The wind people tug violently at the white flag above the corral's only entrance--on the east side, as is proper. The flag proclaims that this is the Southern Ute Bear Dance in Ignacio, Colorado.
The first few vendors have erected their tables outside the corral. Kiowa neck chokers. Navajo silver. Ute beadwork. The smell of Indian fry bread wafts from a trailer advertising buffalo burgers and buffalo burritos. But none of these outfits is doing the business of the two white women in a garish yellow hut selling cheap plastic toys to Indian children who come to them with crumpled dollar bills in their small brown hands.
Most of the cars in the parking lot adjacent to the grounds are recent models, a testament to the relative affluence of the Southern Utes compared with other tribes--even their cousins, the Ute Mountain Utes, just to the west. Natural gas under the Southern Ute reservation pays for cars, college educations, houses, quarterly dividends. But everyone knows that the real wealth of the Southern Utes flows through the seven rivers that cut across the resevation, a 15-by-73-mile rectangle of land on the Colorado-New Mexico border. The Mancos. Los Pinos. The Florida (pronounced Flo-REE-da). The Piedra and the San Juan. The Animas and La Plata.
Animas. La Plata. In a land that looks thirsty, water is a precious commodity, something to fight for...and over.
It's early yet, just after lunch on the Saturday before Memorial Day, and only a few dozen people have arrived. More will come later in the evening, after the intertribal pow-wow and dance contests are finished at the horse-training facility south of town. Most of the early arrivals drift toward the corral, whose dance grounds have been obscured by dozens of cut cedar trees stacked around the perimeter. A deep sawing rumbles from somewhere within, a monotonous cadence that burrows through the skin and into the bones.
Inside the corral, sitting beneath a brush shelter on the west side, a half-dozen men vigorously rub sticks and deer bones up and down notched staffs called moraches. The moraches are the source of the sound. In the old days, they would have been placed on a hollow log in order to create the resonant buzz that fills the air. But today the staffs rest on top of a wooden tub covered with corrugated aluminum, and the sound is amplified by microphones.
The men begin to sing in time with the moraches, a high wailing chant. The words flow together like drops of water in a stream. It is a song about the awakening earth, the courtship between men and women, the beginning of the Ute life cycle.
Many generations ago, according to one version of the legend, a Ute hunter came upon a great bear sleeping in a cave high in the Colorado mountains. It was late spring, yellow taman--the season of infancy and fresh starts--and long past time for the bear to have come out of hibernation. Fearing that the animal would starve if he slept any longer, the hunter woke the beast.
In gratitude, the bear invited the man to a gathering of bears that danced in the forest. Standing on their hind legs, the bears growled their way up to the trees, scratching them to sharpen their claws before backing away and then repeating the procedure.
The bears taught the hunter the dance and the song that went with it. He was told to return to his people--the nuche, as they called themselves then--and teach them the dance. So the hunter made a morache to imitate the growls and scratching of the bears at their trees. (Some tellings of the story claim that the sound still awakens bears from their slumber.) And ever since, as the snow begins to melt in the high valleys, the Utes have left their winter lodgings and gathered to show respect for their guardian spirit by holding a Bear Dance, the mama-kwa-nhkap.
On the women's side of the corral, four teenage girls in dresses, moccasins and bright shawls talk together. The Bear Dance is a ladies'-choice affair, and the girls are eyeing two teenage boys wearing the urban uniform of baggy trousers, oversized T-shirts, basketball sneakers and baseball caps over hair that's been shaved on the sides. As the singers make the moraches growl, the girls trot over and flick their shawls at the boys in an invitation to dance.
The girls line up in the center of the corral, facing the singers. When the music stops, the boys join them and the music starts again. The girls take two steps forward and three back as the boys move forward and then back, imitating the dance of the bears as their feet stir up the soft brown dust of the dancing ground. Young, these dancers are tentative, their movements shy. Later, the older girls and women--dresses and shawls required--will select from the men, most of whom wear cowboy hats and boots and new blue jeans, some with their hair long in the old way, others with white-man haircuts. Then the lines will flow back and forth with greater vigor, with the women always facing the singers and the men facing the east. The growling of the moraches will go on until at least the evening of the second day, until someone falls. Then everyone will gather for a feast of stew, Indian bread, corn, potatoes and watermelon.
"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.
"There are many theories about how the Utes came to be here," she says now in English. "Siberian land bridges and all that...but my grandfather used to say that we have always been here.
"Only we were over in the mountains," she adds, sweeping her hand to indicate the purple shadows of the San Juan range. "This land here is where the Anasazi were. We traveled across it and stayed here sometimes in the winter. All the Colorado mountains, down even to Santa Fe and north into Utah...this was our territory."
The Utes, the nuche, were never many in number. But their language was related to that of several other tribes, including the Shoshone to the north in Wyoming and nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs to the south in Mexico--which helps give substance to Ute claims that they were here long before other tribes, such as the Navajo and Arapaho.
