"The creator placed us upon the Rocky Mountains to inhabit this land," said Uncompahgre Ute elder, O. Roland McCook, Sr., vice chairman of the Smithsonian Institution Native American Repatriation Review Committee in a recent interview. "He placed us on the highest mountains to be closest to him."
McCook will be in Telluride this Thursday, Nov. 9, to give a Telluride Unearthed presentation titled, Tales of the Utes: From Creation to Displacement, hosted by Pinhead Institute and the Telluride Historical Museum. It is the second of a three part series. Admission is $10. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for free appetizers and a cash bar. McCook will be co-presenting with Director of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, C.J. Brafford, a Lakota Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, 6-8 p.m. Seating is limited.
The story, From Creation to Displacement, is a big one, but winter is traditionally the time for storytelling for the Ute people. Through their oral tradition, wisdom and values were taught by the elders to the younger generations. "Our grandparents were our entertainment," said last week's speaker, Ute Mountain Ute Norman Lopez. From simple hygiene to hunting tips, children were taught through stories, with animals as the central characters. Learning not to smell like a vulture or learning the importance of descending from high mountain ridges and peaks by noon in the summer were matters of survival. Children learned to seek out help from their older siblings or parents when a problem grew too big. Through stories, they learned the sometimes-deadly consequences of not listening.
The Ute had a profound sense of appropriate times and places for most things. After the first snow, for example, the move to a lower winter camp was mandatory. Going into the mountains in winter was foolish. The Ute story of creation was only told in the wintertime. "Our creation story starts with the Earth, which sets the stage for wellbeing," said Brafford in a recent interview.
For the Utes, who call themselves "Nuche," not Ute, and speak "Nuu-a-pagia," the high mountains were the basis of their culture, their survival and their spiritual origins. They didn't have to build sacred places, such as pyramids, because they were surrounded by sacred places. They had freedom to nomadically cycle through the mountains of Colorado, Utah and probably Wyoming, moving with the seasons and creating a culture that was sophisticated in the arts, cosmology and family traditions with an intimate connection to the natural world. They felt the influence of neighboring cultures and the Spanish settlers beginning in the late 1500s.
Then, abruptly, in the mid-to-late 1800s, their culture was targeted for genocide, whether by shotgun or cultural eraser. Wholesale displacement of the Ute people was the relentless battle cry of Anglo Coloradans, desperate to get their hands on minerals lying within the mountains and on the arable bottomland of Ute Territory. The Boulder News editorialized, in 1872, "An Indian has no more right to stand in the way of civilization and progress than a wolf or a bear."
Within thirty years, from 1848 to 1880, the people who had been sacredly chosen to live upon the land of the Rocky Mountains, whose way of life was inextricably tied to the landscape, were corralled into reservations that were a tiny fraction of the size of their former territory, and significantly, void of mountains.
"The big story is that we agreed to treaties time and time again," said McCook, "only to have the U.S. government break them in their inability to enforce their own treaties.
"Throughout recent history, the government leaders of the United States have consistently erred on the side of their constituents," said McCook who worked for the Bureau of Land Management for 15 years and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 13 years. "Now they should err on the side of the Indians."
Spanning the arts, stories, and myths of the Utes and presented by Ute elders, PhD archaeologists, and museum scientists, the annual Telluride Unearthed lecture series by Pinhead Institute and the Telluride Historical Museum is designed to give locals an opportunity to discover more about their resident valley during the slow off-season months.
On Nov. 16, the last of the series will be presented, Myths of the Utes: Stories Told Through Petroglyphs, co-presented by Clifford Duncan, Northern Ute Elder, and Carol Patterson, PhD, cultural anthropologist and archaeologist.
The program is generously supported by a Museums for America Grant given by the Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Other sponsors of the event include Ice Design, ResortQuest, Ice House Lodge, CCAASE and Telluride Foundation. Partners of the program include the Telluride School District and the Wilkinson Public Library.
While in town, each of the six presenters will make classroom presentations at the Telluride Elementary and Intermediate Schools as part of Pinhead's Scholars in the Schools program. This Friday at 3:30 p.m., C.J. Brafford will conduct a traditional crafts program for children at the Wilkinson Public Library.
Cost is $10 per lecture at the door, or reserve tickets by calling the Telluride Historical Museum at 728-3344 or visit www.telluridemuseum.org or www.pinheadinstitute.org for additional information.