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Thompson’s mural brings culture to SunUte

Tribal member artist, Conrad Thompson finishes up his cultural mural inside the SunUte Community Center, Wednesday, Jan. 20. All copyrights to the mural belong to Thompson and permission was given to the Drum to feature this photo.
Photo Credit: Trennie Collins



Preserving culture is often the topic of several conversations around Indian Country. Since the assimilation of Native Americans into the “white man’s world,” much of the culture has been lost. However, many Natives are determined to keep the traditions alive by any means necessary. Southern Ute tribal member, Conrad Thompson, is using his artwork as a means to promote and preserve the culture.

Since early-November, Thompson has been working on a cultural mural titled, “Strong Spirit, Strong Mind, Strong Body,” inside the SunUte Community Center. The mural serves as a reminder to all SunUte visitors that they’re in a Native-owned facility and what Native American culture is, Thompson said.

“I think that it is in a really good spot, because we have a lot of people coming in from the community to use the facility,” he said.

Thompson enjoys his culture and his traditional upbringing and showcases his views of Native American culture with this mural – his biggest art piece yet.

“This is my interpretation of Native American culture … not just Ute art but also a universal theme of Native America, ” he said.

Thompson’s mural consists of a star that he says comes from Sioux Country. It is used in this art piece as a means of showing strength.

He chose to use a bald eagle when he could’ve used a golden eagle, because the bald eagle is the symbol of America and we were assimilated by America, he said.

“In this image the eagle represents winter, and we use the eagle as a messenger to the Creator, I thought it was interesting because the eagle carries our prayers as Native Americans and now it carries our prayers as American people, that’s why I used the bald eagle.”

The elk in the mural represents being fruitful and symbolizes the fall season, he said. The bear represents springtime and the waking of the bear – when Utes host their Bear Dance.

The buffalo represents summer and symbolizes the way a Native American tribe’s council was formed. The council was formed to emulate how the buffalo care for their herd, he said.

“They had leaders and sub chiefs that took care of the overall herd … they made sure everyone from the youngest to the oldest were taken care of. That’s how Native Americans used to take care of their tribes,” he said.

At the very top of the mural are two faces that represent the elders.

“The images on the top are our elders or ancestors, they are Ute and the man is a Sun Dancer, but what they are wearing is not necessarily Ute culture. Depending on how you look at it, the man or woman is wearing the feather, but to me the man and woman share the feather. Ute people didn’t necessarily wear feathers that way; some would say that style came from another northern tribe, the Shoshoni. The Ute people were nomads and moved all over the place. I used the star and feather in this art piece to illustrate that they sit above the village where they should be, these are values we should strive to carry,” Thompson said.

Thompson also said that his mural is more than what meets the eye. The mural serves as a reminder that the ancestors and elders as well as the culture they took care of should be held in a high regard; a respect he feels is not being given.

“The elders committee just got abolished all together. The elders carried our culture in a time where you would be killed just for being an Indian … and the council can actually change that and respect the elders enough to give them back their committee, but they don’t do it,” he said. “Without the elders we wouldn’t have any of this.”

It also touches on issues with cultural sensitivity and the loss of culture within the tribal organization, he said.

“When some tribal members with tribal businesses need help, Tribal Council says they have policies preventing them from helping you because that has to do with promoting your own tribal business, but if they believed in the people and in the culture the way they say they do, they would be helping out the membership more; that’s the whole reason for them running, to help out the membership, to help us grow as a nation and be proud of who we are. When they are running for council you don’t hear them saying they will promote policy ”

Thompson said he was reluctant to even do the mural, but he finally decided to do so because he used the SunUte facilities in the past to help him lose weight.

“I didn’t want to work with these people because I didn’t think I would be respected, but I decided to do the piece because I used the facilities to go from 307 to 207 pounds,” Thompson said. “One thing I seen about SunUte is that it is a really nice facility and the staff treats the people really well … they treated everyone with respect … I didn’t think much of the management though.”

Due to security and safety policies, Thompson said he wasn’t able to work after hours, a time when he could’ve played his own music and worked in a peaceful environment without constant traffic.

“It’s my belief that when you do any kind of art piece, whether it is music from, sweat, powwows, peyote, Sun Dance, guitars, round dance, or Bear Dance, or if you dance and participate in any of these ways or you have your own tribe’s ways you as an artist put a piece of yourself into it. When you’re doing a cultural piece you have to put some sort of culture into it, and that’s what I was wanting to do by playing music, I couldn’t play when people were around because of cultural sensitivity.”

Though Thompson says the whole process didn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped, the mural is complete and will serve its purpose; reminding visitors about the culture of Native Americans.

“If you look at the picture it has a spirit of its own … as dynamic as it is you see anger and that’s what I was feeling a lot of, that’s why the animals faces look the way they do and that’s why the woman’s face has a smirk on it,” he said. “I specifically used those expressions for this piece to show that anger that I was feeling towards a lot of these people that were saying they’re culturally sensitive, yet they don’t show any cultural sensitivity what so ever.”

Thompson is the exclusive owner to the copy rights of the cultural mural titled, “Strong Spirit, Strong Mind, Strong Body,” and gave permission to The Southern Ute Drum to feature the photo of his artwork for this story.

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