Fifth Street

February 3, 2022

Cultures collide in the sacred Spirit Mountain Wilderness | Raiders cheerleader Jennifer Stehlin on the art of hype and Pam & Tommy | Media Sommelier: The Delightful Madness of Nicolas Cage

DRIVING DOWN from Christmas Tree Pass, heading west toward I-95 on the road that divides the Spirit Mountain and Bridge Canyon Wilderness areas, my husband and I spot a juniper tree decorated with Christmas ornaments. It’s April. We’re baffled. Then we see another, and another, several yucca trees covered in garland and lights. We start to put two and two together. Is this why they call it “Christmas Tree Pass”?

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The official literature says no, that the name comes from the area’s colorful foliage. But the tradition of decorating that foliage — sometimes in honor of a loved one or cherished cause — goes back at least a couple generations. A colleague of mine who lives in Boulder City recalls his delight at seeing the decorated desert trees as a youngster in the ’70s, when his family would drive out to this area for scenic tours. But when I saw them, I was not delighted. I imagined microplastics in birds’ eggs, desert tortoises choking on tinsel, twinkle light strands tangled in the mesquite. And most of all, I remembered the words of Patrick Naranjo, a member of New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo, when he and I toured Basin and Range National Monument together several years ago and found a cattle wallow and watering tank mere feet from some ancient Native rock art.

“This is terrible!” he’d cried. “How would you guys feel if I kenneled my dogs in a room in the Louvre?”

As I understand it, Christmas Tree Pass isn’t so much the Louvre as it is Notre Dame Cathedral. That’s due to its location on the south side of Spirit Mountain, or Avi Kwa Ame, as it’s known to the Yuman Peoples (represented today by about a dozen Indian Tribes). The mountain is the nexus of their creation history, the place where they emerged into this world. So, I suppose an update of Patrick’s question, with respect to the Christmas decorations, is: How would you feel if I draped your nativity scene with my tribe’s regalia?

This is a thorny question, perhaps asked at an inopportune time for proponents of Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, a proposed 450,000-acre chunk of protected public land in Nevada’s southern tip. I was exploring the area that day back in April 2021 because, since I’d written about the proposal nearly a year earlier, the coalition behind it had grown steadily, gaining a range of endorsements. Less than a month ago, Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus held a press conference at the Springs Preserve to announce she was introducing a bill to designate the national monument. She was flanked by Clark County, Laughlin, and Fort Mojave Indian Tribe officials, as well as the owner of Mystery Ranch in Searchlight, the head of the Native Voters Alliance Nevada, and representatives of several conservation groups. This week, the Clark County Commission adopted a resolution in favor of federal monument designation. Registering their support of the resolution were a few of the same folks from the Springs Preserve press conference, plus others from Boulder City, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a couple more conservation groups, and the off-highway vehicle community. Fort Mojave Chairman Timothy Williams appeared in person, testifying to the area's cultural significance.

Clearly, the proposal has broad support. And it’s been ages in the making — since Spirit Mountain was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, according to those involved. Titus believes these efforts, along with the monument’s projected contribution to the outdoor recreation economy, are enough to get it through a process that, in recent years, has been fraught, to put it mildly. (Two words on that: Bears Ears.)

“Lands bills are always controversial,” Titus told me at the Springs Preserve, “but when all this work has already been done, when there’s agreement on the (Bureau of Land Management) map, when you have everybody from off-road vehicle enthusiasts, to Native Americans, to Michael Naft on the County Commission, to the three gateway communities of this area all saying, ‘Yes, this is a good idea,’ it makes it harder to turn down.”

Consensus among strange bedfellows has often been the secret weapon of public lands conservation movements against development interests (in this case, the renewable energy sector, which has been scoping project sites in the vicinity for decades). Local residents can be particularly powerful when they band together, as we saw when a grassroots group from Overton and Logandale killed the proposed Battle Born solar project on Mormon Mesa last year.

