“First of all, I am a Ute Indian,” McCook said. “I am an Uncompahgre Ute.” The Uncompahgre Utes were the band of Utes who made their home in the Uncompahgre Valley with its sacred hot springs.
McCook is not just any Ute, but the great-great-grandson of Chipeta and Chief Ouray. He drew out a notebook containing Chipeta’s estate and leafed through testimonies taken from people close to her at the time of her death on August 17, 1924. The testimonies revealed that Chipeta and Ouray had no natural grandchildren, but that they adopted a girl named Coroopooits, the daughter of Chipeta’s sister and Ouray’s brother.
“In our ways, if you have something someone else cannot have, then you give it,” McCook explained. Chipeta and Ouray were unable to have children, so her sister gave Chipeta hers. When Coroopooits was grown and gave birth to her own child, she did the same. The boy’s name was James McCook, and he was Roland McCook’s grandfather.
Roland, one of 15 brothers and sisters, grew up on Hill Creek in Desolation Canyon on Utah’s Green River. His earliest memories were of spending time on his father’s and uncle’s ranch in Desolation Canyon, living in a traditional style.
“I never knew anyone but my family,” McCook said. “I grew up like a little Indian boy – moccasins, leggings, the works.” His family would tell stories of people who lived “out there,” people who had white skin and hairy faces. McCook said his 5-year-old mind pictured a hairy face like a dog, until the day he spotted a man on horseback coming down the canyon, a man with white skin and a beard. It was an agent, come to tell the family that it was time for Roland to go away to school.
Native people of McCook’s generation speak with abhorration of being forcibly taken from their families and sent to boarding school, where they were stripped of their culture, their families, their language, and forced to assimilate in dress, thought and religion with the dominant Christian culture. McCook’s experience was less traumatic, though no less foreign.
Because he was so young, McCook took the changes in stride. He spent his first Christmas in a gymnasium, replete with a Christmas tree, hard candy and a gift-wrapped toy truck missing its two rear wheels – a donation.
Later, he was baptized – en masse, with 20 or 30 other kids. “They dressed us up and filed us down to the Episcopal church,” McCook said. “They gave us a candle, and I got dunked. And shazam, I was a Christian,” he chuckled.
McCook’s mother had her children re-baptized as Catholics, and McCook continued to practice Catholicism with his wife, Augustine, who was a Spanish Mexican. When she died, of cancer in 2001, “I reverted to my traditional ways,” he said. “There are a lot of parallels, though,” between Christianity and traditional Ute ways, “so it didn’t bother me that much,” he said.
McCook only spent one year in boarding school, but after that the family left the canyon and moved to Ouray, Utah, once a thriving community, now “desolation,” he said. In Ouray, “we lived in a log cabin next to the Green River where we swam, fished, hunted, lived the traditional lifestyle.”
When his father was elected to the Tribal Business Committee, the Western-style governing body, they moved to Fort Duchesne, and McCook attended public school with both Indian and white kids. He spoke Ute at home, but as soon as they hit the school bus, and all day long, they spoke English. Today there are Ute language classes for the young, “but you have to speak it, have a dialogue,” McCook said. He is the last in his immediate family to actually speak the tongue.
When asked what, if anything, European Americans can do to help ameliorate what was done to the Native Americans and their cultures, McCook hesitated.
“Wishfully thinking, yes,” he said. “I wish there were more consideration for historical and traditional values. But the train has left the station, so to speak, for deterioration of traditional values. The generation today, they do not care about those.”
When asked what those values were, McCook agreed that family and community-wide relationships were a big part of it. “Nationwide, it seems like a person’s life doesn’t have value the way it used to.”
Over the years, in addition to his service with the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Ute Tribal Council, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the reservation, McCook has become interested in NAGPRA – the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which demands that museums, universities and other entities return Native American funerary, sacred objects and remains to the tribe from which they came. In 2002, he was nominated to the Smithsonian Institute’s committee that reviews and oversees such repatriation activities. The position gives him great satisfaction, as he accompanies the relics or remains to their family of origin, sometimes participating in ceremony with the family as they accept their kin back home for proper treatment and burial.
Because of all his activities in Colorado, including running the 2002 Olympic Torch in Aspen, his work in keeping Chipeta’s legacy alive and his involvement with the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, McCook decided to leave his empty home behind and struck out for Colorado. McCook moved to Montrose this spring and is quickly making his traditional home his real home.