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Can Art and Humanities Save the Great Salt Lake?

Environmental Humanities Graduate Program hosts symposium using humanities, art and culture to explore problems and solutions to the Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake is drying up, leaving toxic dust and an ecosystem in crisis. Through the lenses of the humanities, art and culture, the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program at the University of Utah will explore the problems and solutions to what “The New York Times” refers to as “Utah’s Environmental Nuclear Bomb” during a symposium, Sept. 23 and 24. A Zoom option will be available.

“We are hosting this event because our Salt Lake is the living intersection of climate change and climate justice,” said Jeff McCarthy, director of the Environmental Humanities Program. “Further, environmental humanities tools like poetry, Indigenous history and traditional ecological knowledge can inform state policy before it is too late.”

Indigenous leaders in the Great Basin will examine history and offer pathways for repair. Artists, storytellers and advocates will discuss how to shift the narrative and tell compelling and honest stories about the crisis to inspire needed action. The symposium is in partnership with the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, the Tanner Humanities Center, the U College of Humanities and the U Office of Sustainability. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required (for both in-person and Zoom).

“Nations and communities who were sustained by the Great Salt Lake for millennia have a strong understanding of how to sustain and protect the lake ecosystem,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities. “Our challenge is to listen and learn.”

On Friday, Sept. 23, the symposium will held at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and will consist of multiple panels and a keynote given by Karen Piper, professor of English at the University of Missouri, and Bonnie Baxter, professor of biology at Westminster College and director of the Great Salt Lake Institute. They will discuss the aftermath and impact of the draining of Owens Lake in California, which resulted in the largest source of dust in North America. On Saturday, Sept. 24, the symposium will move to Antelope Island State Park at the visitor center media room amphitheater, to explore the lake, witness the crisis and honor the lake’s beauty. The full event details are below.

Program Details:

Friday, Sept. 23, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Natural History Museum of Utah

Great Salt Lake and the Great Basin Tribes: Ancestral Connection and Pathways to Repair

Corrina Bow, chairwoman of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah 
Forrest Cuch, Ute Indian Tribe, former executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs
Darren Parry, councilman, former chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation 
Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute

Representatives from the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute, Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe and Ute Indian Tribe will discuss the importance of the Great Salt Lake to Indigenous people of the Great Basin region. They'll also talk about how current issues at the lake root back to settler colonialism and lay out pathways for healing and repair going forward.

Left in the Dust: Lessons from Owens Lake, A Conversation with Karen Piper and Bonnie Baxter

Bonnie Baxter, Director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College / professor of biology

Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College and professor of biology, will facilitate an on-stage conversation with Karen Piper, professor of English at the University of Missouri and author of “Left in the Dust: How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A.” Piper grew up in Owens Valley and experienced the impact of Owens Lake going dry, resulting in toxic dust. They will discuss what Salt Lake can learn from the story of Owens Valley and share lessons across regions and academic disciplines and connect on their shared experiences of researching and loving lakes in peril.

Changing the Narrative: Underrepresented Stories and Underutilized Tools

Meisei Gonzalez, HEAL Utah communications director
Victoria Meza, Embodied Ecologies artist, Urban Indian Center Behavioral Health coordinator
Darren Parry, councilman Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation
Lauren Gustus, executive director at the Salt Lake Tribune

This panel will feature communication professionals, storytellers and creatives who are bringing underrepresented stories to the forefront of the conversation on the Great Salt Lake, using new and innovative tools. This ranges from Meisei Gonzalez, the communications director at HEAL Utah who brings fresh approaches to digital communications and amplifies youth and social justice perspectives, to Lauren Gustus, executive director at the Salt Lake Tribune, who spearheaded the solutions journalism approach to the Great Salt Lake Collaborative.

Can Art Save Us?

Amy McDonald, director and founder of Brolly Arts
Willy Palomo, poet and director of the Utah Humanities Book Festival
Nan Seymour, poet and activist
Holly Simonsen, poet, artist and director of the Alfred Lambourne Prize Program for FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake
Douglas Tolman, artist and MFA candidate University of Utah

The panel will feature artists across mediums – visual, performing and literary – to explore the role of art in shaping culture.

Eulogy and Praise: Reading of “The Obituary to the Great Salt Lake” and “Irreplaceable”

Readings by Bonnie Baxter, Nan Seymour, community contributors and audience

Born of a vigil, “Irreplaceable” is a chorus of lament and praise swelling with love for Great Salt Lake. There are more than 2500 lines and hundreds of perspectives in the poem; the size and scope of the work reflects a community call for Great Salt Lake's full restoration. “Irreplaceable” is a polyphonic love-letter to an imperiled beloved.

Saturday, Sept. 24, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Antelope Island

Check website for final schedule.

Antelope Island and the Shoshone People: A Plant Walk and Talk

Brad Parry, vice chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation Rios Pacheco, artist and cultural interpreter, Northwestern Shoshone & Kewa Pueblo

Monitoring the Lake: Tools and Techniques with Great Salt Lake Institute Researchers
Writing Workshop with Nan Seymour
Dancing for the Lake: Performance and Participatory Workshop with Brolly Arts

Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities | 801-213-0866


Last Updated: 9/12/22