Sage Remington

Return of the Native

Sage Douglas Remington marches to a different drummer. A Southern Ute drummer these days--but that's just one of the beats that's driven him over the years.

Remington, 48, came to activism early in life. "My father worked very hard and taught me the value of hard work and to also be accountable," he recalls.

But it was his mother, a tribal judge and a council member, who instilled the idea in her son that he had a responsibility to help those less fortunate than himself. "She believed I should know more about other cultures," Remington says. "She made it sound so enticing, I wanted to go."

And go he did, joining the Peace Corps in 1967 and working with isolated Indian groups in Colombia. "It reinforced my parents' belief that it was important for me to see these things in my life's journey so I would have a better understanding of what I was supposed to do," he says.

In 1969, then a Marxist attending the University of California at Berkeley, Remington joined a new organization called United Indians of All Tribes. Meeting with other young Indians, he discovered shared concerns that their culture and spirituality were dying on the reservations. "We wanted to do something," he remembers, "to shout to the world that we were still alive and strong."

They got their message across by taking over Alcatraz, the abandoned penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. Living off the trust fund awarded to all Southern Utes, Remington stayed on Alcatraz for two years. While on the island, he and three other protesters founded a school for Indian children.

But Alcatraz was just the first reverse land grab for Remington. Along with other Indian activists, he "captured" land that was unused by the University of California at Davis, creating a Chicano and Indian university. In Seattle he joined a group that reclaimed surplus land from the Army, although not before he was tear-gassed and repeatedly jailed. Ultimately, an Indian museum and child-care center were established on that land. Remington was also involved in the Indian fishing-rights struggle in the Pacific Northwest. While fishing late one night, he narrowly avoided being shot. "A voice told me to duck, and I did--just as a bullet went by my ear and hit the boat," he says. "I believe in the voices that talk to me; to me it means my ancestors believe in what I'm doing." And in the mid-Seventies, Remington joined the American Indian Movement, the most militant Indian-rights group.

But he didn't limit his activism to Indian rights. Remington got involved in gay-rights issues in San Francisco, marched with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, and helped organize the black National Welfare Rights movement.

In 1982, following the death of his lover from AIDS, Remington, who refers to his sexual identity as being a "two-spirited person," returned to the Southern Ute reservation to grieve and decide on his next step in life. He found it when he and a friend asked the tribe for money to improve the tiny local radio station. The station eventually grew into a successful public-radio station that now broadcasts into four states and serves as a model for other Indian stations. While on the reservation, Remington also spearheaded a drive to create a Ute museum in Ignacio and talked tribal elders into reinstating Chief Ouray Days, a time of family gatherings that honors one of the tribe's heroes.

But Remington was restless. He'd developed a drinking problem, which, combined with the loss of his lover, left him directionless. He moved to Denver in the mid-Eighties to sort out his life.

He turned to Four Winds, a new program that was helping Native American alcoholics. Modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, it didn't really address the particular issues that led Indian men to drink, Remington thought. Soon he was the director of the program, which he revised to incorporate Indian spirituality. In the process, he overcame his own "dysfunctionality," he says. "It worked."

Denver's growing Indian population faced other problems, though, such as discrimination in housing, jobs and education. So Four Winds evolved into the Four Winds Survival Project, and its advocacy stretched across racial boundaries. Living Waters, an old church, became the project's spiritual center.

Living Waters also became the local hub for AIM, which would soon be embroiled in the controversy over Denver's traditional Columbus Day Parade. While some members of the group took the hard line--angering the city by pouring blood on a statue of Columbus and eventually stopping the parade altogether--AIM co-founder Russell Means told Remington that his job would be to keep the lines of communication open, to be the diplomat when tempers flared.

That controversy died down just in time for Remington to get involved in the fight against Amendment 2. He was appointed to the board of the Colorado Legal Initiative Project, which eventually took the amendment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and then saw that CLIP continued as a legal-defense fund for gays and lesbians.

At one point Remington was on more boards than he has fingers to count with. The mayor's Gay and Lesbian Advisory Board. The mayor's American Indian Advisory Council, of which he was chairman. The Newsed Community Development Corporation, a predominantly Latino agency. He helped found the organization that developed housing, nonprofit organization offices, shelters for the homeless and mental-health facilities at the abandoned Lowry air base. And he also was one of the organizers of the Community Reinvestment Alliance, which took issue with banks that "red-lined" certain neighborhoods from receiving loans. The group demanded that Wellington Webb pressure the banks by threatening to withdraw city and county monies unless they improved their record of loans to minorities.

Somewhere in all of that, Remington found time to work with Indian AIDS patients, "mostly just to visit and help prepare them for the journey to the spirit world," he says.

In 1995 Remington was awarded the Cinco de Mayo civil rights award from Denver's Latino community. That was followed in 1996 by the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Denver Mayor's Office.

The constant running, lobbying and networking took its toll. Exhausted, Remington returned to the Southern Ute reservation last spring to renew his spirit and energies.

But he soon threw himself into another cause: stopping the Animas-La Plata water project. The initial plan, backed by Colorado's most famous Indian, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, would have cost at least $700 million, with about $50 million coming from Colorado taxpayers and the rest from the federal government. Originally proposed as a way to bring water from the robust Animas River, which runs through Durango, to the drier La Plata for farming and land development, the project was adapted in the mid-Eighties to meet outstanding Indian water-rights agreements. Ever since, A-LP supporters have claimed that it's an Indian project, although the only federally funded part of A-LP wouldn't bring a drop of water to the reservations. Even so, the plan was backed by the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal councils.

Remington believed the project would bankrupt his people, who would be forced to pay for the water once a way to fund its delivery had been established. With a few cohorts and the backing of the tribal elders, he formed the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization. Together with environmentalists and anti-tax and no-growth organizations, which opposed A-LP for their own reasons, SUGO managed to stall construction.

Stalled it for so long, in fact, that the original project has been shelved and replaced by two alternatives: A-LP Lite, which would cost half as much to build and provide much less water, and SUGO's proposed Ute Legacy.

SUGO wants the federal government to establish a trust fund so that the Southern Utes can buy back land along the rivers that was given to whites a century ago; the Ute Mountain Utes could use their share of the money to have water already held in another reservoir delivered to the reservation for far below the cost of A-LP. The Ute Legacy would satisfy Indian water-rights claims without building a costly project that primarily helps land developers in the Durango area, Remington says.

But SUGO's alternative is by no means certain. Governor Roy Romer has endorsed A-LP Lite, as have a number of other politicians and Western Slope development interests. And so these days, Remington seems to spend as much time lobbying lawmakers in Washington, D.C., as he does at his beloved reservation. There, often only an answering machine picks up calls. "Hello in solidarity," answers Remington's voice. "I'm out subverting the dominant paradigm, if you'd like to leave a message...

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