Navajo musician explores tribes’ complex ties to national parks

| Publication: San Francisco Chronicle | Author: Ryan Kost

For many, the National Park Service is the steward of the moss-draped Olympic Peninsula, the yawning Grand Canyon and Yellowstone’s skyscraping geysers. For Raven Chacon, the U.S. Park Service is that and also something more complicated.

Chacon, a musician and artist, grew up in the Navajo Nation, a vast reservation in the Southwest that straddles and blurs state lines. On maps, much of the nation butts up against national parks with clear-cut borders, as if a forest or a canyon could end so neatly.

Next week, Chacon will explore, through sound, the relationship between the national parks and the native populations that live in and near them, with a special emphasis on the way borders have been drawn and enforced. The performance, which was commissioned by Berkeley’s David Brower Center and San Francisco’s Other Minds, caps an almost four-month-long celebration of the centennial of the national parks system put on by the center.

“What I wanted to do with this work was find a way through sound to at least have people become aware of these borders that have been created by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior,” Chacon says.

“As much as we talk about this contested border of the U.S. and Mexico, there are all of these micro-borders within our own country.”

Chacon, who also produces multimedia work with the artist collective Postcommodity, frequently explores themes of place and time. He incorporates a wide range of electronic elements in his work, along with homemade instruments, including the antlers of a mule deer, which he amplifies and runs along Plexiglas.

“A lot of my work is very loud, maybe in the genre of noise,” Chacon says. “This will be a much more quiet piece, but still using those devices.”

For this performance, Chacon has also collected rough recordings from the homelands of the Navajo and Hopi people, driving around with a field recorder hanging out the window of his car.

“What I wanted to do was capture these winds or this air that exists in these different places,” he says.

One sound might be the wind blowing through the border that separates the Hopi reservation from the Navajo reservation, “which before was probably some kind of gradient.” Before, that is, institutions like the Park Service and Department of the Interior drew strict lines.

Even with these strict lines, though, the U.S. government finds ways to intrude, he says. The harsh sound of the wind, he hopes, will get at the “violence that’s happening in these places — this violence of uranium mining, this violence of diverting water or claiming water or extracting water.”

The protection the Park Service provides, Chacon says, ends right at the border. “Twenty miles down the road, in the Navajo reservation, there will be uranium mining. … The concern really does stop at those boundaries.”

Chacon says he finds himself somewhat conflicted when it comes to the national parks and the government that acts as their protector. “I do acknowledge that (the Park Service) is doing its part in these areas to protect the land.”

And yet, when he sees U.S. agencies trying to intervene in conversations around native lands — like the debate among the Navajo about whether to develop the sacred area surrounding the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers — it comes across as an overstep.

Very simply, he says, “This is our land.”

Ryan Kost is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter:@RyanKost

Raven Chacon: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7. $5-$15. David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley.