OURAY – A moving tribute to Chief Ouray ended with a joyous, full-participation circle dance in the middle of Sixth Avenue Saturday, celebrating the dedication of a life-sized bronze bust of the respected leader of the Uncompahgre Utes, who negotiated their “settlement” with the U.S. Government in the 1860s and 70s.
More than 100 people gathered around the front steps of the Ouray County Museum to honor the city (and county’s) namesake, whose bust, mounted on a two-ton slab of Colorado sandstone, now stands outside the museum’s front entry on Sixth Avenue.
The ceremony included remarks from local dignitaries emphasizing that the sculpture is a long-overdue recognition of the Ute chief whose people were relocated from western Colorado to Utah in 1880 by U.S. Calvary. Ouray County Commissioner Heidi Albritton thanked longtime Ouray resident Roger Henn for urging the commissioners to commemorate Ouray and the Utes. “It seemed strange not to have something in this town to celebrate their presence,” Albritton said.
Under the leadership of Tom Hillhouse, vice president of the Ouray County Historical Society, staff and board members of the OCHS organized the community-wide dedication of Chief Ouray’s commanding image, now enshrined in public art by Ouray’s Jim Opdahl, a retired oral surgeon, who sculpted and donated the bust.
“I hope that Roland McCook, C.J. Brafford and the Ute Nation know the work was done with respect,” said Opdahl. “I wanted to give the chief the reflective, introspective look of an individual thinking back on his life in this wonderful valley.”
Roland McCook is a direct descendant of the families of both Ouray and his wife Chipeta; Brafford, a Lakota Sioux, is director of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, and both men wore ceremonial regalia indicating the significance of the occasion.
“The Utes lived among and partook only of the resources we needed to survive,” said McCook of the region’s native inhabitants. “Now you are caretakers of this land where our young ones laughed during good times and cried during bad times.”
McCook asked that residents follow the Ute example and treat the land with care and respect. He then bestowed a blessing on the bust of Ouray through the burning of white sage, explaining that the fragrant smoke conveyed the words of his blessing to the creator.
Ouray Mayor Bob Risch accepted McCook’s challenge to preserve the area’s natural beauty for future generations. “I dedicate this mayoral term to that cause,” he said.
Risch, an astronomer, posited a theory about how Ouray was named: A historic meteor storm on Nov. 13, 1833, the date of Ouray’s birth, stunned the North American continent, with meteors shooting through the sky at a rate of 200,000 per hour. Many thought it was the end of the world.
“Ouray’s parents were probably impressed by the meteor storm. We know that Ouray means arrow in English,” Risch said, “and the meteors must have resembled arrows falling from the sky.”
OCHS President Kevin Chismirepresented certificates of appreciation to McCook and Brafford for their work to preserve the Ute heritage. Also honored were the six students from Ridgway and Ouray Elementary Schools who wrote the winning essays on Chief Ouray and the Utes for a contest sponsored by the OCHS. The Ouray winners were Makinley Clark (first place), Will Purcell (second place) and Kim Aquirre-Meraz (third place). Ridgway winners were Beth Williams (first place), Julia Strickler (second place) and Emma Haaland (third place).
The ceremony ended with an Honor Song performed by drummer Alfred Wall, of the Ute Mountain Utes, and a Native American dance led by Wall, McCook and Brafford. The Honor Song is usually reserved for Veterans Day pow-wows, Wall told the audience; “Today,” he said, “we are honoring all of you, and Ouray.”
Under Ouray’s steadfast gaze, young and old formed a circle in front of the museum and moved to Wall’s drumbeat in a multi-generational celebration.
The festivities continued with free admission to the museum, on-site cooking of traditional fry-bread and Native American games for the children. The event was a collaborative effort among the OCHS, the Ute Indian Museum and local individuals and organizations that contributed to the Chief Ouray Fund.
A special museum exhibit, “Chief Ouray and Chipeta in the Uncompahgre Valley,” examining the couple’s turbulent lives, runs through July 5 during regular museum hours, 10 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Mon.-Sat., and 12-4:30 p.m. Sunday.