Indigenous Peoples, however, have often served as backup for efforts led by non-Indigenous conservationists and outdoor recreationists. Taylor Patterson, executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada, hopes that will change with Avi Kwa Ame, as she told me last year in an interview for KNPR’s podcast, Native Nevada. Patterson, members of Fort Mojave, and the other tribes whose ancestral homelands overlay the proposed monument area see this as an opportunity to lead, to translate their traditional stewardship into official management.

“The national monument would help us police the area a little bit better,” Fort Mojave Vice Chairman Shan Lewis told me at the Springs Preserve. “We want people to enjoy it. There are beautiful things to see there, and we don't want to keep anybody from doing that, but it also adds a level of protection for us to have a little bit more say in how that happens.”

Should the beautiful sights to see include juniper trees decorated with Christmas ornaments? No, says Kim Garrison Means, a third-generation Searchlight resident, owner of the Mystery Ranch, and a leading local advocate for the national monument. Means spent many hours over the last two years going door-to-door, giving presentations at community centers, answering questions and allaying concerns about the proposal. Today, she believes, there’s almost unanimous support.

“Because there was so much discussion within our community, it really helped resolve people's fears about how this would impact their lives,” she says. “The things that are important to us are continuing to use the land the way we always have, with hunting, driving on back roads, camping, hiking … Once we built trust in our community that it was everyone's goal to keep this the same, everyone jumped on board.”

"Keeping it the same" means allowing things like OHVs on designated trails in a space that's sacred to the Yuman. Lewis and Patterson say that's okay; a balance between various groups' uses must be found for the greater good. But Christmas Tree Pass makes me wonder whether a line can be drawn in that pursuit — where non-Native practices cross into unacceptable territory.

Means describes the Christmas tree decorations as an example of the unintentional disrespect that may happen when neighbors don’t communicate well. 

“That is something that really breaks the hearts of members of the Fort Mojave Tribe,” she says. “So, there have been a lot of efforts in recent years to make sure that those ornaments are cleaned up, and through this process of discussion of the monument within the community, we've really tried to make that a part of the discussion. We are trying to address those issues throughout the community, and hopefully together we will reach agreements on how we can honor all our different traditions and honor the land.”

If she could do that, in the current climate of political division, it would be quite an achievement, wouldn’t it? Yeah, she admits, but it’s already been pretty remarkable, how many different kinds of people have gotten on board with the project.

Don't ruin it, I can hear between the lines. And it's a fair point. Consensus is fragile these days. Nobody, including me, wants to jeopardize it — especially with the restoration of Yuman ancestral lands and lifeways hanging in the balance.

But as the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument process plays out, I hope the area’s non-Indigenous residents can see their way to giving up at least one of their own customs. Some things are worth fighting for; let’s hope Christmas ornaments in the yuccas are not.

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AS A LAS VEGAS Raiders cheerleader, Jennifer Stehlin performs in front of thousands of fans at every Raiders game. But she’s about to reach a whole new audience with her role on the Hulu limited series Pam & Tommy, which is now streaming. Stehlin guest-stars in the second episode of the show based on the real-life 1990s sex-tape scandal involving actress Pamela Anderson (played by Lily James) and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (played by Sebastian Stan). Stehlin plays one of Pamela’s best friends, who’s right there beside her in the nightclub where she meets Tommy, and on the vacation to Mexico where Pamela and Tommy get married after knowing each other for only four days.

Her Pam & Tommy role is just one of many projects Stehlin has in the works, from cheerleading to acting to dancing to broadcasting. She spoke to Fifth Street about the Raiders, Pam & Tommy, and her unique career path.

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How long have you been involved in cheerleading?
I started out as a dancer all my life, and dancing competitively. I even went to middle school for dance, at a school of the arts. Unfortunately, I got burned out, and that’s when I got into cheerleading, because with my dance background I knew how to tumble. I was one of the only two freshmen at my high school to make varsity my freshman year. That’s how I got into coed stunting. We went to a cheer gym where we learned to tumble and all that kind of stuff. That’s what led me on my journey to cheering at the University of Florida. After cheering at Florida, I continued on the journey out west, and now here we are.

