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.

Eight miles north of Durango at tiny Hermosa, the valley tempers its steep descent. Here the sides of the hills are scraped red and raw, their tops flattened into mesas. The trees are scrawnier, with juniper, red cedar and pinon becoming more prominent, and the underbrush recedes into stands of scrub oak on rocky, broken ground. The river, too, has changed. Now it is sluggish, meandering back and forth like an old silt-brown mule heading for the barn.

By the time the Animas reaches Durango, the land is desert. Except, of course, in town, where water allows for deciduous trees and green lawns. Outside of town, the land begs for a drink.

A few miles west of Durango, residents of a new housing development, Durango West, had no choice but to get their water from a farmer who happens to own a lake. They've since gone to court over what they feel are his exorbitant fees. But in this water-starved area, it's a seller's market.

Through this, the Animas-La Plata water project, with all its starts and stops, appears and disappears like a mirage. "People complain that if we build this thing, it's going to cause growth," says attorney Sam Maynes. "Well, we haven't built it, and there's been a hell of a lot of growth. The thing to do is use our resources wisely to be ready for it. Why let it all run downstream so that California gets it?"

The Animas leaves Durango with renewed vigor, and it twists and turns around mesas as it heads into Indian country.

"We have always lived near water," says Annabelle Eagle. "We have always been aware of the cycle. The water flows away and comes back as snow when the Creator sees fit." She closes her eyes and waves her hand back and forth as though she is Sinawaf herding the high cumulus clouds that drift above the reservation.

It is the second day of the Bear Dance, and it's a busy weekend for Eagle. She is responsible for the welcoming prayer to the tribes that have gathered for the pow-wow a few miles to the south. "You join in the circle that gives Indian people their power," she tells them. "What you do is important, more than you know."

That evening, she is to preside over a memorial feast for her granddaughter, Sadie Frost, who was shot and killed a year earlier by three white boys in Durango. They were after the several thousand dollars in tribal trust-fund money a friend of hers had just received on her eighteenth birthday.

Now Eagle is sitting in her old station wagon parked near the Bear Dance grounds. "The snow falls in the mountains," she says. "We have always revered the mountains; they are the source of our strength. The bear lives in the mountains and is our protector. The bear wakes in the spring, the awakening of our spirit."

Suddenly, Eagle sits straighter and her eyes open. "We need to wake up now and see what a crazy mess this water project is," she says. "We have to stop acting like spoiled children and be satisfied before we get into trouble because we want too much."

Eagle knows what it is to get by on almost nothing. Orphaned at age three, she was raised by her maternal grandfather and his elderly sister. "I was your typical little Ute, playing in a creek, speaking only Ute," she recalls, her eyes closed again.

"I credit my grandfather with teaching me to be strong and stick up for myself. I remember him saying, 'You're an orphan, and someday you're going to have to find your own way through life. Be a good person. Don't lie, don't steal. Be observant and seek knowledge.' I've tried to follow that advice my whole life."

When her grandfather grew too old to care for her, Eagle was sent to live in the boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Ignacio. There she was forced to learn English. Speaking her native language was discouraged, "though not as harshly as on some reservations," she recalls. "However, if a white teacher said something and you responded in Ute, they assumed you were saying insulting things, and they would wash your mouth out with lye soap."

Those were the days when the Southern Ute tribe was still poor, its main source of income farming, which was embraced less than enthusiastically by a people only a generation removed from their nomadic ways. "But other tribes looked at us with envy," she says. "Especially because of the seven rivers that ran across the reservation."

It wasn't until the mid-Forties, when Eagle was a wife and mother living in a tiny, two-bedroom government house, that electricity was made available on the reservation; she and her husband added a lean-to to house a new stove.

Eagle first heard about a water project for the Southern Ute reservation sometime in the Fifties, when a woman on the tribal council invited her to a meeting at which Bureau of Reclamation officials discussed the allocation of the waters that ran across Indian lands. "How much for the Southern Utes, how much for the Ute Mountain Ute, how much for the Navajo Nation," she recalls. "The strange thing was, there were no tribal officials there, except her...But then I got busy raising my children and forgot all about water projects."

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