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.

The origin of the Sun Dance is lost to time. Different tribes have different versions, some of the more recent ones appropriated from other tribes during the modern era, when American Indians sought to reinvigorate their roots. The first recorded Colorado Ute Sun Dance was in 1900 on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, and then in 1904 on the Southern Ute reservation, although the Utes say the practice has ancient derivations.

At first, the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to stamp out the dance, saying it was a "detriment to the moral and industrial interests of the Indians." But neither Indian Affairs officials on the reservations, nor white tourists who watched the activities, nor U.S. marshals sent to stop the dances saw any harm, and the tradition continued.

Unlike the Sun Dances of some tribes, where Indian-wannabes seem nearly as prevalent as Indians, non-Indians are rarely invited to dance at the Ute Sun Dance. Non-Indians may enter the Sun Dance grounds to observe, so long as they are respectful and leave their cameras behind. Indian policemen stand at the entrance to make sure that no one, Indian or non-Indian, enters the grounds wearing cologne or metal objects, and women are forbidden to wear shorts.

"Non-Indians are neither welcomed nor verbally unwelcomed," Remington says. "It's not meant to be insulting, it's just that the ceremony is for Utes and other Indians, not for whites who think they've lost something and want to find it by becoming 'Indian.'"

Unlike the Bear Dance, which is social in nature, the Sun Dance is religious. "During the dance, you never pray for yourself, always for your community," says Remington. "It is not something you complete solo; it is truly a community effort.

"After a Sun Dance, I feel as if I've been on a long spiritual journey. I'm more aware of my shortcomings and weaknesses, but at the same time, I am more aware of our collective strength as a community. And that's what it's all about."

Remington, a large man with the high cheekbones and copper coloring of his people, draws a line in the dust of the lodge with his foot. "Here is where I feel the most whole, where I can sleep at night and feel safe."

Remington was raised on the reservation. Although his father was Ute Mountain Ute, his mother, Annabelle Eagle, made sure he was enrolled with the Southern Utes because of the promise of a better future. But Remington also inherited the roaming tendency of his tribe. He left the reservation to join the Peace Corps, serving with the Indians in Colombia. When he returned, it was to attend the University of California-Berkeley.

In 1969, as a Marxist, he joined with a new organization that called itself United Indians of All Tribes when it took over Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. Soon after, he joined the American Indian Movement, of which he remains a member. But Remington's heart stayed on the reservation, where he returned when he could to renew his spirit.

Not everyone was happy to see him--particularly those in charge. "They were always worried that this communist was going to return and wreck everything," he says. But when he returned in 1980 following the death of his lover (from AIDS, although the disease was not yet identified at the time), it was to build, not destroy. With tribal monies, he started a public radio station that today is the flagship of public radio stations on other reservations. He spearheaded a drive to create a Ute museum in Ignacio, and he talked the elders into reinstituting Chief Ouray Days.

"I always ran everything by the elders," says Remington, "as is only right in our culture. And I always received their support--not from everyone of them maybe, but most."

Like many young, hot-headed Indian activists of his day who scorned as collaborators the old chiefs who'd made deals with the United States, Remington had thought of Ouray in much the same way. But age tempered his reason: "If not for Ouray, we would have probably been removed from these lands and stuck in some arid corner of the Southwest. As it was, we got to stay in what was our traditional winter campgrounds, and look at us now. We have everything. He was a man of great vision, and rather than resist the inevitable, he did what he had to do to make sure his people survived."

Remington grew restless on the reservation. Like many others, he had developed a drinking problem and felt he had to leave to sort out his personal troubles. In Denver, he tried Alcoholics Anonymous, "which is a wonderful organization, but not geared toward American Indians," he says.

Then he found a place called Four Winds, a recovery house for alcoholic Indian men. Today, he runs the Four Winds Survival Project and its spiritual counterpart, Living Waters, expanding its mission to include such projects as helping Indian families who move to the city find work, locate housing and other resources. "Today, 56 percent of American Indians live in metro urban areas," Remington says. "By the year 2000, 76 percent will live in urban areas. We felt there was a need now to develop programs to meet their needs. But we lack funding to do all we would like."

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