What do you love most about cheerleading?
I love being on the sidelines of the game. It’s definitely how I got into sports at a young age. I have an older brother who exposed me to football and all the sports. For me, it was like, that’s a way that I can have one of the best seats in the house. And I also am extremely passionate about performing. I love dance and being able to express myself through dance and cheerleading. It’s just the best of both worlds for me, being able to cheer and engage with the audience and perform for them and hype them up, and then turn around and I’m right there with all the action. It’s super exciting.

Are you able to utilize your dance background in your work with the Raiders?
I am, yes. We are a dance team. It is dancing. There’s no coed stunting or tumbling. It’s definitely a collaborative effort. We have guest choreographers come in, and we do different styles. It’s still a great way for me to continue to have dance as one of my creative outlets.

Do you feel like the image of cheerleaders has changed over time?
Absolutely. I think we’ve definitely opened up the doors to showing people that it’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of practice, a lot of time, a lot of dedication. You definitely have to keep your body healthy. You have to stay mentally healthy. It definitely is a tough role. Even in college they treated us like athletes. Being put in the category of a D-1 athlete is something that I uphold with a lot of pride. But it definitely takes a lot of work. I think it’s been great that we've had a lot of positive exposure. We are athletes. What we do is a serious job, and we take it as professionals.

Is there anything specific in pop culture that’s helped with that image?
There are shows on Netflix like Cheer. It all comes with a grain of salt, because it is for entertainment purposes, so there does have to be drama. But I feel like it has opened everyone's eyes to the hard work and dedication that it takes to even making a team, to even staying on a team. A lot of people think you just work really hard to make a team, and then it’s all easy going. I can attest that it is not. You really have to grind, you have to want it. You really have to be passionate about it, to really get everything out of your journey, from the hard work to the performance. But really being out there on the field is just something like no other.

Is there a component of acting involved in being a cheerleader?
Honestly I have to say, I’m just so passionate about it, and the fact that I love sports, that there is no acting involved. I’m fully allowed to be myself, and that’s been something that’s so fun. We definitely embrace everyone as who they are as individuals. That’s just been a really positive part of the experience.

How much did you know about Pamela and Tommy’s story before being cast in the show?
I’d always heard about it. Pamela’s definitely an icon, so you definitely know her story. I feel like working on the show, you learn more intricacies about the story and how it all played out. I obviously was too young when it came out to say I was there through the iconic moments of the scandal happening. But it’s been a fun process, and even just to go back and watch interviews — how it happened, and how it played out, and then to see what today looks like for them in their lives.

What was important about doing that research?
My role was to play one of her best friends, so I really wanted to make sure that I was fulfilling those shoes of what the time was like, how they would act, what they were doing, and really be able to put myself in those situations.

Did you watch the actual sex tape?
I did not watch the actual sex tape, no.

Do you see a connection between the way that Pamela Anderson was viewed at that time and the way that people view cheerleaders?
Yeah, maybe a little bit. We still live in a day where people just see a pretty face and think that’s all you are. I know a personal experience I’ve had is — I can't say it’s a compliment, because it’s kind of an insult, but they’re like, “Wow, you actually have depth.” And I’m like, “Do not let the blond hair deceive you.” I have a college education. I have brains under my blond hair. I think that’s definitely something we’re still working through, as cheerleaders. Pamela experienced it. We are not just pretty faces.

Would Pamela and Tommy’s situation be viewed differently if it happened today?
Absolutely. I think living in a social media culture, we have been exposed to so much more nowadays. We’ve taken content so quickly and so vastly that I think the days of sex scandals are over. No one really cares anymore. I was actually having a discussion with my friend about what would be considered the next big scandal. I feel like we’ve just been exposed to so many scandals nowadays that nothing is really as shocking as it used to be.

With all your different projects, what’s your overall vision for your career?
I really see myself having a career like Reese Witherspoon, eventually having my own production company, and producing, directing and acting. Nowadays you have to be an entrepreneur and do all kinds of things. Right now I’m really working on building those resumes. When I’m not acting, I work on even just the little things every single day that can benefit my acting, my producing career, my directing career. All those facets that encompass the entertainment industry.

