I had the honor to be selected as a speaker at the conference recently in Boulder, sponsored by the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West – The Nation Possessed: The Conflicting Claims on America’s Public Lands (The Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Founding of the General Land Office). Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was one of the special guests, along with former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and a number of former heads of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management – the agency which the General Land Office grew into. As historian Patricia Limerick likes to say, the Center’s job is “turning hindsight into foresight.”
While there were many excellent presentations and discussions (which you can find out more about at the website http://centerwest.org/events/the-nation-possessed), I was most deeply moved by the opening speech of Native American Rights Attorney Walter Echo-Hawk. He laid out the inherent irony in a celebration of public lands that had originally been taken from Native peoples against their will. He cited their dispossession of the land as one of the enduring injustices that this nation has never quite come to terms with. “Every inch of this continent was owned when the Europeans first came,” he noted.
Afterwards, I spoke to him privately about what was needed to resolve this grave injustice that has never been adequately addressed in our country. He explained that reconciliation consists of five parts – first, the incident of wounding or injustice; second, an apology by the perpetrators or their descendants; third, an acceptance of that apology by those harmed; fourth, some kind of just atonement; and fifth, a state of reconciliation. This process tracked the kind of reconciliation that was beautifully illustrated this last Mountainfilm by the excellent film, Fambul Tok, which explored this very kind of process as it happened on a grassroots level in Sierra Leone after their devastating civil war.
It also touched me deeply because I had read Bob Silbernagel’s excellent book – Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of the Utes from Colorado (Univ. of Utah Press, 2011). In it, he describes a letter that Arvis Gilson wrote to Col. Ranald MacKenzie on June 21, 1881 – shortly before the Ute removal – “informing the military commander that he [Gilson] had recently visited with ‘various Utes’ in the area around the San Miguel River, west of the Uncompahgre Valley but still considered Uncompahgre Ute territory. ‘All say they would rather die than go to the Grand River country because it is worthless.’” (p. 165)
This was the first documented account of the Utes being removed from the San Miguel Watershed that I had seen. It brought to mind how Ophir, a few years ago, had erected a monument to the Utes, thanks to the work of David Glynn and others. And it sparked the thought in me that perhaps our County could help begin the reconciliation process by issuing a formal apology to the Uncompahgre Utes, now living in Utah, for their forced removal from San Miguel County. I’ve spoken with the current board, and they are receptive to the concept. Thanks to Bob Silbernagel, I have also corresponded with Ute elder Jonas D. Grant, Sr., who was also receptive to the idea. And most recently, at the Boulder conference, I met Barbara Suteer, a retired Interior Dept. employee who had been the superintendent at the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument in Montana on the Crow Reservation, where I served a year as a Vista volunteer in the mid-Sixties. She is half-Ute, and was also very receptive to the thought of working on a formal apology.
So, I am hoping to begin work on a draft apology document with the help of Grant and Suteer and others. This isn’t the answer to the scandal of Native dispossession of the land at the roots of our “imperfect union,” as President Obama likes to characterize our country – with its lofty goals but hard realities that many of us are working to change. But this could be the beginning of a local process of reconciliation, just as Secretary Salazar explained to us in Boulder was underway at the Department of Interior, under his leadership. If you have any interest in assisting with this process, please contact me.
– Art Goodtimes, San Miguel County Commissioner