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Rough Waters

The Animas-La Plata project is supposed to fulfill the government's promise to Colorado Utes. But tribal opponents worry it will leave the reservations high and dry.

"Common sense tells me that we are going to throw our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren into something they will never be able to pay back," Eagle says. That's why the elders spoke out against the project, assuming their traditional role as leaders whose advice should have been at least respected by the council. But the council didn't listen.

"There was a time any tribal member could go to the council and harangue them with no repercussions," Eagle says. "But you can't talk to the council anymore. If you speak out, you get blacklisted...They take it out on your family. They're no longer eligible for jobs, or they're fired for the slightest reason, or they're overlooked for promotion.

"Somebody's going to make a lot of money off of this water project, but it's not going to be us."

The wind people send the dust devils dancing like the ghosts of Ute warriors across the hallowed Sun Dance grounds north of Ignacio. Sage Remington can almost hear the drums pulsing and the sunrise prayer song of his people as they greet the new day.

But for now, the vast grounds, large enough to hold several football fields, are empty of other humans. In the distance, mountains hover and waver like mirages in the warmth of the afternoon. A green line of cottonwood trees on the far side of the grounds marks the course of Los Pinos.

"I can see the children, a horde of them going to the river to bathe. I can hear their voices," Remington says softly, although where he looks there is only the flat, trodden surface of the earth and the trees, and the only voices are those of songbirds.

The pole frames of shade huts ring the area. During the four days of the dance, they will be covered with cottonwood branches to shade the members of the tribe who attend to support the dancers. Circular marks in the grass show where their tepees stood.

"I come here and instantly feel as though I've been thrown back two hundred years," says Remington, a Ute activist who spends most of his days in Denver. "This is a powerful place for us...a holy place."

Within the circle of shade huts stands another circle, perhaps thirty to forty yards across, defined by the trunks of large aspen trees set upright in the ground. A sort of arboreal Stonehenge, it is the Sun Dance lodge.

Inside the larger circle is another composed of smaller poles about three feet apart. "They mark the stalls where the dancers rest standing," Remington says. "They're put up on the third day to lean against."

In the center of the circles is a large, Y-shaped cottonwood trunk, perhaps thirty feet high, that has been cut down, shorn of its branches and erected here. "In the old days, they would have gone out, selected a tree, and then one of the elders would shoot it with an old musket...symbolic of shooting a Comanche warrior," Remington says. "Then everyone would count coup on it and the sap that came from the wound, the life force, would have been collected in an old calvary cup and used to bless oneself."

In 1976, long past the days of raids and scalp songs, representatives of the Utes and Comanches gathered in Ignacio and signed a peace treaty. And still, perhaps because there is so much to be learned from a respected enemy, the Utes can't quite let go. "There's still a doll that gets passed around to different Ute Sun Dances--it's a little magic stolen from the Kiowas," Remington laughs. "And sometimes they bring out an old conquistador's breastplate to hang on the tree."

During the dance, the lodge is enclosed with boughs of cottonwood--except for the entrance on the east, facing the rising sun. The drummers sit near this opening, with the women singers sitting on reed mats near them. A bundle of sage and a buffalo skull are placed in the crook of the cottonwood tree, which has been girded with two stripes of brick red and black; four pennants representing the sacred colors of the Utes--yellow, red, black and white--hang from the top.

For four days the dancers, blowing on whistles made of eagle bones to summon the spirits, shuffle-dance to the pole and then back to the edge of the circle. They are allowed neither food nor water for the duration. Elders of the tribe stand at the pole, reminding the dancers why they're there. Outside the lodge, family members and friends urge the dancers on. "When it gets really hot and the dancers falter, the drummers will play a song to refresh them or to bring the wind or clouds for shade," says Remington, a dancer himself.

The drums pound and the dancers move back and forth like a tide until sundown. At night they rest briefly while praying for the strength to go on; each morning at sunrise they gather at the pole to pray to the sun, after which they will be given two hours to refresh themselves with moist towels. "By the second day, the poisons are really starting to come out of your body, and it's like you're moving in a trance," says Remington. At some point, the dancers hope to have a vision, some sign from the spirits offering guidance that they will take to the elders to ponder and decipher.

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