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1. YOU MIGHT NOT expect a film about a hermit searching for his stolen truffle pig to simmer and pulse with ragged emotion, but the recently released Pig stars Nicolas Cage, who is, you know, basically a shambolic blur of ragged emotion personified (and, lest we forget, our city’s unofficial patron saint and a fine reason to love Las Vegas). This isn’t necessarily a recommendation to watch Pig — a sort of haute emo B-movie whose numerous coincidences and contrivances push it toward allegory (an underground fight club for restaurant workers?!) — but it is a recommendation to watch Cage in Pig in the context of the Current Cage Moment: On the heels of his recent string of cult-film notchings, there’s a new Cage biography out by Keith Phipps, longtime film critic for the The A.V. Club. Haven’t read the book, but this review by Dan Piepenbring in Harper’s is, on its own, one of the best literary distillations I’ve read yet of the expressionistic madness of Cage’s method. “Cage has, for forty years onscreen, delivered performances of such furious spectacle that they transcend the humanity they represent,” he writes. “To see him react is to wonder if you’ve ever really felt, or could feel, anything so deeply, and if you’d want to.” (Siri, set a reminder to work the phrase “going full Cage” into my conversational repertoire.)

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2. Meanwhile, other people on this planet are unhinged in ways that border on the inhuman. Terroristic white supremacy may have had its unsavory mass-media network debut on January 6, but it’s in the shadows that it festers and ferments. This wildly compelling story in Rolling Stone profiles one of the undercover FBI agents whose job is to immerse himself in those shadow worlds and bring racial terrorists to justice before they can hatch their plans. Warning: It's a sewer of twisted political ideologies, religious hyperfanaticism, and paramilitary fantasism. But perhaps what’s most interesting is why undercover agent Scott (just Scott) is so good at his job cracking white terror cells: “What I do isn’t acting, ’cause acting’ll get you killed,” he tells writer Mike Belleme. “I’m just out here being darker shades of me.” Most troubling is why he’s choosing to tell his story now: “Months out of the game, though,” Belleme writes, “he can’t stop brooding over the threat he left behind. He knows better than anyone that it’s later than we think, and that each day brings us closer to the next 9/11 — this one launched by our own children.”

3. Random, but nerded out hella on this fascinating Twitter thread by medievalist Lisa Fagin Davis explaining the evolution of the ampersand (&), which, surprise, is — handing the mic to Davis here — “actually a ligature, a Latin combination of two letters: [e] and [t], or [et], which in English means [and].” Mind! Blown! But wait. Pick up the pieces of your mind to have it blown again: The word ampersand itself is a contraction of the phrase “and per se and,” meaning, essentially, “This symbol by itself means ‘and’!” Pieces of mind! Blown!

4. So, four AI bots play 1 million games of Monopoly. No, it’s not the setup to a joke — it’s a setup to asking WHY ARE WE TEACHING AI CAPITALISM?! I hereby stipulate Falken's Law: AI will simultaneously embody the absolute height of imagined human skill and the absolute floor of our moral character.

5. Banning a book is an awful, terrible, no-good idea under any circumstances unless it’s by Mitch Albom but, when a book is banned, I have to chuckle at the Streisand effect that inevitably pulls an Uno “reverse” card and catapults the book into stratospheric heights of viral fame. That’s what seems to be happening after Tennessee’s McMinn County School Board unanimously voted to remove the Holocaust graphic novel Maus from its curriculum — a move that sparked all the outrage you’d expect, to be sure, but also virtual teach-ins and mass book drops. Update to my life goal of writing a book: Now my goal is to write a banned book. Andrew Kiraly
 

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Photos and art: Christmas Tree Pass headline photo by Melissa Amaon; Spirit Mountain Wilderness inset photo by Scott Lien; Jennifer Stehlin: courtesy; Nicolas Cage: Nicolas Genin/Wikimedia Commons

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