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.

That changed dramatically just a decade later, when gold was discovered in Colorado. The miners tore up the land, polluted the waters and erected their clapboard towns-- including Silverton, near the headwaters of what the Spanish called the River of Lost Souls, which U.S. cartographers shortened to simply the Animas (Souls) River.

In 1863 mining interests in Denver persuaded Congress to push the Utes onto a common reservation representing about 25 percent of their former range. Five years later Ute leaders signed what was called the Kit Carson Treaty, which set aside a 1,500,000-acre reservation in the western part of the state for their "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation."

Among the Utes' most prominent chiefs was Ouray, who counseled his people to remain peaceful or face annihilation. "Long time ago, Utes always had plenty," Ouray said at the time. "On the prairie, antelope and buffalo, so many Ouray can't count. In the mountains, deer and bear everywhere. In the streams, trout, duck, beaver, everything. Good Manitou gave all to red man: Utes happy all the year. White men came, now Utes go hungry a heap. Only strong brave live, white man grow a heap; red man no grow. Soon die all."

In 1873, believing they were signing a new treaty that would cede isolated mining areas to appease the white mining influences, the Utes lost the majority of the land that had been given to them in earlier treaties.

Six years later came the Meeker incident. Indian agent Nathan Meeker, who had been assigned to the White River Agency, believed that only stern rules and continuous efforts to turn the Utes into farmers would civilize them. Although their leaders tried to calm them, the horsemen and warriors of the White River Utes finally rebelled when Meeker attempted to plow up their beloved horse-racing track. Meeker and his employees were killed; army troops sent to rescue the agent were pinned down for two days. It was the last major uprising of the so-called Indian Wars, and although the Utes won the battle, they lost the last vestiges of their nomadic life.

The northern Ute bands--the White River and Uncompahgre--were moved to a bleak, arid part of Utah. The southern bands--the Moache, the Capota and the Weminuche--were allowed to remain on the reservation lands along the Colorado-New Mexico border. But at least the land around the Ignacio agency included the traditional winter grounds of the Southern Utes and, more important, was blessed by the presence of seven rivers.

In 1880 Chief Ouray died in Ignacio. For all of his adult life, he had struggled to find a middle ground that would allow Utes to live as they always had while still accommodating the ever-expanding interests of the invaders. He had seen what had happened to the tribes that continued to fight the United States: They lost, and those who survived the battles were shipped off to the most inhospitable regions of the country and forced to live like beggars. He knew that the only hope was to settle down and learn the white people's ways so that the nuche could live alongside them in peace.

When Ouray died, his body was wrapped in blankets and tied to the back of his favorite horse; his people took him to a secret place in the mountains where he was buried in a crevice and covered with rocks. "The death of Ouray on the 24th of August was a blow from which the Ute nation will never recover," a newspaper reported the next day. "The greatest Indian that ever lived is dead, and there is no one to fill his place."

In 1895 the U.S. government offered the Utes, who now numbered only about 2,000, a new deal: 160 acres to the head of every household on the reservation. Most of the Moache and Capota bands accepted the offer and settled on land around Ignacio, now the Southern Ute reservation. Severo, the leader of the Weminuche, declared that "the land belongs to all," in keeping with the principle of traditional communal living. He and his followers moved to the reservation lands in the southwestern corner of the state. That became the home of the Ute Mountain Ute, a reservation with so little potable water that it had to be brought in.

Seeing that there was still unclaimed land on the Southern Ute reservation, the U.S. government opened it up to homesteaders. Today, of the reservation's 720,000 acres, 4,000 have been allotted to tribal members and another 308,000 held in the tribal trust; the rest is held by government agencies or privately owned by non-Indians. (Because their lands were owned communally, the Ute Mountain Utes never experienced the same theft. Then again, their lands were not as valuable.)

Bertha Grove was born on the reservation and raised in a tepee by her grandparents. Her grandfather, a Sun Dance chief and what whites would call a medicine man, taught her to love nature and the mountains that were kan-ne-ga--a staying place, or home, for the people. He also taught her a special reverence for water.

"We call it Grandmother Water," says Grove. "The giver of life. All things--the plants, the insects, all that creep or crawl or walk or fly, the fishes and the bear--nothing lives without water."

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