grew, along with the pressure. They’ve now traveled more than 25,000 miles, going beyond the United States, and have attracted a following of more than 17,000 people. Tapahe’s photographs and these four women have become icons of the presence of Indigenous people.
Tapahe’s exhibit of the project, Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project, is currently showing at Modern West Fine Art in Salt Lake City. There are 16 images, framed at 36 inches by 54 inches. Each photo has a different feel, and must be seen in person to gain the full effect. While some are clear and bright like the morning sun, others are hazy and muted like a fog. Some images are full color, with four dancers standing tall, proud, stoic. Others are black and white with dancers holding their fists in the air. Many photos have the dancers adorned with a red handkerchief to bring awareness to Missing Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). One photo is attached directly to the wall, the dancers in jingle dress dancers standing in front of Nicholas Galanin’s “Never Forget” — a 2021 site-specific installation in which 45-foot letters spelled out “Indian Land.” On the right side of this wall, the tribes and places visited by the project are printed glossy white on the white of the wall, so you see it almost as a reflection of light, rather than printed words. Tapahe’s photographs tell a quiet story of struggle, of power, and progression.
In the back corner of the exhibit, a Land Acknowledgment is accompanied by a photograph of sand art created by Tapahe, along with 20 samples of American soils — a reference to Tapahe’s next, related project. He has returned to BYU to earn his masters of fine arts and for his final show in February, 2024 (in BYU’s West Campus Weight Room Gallery), Tapahe will showcase an extensive sand art installation using soil samples from all over the United States. Titled Art Heals: The Land Acknowledgment, Tapahe hopes that those who participate by sending him samples will feel accepted and will bring healing to themselves through this process, and to the viewer through their unique experience. “As people, we are all unique and different, and [so is] our sand,” Tapahe says. “I want to bring a unified feel, but I also want to bring attention to everyone how important land is. But not only that, to how important you are. A lot of people don’t think they are artists. Now, all these people, these 100 people (if I get 100) they’re all going to be artists because they’re going to be represented in my work.”
Experience is at the core of both projects. Tapahe’s doesn’t use sacred symbolism in his sand art, focusing instead on representing his own experience, his own story. Each piece is an unplanned expression of Tapahe. But like The Jingle Dress Project, Art Heals: The Land Acknowledgment goes beyond the individual: it is meant to bring awareness to Indigenous issues and to heal the land and the people.
It is not the dress or the design made from the soil that matters, but the act itself. Whether in photographs or installations, Tapahe’s work is sensory. It is in what you see. It is what you feel. It is what you hear. It is taste and smell. It is the memory of the sound of rain tickling the treetops before the drops find you, or the fresh breeze hugging your skin and filling your nostrils. His art has that ability to call to mind the scent of fresh earth and the taste of fall. And to remind you of your stories, lived in the land. It is a reminder that you affect the land, and she affects you back. It is an awareness of strength unbroken. Of your importance. Of the individual and the group. It is healing. Connection. It is art.
Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project, Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 18. Gallery Stroll reception, Friday, Nov. 17, 5-8 pm, including Jingle Dress Honor Dance, 7:30 pm.
Karilee Park is currently studying art education and the impact of an artistic identity. She creates using a variety of mediums such as drawing, poetry, and bursting into random song in public.