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 Bear Dance signified the end of winter," says Eddie "Aka Nuche" Box Sr., the Bear Dance chief of the Southern Utes. "In the old days it was a time for the different bands to get together to socialize, especially the young men and women. But it is more than a mating dance. Families would forget their differences and come together as a people."

Box is 76 years old and has an apprentice preparing to take over, just as he apprenticed to the Bear Dance chief before him. A slight man with a wisp of a black moustache, he was once a Sun Dance chief of great repute, whose call to the ceremony always brought large numbers of dancers.

"It may rain," he says now, looking suspiciously at the gray clouds that have rolled in from the San Juans to the north. "That could hurt the turnout. But the land needs the water."

He is happy to see the young people dancing. In times of great change, the Bear Dance was a way for the tribe to keep in touch with the past and their culture. They danced when the Spanish came with their horses. They danced when the miners demanded more and more land and water, and again when white ranchers and farmers were allowed to take what had been given to the Southern Utes for a reservation.

In times of great change, the Bear Dance reminded leaders to look to the protection and welfare of their people. Not just in the seasons that followed--tachat, red summer; yuvanat, black fall; tumat, white winter--but for generations to come.

This is another time of great change. Despite their wealth, the Southern Utes have many of the problems that plague other tribes--unemployment, inadequate housing, substandard education, the old nemesis of alcoholism. But because of their wealth, they may be in a better position to deal with these matters. Right now there is a more pressing issue.

For the first time in almost thirty years, the Southern Utes will elect a new tribal chairman this fall. Leonard Burch, who even critics concede followed in the footsteps of his farsighted ancestors to lead his people to a prosperity that is the envy of most Indian tribes, must step down.

The election of his successor may well hinge on a cause Burch has championed all the way from the reservation to the U.S. Congress: the Animas-La Plata water project, the last of the great Bureau of Reclamation water diversions in the West.

Burch sees the project as the fulfillment of a decade-old Indian water-rights settlement negotiated with the State of Colorado and the federal government that will ensure the future well-being of the Southern and Ute Mountain Utes. But his opponents consider the project a travesty that goes against the Indian belief in water as a living entity that must flow to live and, on a more practical level, will saddle the tribes with a multimillion-dollar debt while failing to bring the reservations a single drop of water.

The Animas-La Plata project is perhaps the most divisive issue that Colorado Utes have faced since moving to their current reservations in the 1880s. The Animas-La Plata project pits Ute Mountain Utes, who desperately need water if they are to use the vast majority of their arid lands, against a group of Southern Utes who have banded together to fight the project. It has brought the traditional leaders of the Southern Utes, the elders, in conflict with the constitutionally elected tribal council. It has turned family against family and caused hard feelings within families.

Accusations are flying from all directions. The worst of the insults labels one side or the other as a puppet of the white man: a tribal lawyer and land developers from water-desperate Durango pulling strings on the pro-project side; the Sierra Club and other environmental absolutists pulling strings on the other.

All that fighting over something that Sinawaf, the creator, gave to the people. But still, this Memorial Day weekend, the Utes dance the dance of the bears, laying aside their political differences to draw together as a community.

"Hey!" Box yells as he spies several boys sneaking out of the corral. "If you get invited to dance, you shouldn't leave. Or the next time you go to the mountains, the bears will get you."

I shouldn't tell the old stories about the Utes now," says Bertha Grove, "or it will snow." She purses her lips and shakes her head, which is topped by snow-white hair.

"Legends were never told except in winter when there was nothing else to do," she says. "Then you had a captive audience because of the snow...Telling stories in the summer is asking for trouble."

It is the day before the Bear Dance officially begins. A hundred Southern Utes and friends have gathered at Ute Park in Ignacio, the Southern Ute reservation capital 24 miles southeast of Durango, to celebrate Chief Ouray Day. Grove, whom Indians and whites alike address as "Grandmother," a term of utmost respect, is one of the speakers who will discuss the importance of teaching young people about their culture and language. She will deliver her speech in Ute.

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