A still of Joshua Dixon, a member of the Navajo Nation, from the film ‘The Illusion of Abundance,’ where he explains the connection many Native people have with the land.
A still of Joshua Dixon, a member of the Navajo Nation, from the film ‘The Illusion of Abundance,’ where he explains the connection many Native people have with the land.

Wearing a dark red shirt, Joshua Dixon sits in a tall grass field, singing a traditional Diné song. The song ends, and Dixon, a member of Utah’s Navajo Nation, looks to the camera and explains the deep connection many Native people have to the land. When they came into this world, he said, they understood they were part of the system. 

“That’s what they mean by ‘Tó éí ííńá át'é,’” he said in the opening scene of a new documentary about culture declining alongside Great Salt Lake. “Water is our life.”

“The Illusion of Abundance,” premieres April 30 at Westminster University with the Great Salt Lake Institute. A Brolly Arts film, the documentary short combines the art forms of dance, music and poetry to bring attention to Great Salt Lake and its rapid demise. 

Amy McDonald, director and founder of Brolly Arts, said the film was inspired by a narrative piece by local artist Sophia Cutubrus in 2022. Her written piece explores the plight of Great Salt Lake through its history as the “West’s Coney Island,” the tributaries that flow into it and the science behind the drying lake.

The film originally opened with a group of modern dancers on the shores of the drying lake, McDonald said, but after seeing an early cut, she knew they needed to rethink the approach. 

“We realized to complete the picture … we really have to include the Indigenous voice to go along with this narrative so that we get the holistic viewpoint,” she said. 

Throughout the documentary, filmmakers weave in perspectives from members of Diné (Navajo), Tewa (Hopi), Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation, the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and Northern Utes from the Uintah Band and Uncompahgre Band.

The new opening scene centers on Dixon to illustrate the deep relationship between Indigenous people and the land as a link to the current reality surrounding Great Salt Lake, which filmmakers strived to connect through culture and art

“I chose a really simple Navajo song, but it does carry a lot of meaning behind it,” Dixon told the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. “[It] showcases the way the Navajo community and many other Indigenous communities felt that connection to the land.” 

Connecting water to art

In September of 2022, Sofia Gorder, choreographer and Brolly Art’s director of program development, created a dance to go along with Cutubrus’ spoken narrative to bring awareness of the crisis at the lake and use of water in Utah through different art forms. Brolly called the project “Evaporation: What Does It Take To Leave Enough Water For Great Salt Lake” and began to perform it at lake-related events. 

Watching the dance performed for audiences at the Great Salt Lake Symposium and at Alta Ski Resort, which is home to the headwaters of Little Cottonwood Canyon, McDonald said she realized the message should be broadened through a documentary film. 

“We have to touch hearts, as well as minds and [make] people care, then people are more likely to engage and take action, particularly when they understand that their actions will have impact,” she said. 

In her choreography, Gorder said she tapped into feminism and Afro-feminism because conversations between the largely female dancers often centered on personal experiences of exploitation — much like Great Salt Lake has experienced. 

“There was just this adjacent kind of conversation that felt almost exactly the same,” she said, “like this cultural and biological development around women holding space for healing and all of the ecosystems … while it's being exploited and taken from.”

Photo1 BrollyArts

Ursula Perry dances near Great Salt Lake for the film, ‘The Illusion of Abundance.’ (Photo Alex Lee | Brolly Arts).

Gorder said after she finished choreographing her piece and before the film process had begun, she found herself wondering, like McDonald had, whether it would be relevant or make an impact. 

“Who wants to watch modern dance, a predominantly white cast of modern dancers, talk about the plight of the lake?” she said. “It felt vapid, even though it was artistically pretty solid.” 

Gorder said she had to ask herself what makes this film an important one. She realized, she said, the original approach was too limiting to individual experiences when everyone living in the Salt Lake Valley is part of a larger ecosystem.  

“[Many Utah Natives] have incredible language and knowledge systems that explain all of this,” she said. “And so we knew we wanted to shift the film to learn from Indigenous folks and their voice.”

An equal being

Gorder reached out to Jessica Wiarda, a Hopi artist and fashion designer, to work as a liaison with filmmakers throughout the process. Wiarda said she then began connecting with and inviting other Indigenous people to share their knowledge and participate in the film. 

“A lot of what's been missing in the Great Salt Lake movement is just Native voices being elevated,” Wiarda said. 

While the film’s creators showed a commitment to honoring and accurately reflecting Indigenous voices, Wiarda said natural challenges can come about when bringing together different sensibilities and approaches. For example, she said, many Indigenous people like to take their time to sit with things, like listening to an idea five or six times before committing to it. 

“There's a lot of approvals that need to go through [with] such a marginalized group like Indigenous people,” Wiarda said. “We’re often told we're elevated but then we don't get invited to the party afterward – we don't get invited to the table. We're just put as an afterthought.”

Wiarda said another challenge was a disconnect of cultural ideas. Non-Indigenous people, she said, seem to look at the lake as something that needs saving because of what it provides to the environment and the state’s residents. 

“Indigenous knowledge is, ‘No, the lake is your equal being. It's equal to you,’” she said. “You're not just taking from [it], and a lot of our Indigenous voices in that film talk about that.” 

Throughout the filming process, Dixon said the Native people involved had a lot to say, and Wiarda pushed for the perspective of Indigenous people’s connection to the environment to be shown. 

“It's not some dreamy wishy-washy thing,” he said. “It is a very real, concrete connection we have to the land, and we have a concern over the land that is genuine.” 

McDonald said filmmakers were committed to building relationships with the Indigenous people sharing their knowledge and voices for the film. They didn’t want to unintentionally disregard cultural beliefs but create a space where knowledge could be shared with the purpose of educating, she said. Those perspectives, she said, helped them learn and grow. 

“It's not surprising that there’s not a lot of trust of white people for all the harm that's been done,” she said.  “[It’s] a fine line for a relationship because everybody needs to feel respected and honored and make sure that every voice is heard.” 

Gorder said she also hopes the film – and the process of making it – encourages people to ask questions and begin to understand the many ways conversations and advocacy are forming around the lake. 

“There are some conflicts there — certainly a lot of the Native elders [ask], ‘Why are they doing weird modern dance? Why are white people dancing about Indigenous issues?’” she said. “It brings up some good questions about … whose voice is important and how do we integrate them?”

Dixon said, overall, he thinks the film is a step in the right direction toward including Indigenous representation, but it will always be challenging to get a genuine representation of Native people. 

“The main issue with trying to capture a genuine portrayal of Native people is that … it's going to be put through [the filmmakers’] lens –- what they would like to capture and what they would like to portray us as,” he said. “That's just the nature of human beings. Unless we have experience with something first hand, we really don't know.”

Wiarda said it’s a good turning point for the Great Salt Lake movement to start working to understand, respect and include Indigenous voices, despite it being a slow and meticulous process. 

“Conversation[s] started that people were kind of afraid to have,” she said. “[The filmmakers] did a really good job of melding the two voices — that we both exist in Salt Lake."


Attend the premiere

“An Illusion of Abundance” premieres April 30, 6:30-8:30 p.m., at Westminster University’s Jones Recital Hall, Jones Recital Hall (1840 S. 1300 East, Salt Lake City). The free screening will be followed by a discussion with the film’s creators and experts on the Great Salt Lake Basin. Click here to RSVP.

University of Utah student
A student at the University of Utah, Vanessa Hudson wrote this story as part of a College of Humanities journalism course in partnership with the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. The collaborative is a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake – and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

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