They lived in small bands of extended families rather than in the larger communities of the agriculture-based Pueblo Indians or the bison-hunting Plains Indians. Avid traders with the tribes to the north and the Pueblos to the south, they exchanged meat and hides for agricultural products like corn and melons. Carrying all of their possessions, they followed the deer and elk on foot into the high country during the summer and back down to the lower elevations in the winter.
They made wickiups--a sort of lean-to built onto a tree, some of which can still be spotted by sharp-eyed hikers in the high country--at their camps, which they usually established on hilltops near springs or streams. "When we make our prayers in the morning, we drink a cup of water and give thanks for the living waters," says Grove.
Since life expectancy was not much more than thirty years, longevity was a sign of success, and elders were revered as both teachers and counselors. They served as living libraries. They knew where to find animals in times of scarcity, where to camp by the sweetest water. They knew who were friends of the nuche and who were enemies, what mistakes had been made in the past and how to avoid them in the future.
For centuries, life changed little for the nuche. During good weather, there were small wars and raids between the tribe and the Arapaho, who often came west into the mountains, and the Navajo, who dealt in the slave trade. When the warriors returned, the women would sing scalp songs, scolding the hair of the vanquished enemies for daring to come into Ute territory. In the winter, the families would sit around the fire and tell stories as the winds howled like wolves outside the wickiups.
Then spring would come, and the nuche would emerge from their winter lodges ready to celebrate with the Bear Dance.
Although their travels might take them as far as they could walk in a season, loosely organized bands came to consider certain areas their own: northern Colorado and Utah for the White River Utes, the central Colorado mountains for the Uncompahgre Utes. The Southern Utes--including the Moache, the Capota and the Weminuche bands--roamed southwest Colorado, northern New Mexico and parts of southern Utah.
It was the Southern Utes who first met the Spaniards. In the early 1600s the Spanish, who'd moved into New Mexico decades earlier, were still looking for lost cities of gold and silver. Although they didn't find any precious metals in the possession of the Stone Age people they called the yutas, the yutas coveted something the Spaniards had: horses.
The Spanish forbade Utes from owning horses--but that didn't prevent the Utes from stealing them at night. The next morning they'd sell the worst horses back to their owners and keep the best for themselves.
The European invaders had treated most of the civilizations they encountered harshly, from the Aztecs to the Pueblos. But they were less successful imposing their will on the Utes. Ultimately, the Spaniards left the nuche alone except as trading partners and guides. For their part, the Utes were willing to live and let live so long as the newcomers recognized that this was Ute country.
The horse forever changed the Ute way of life. The nuche could now travel longer distances--to the plains to hunt buffalo or to the south to visit allies like the Jicarilla Apache. Because they no longer needed to spend so much time moving from camp to camp to follow deer and elk, the women were able to spend more time on activities such as beadwork, much of which they picked up from the Plains Indians.
But the increased travel brought the Utes into more frequent conflict with their ancient enemies, such as the Comanche, who now also had horses and could raid Ute territory. For both protection and manpower-intensive efforts such as buffalo-hunting, the Utes began living in larger communities. Suddenly, there was a need for a bureaucracy of chiefs--hunt chiefs, war chiefs, peace chiefs. The elders were still influential and respected but subordinate to the new leaders.
In 1848 the United States wrested the Southwest from Mexico, determined to protect its new lands from claims of the Spanish, French, British and Russians. The Utes, who now numbered about 8,000, recognized the jurisdiction of the United States, but still were able to wander freely through the mountains.
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."
Grove tended to her grandfather at Sun Dances, bringing him sage and the towels dancers use to refresh themselves at daybreak and sunset. And although he was a man known to converse with the spirits, she was destined to have her own experiences with the spirit world.
The first time, she was a young girl, tending sheep. It was a hot day, and she had fallen asleep under a tree when the spirit came to her. It had no real form, but it was a shimmering presence whose voice she heard in her mind. The voice offered her the gift of foresight if she would follow the path it had chosen for her. Frightened, Grove wanted no part of the gift, and the spirit left.
She was a young woman with babies when the spirit came again and repeated the offer. "I am still too young; maybe later," she said.
The third time she was in her late twenties. Something was horribly wrong with her health. Her hands were wracked by arthritis and she could hardly walk because of a pain in her right leg. She had been having dreams of dancing in the Sun Dance--confusing dreams, because Utes did not allow women to participate as dancers in the religious event. But the dreams continued.
Then the spirit returned. Again Grove said she was not ready. "My children still need me," she said, knowing that to answer the call of the spirits was to dedicate much of one's life to their instructions. "Wait until my hair turns white."
Many years later, on Chief Ouray Day, she laughs. "The spirit left but played a trick on me," she says. "By the next year, my hair had turned white. I was only about thirty years old."
That year, 1959, she answered the call to the Sun Dance. In order to accomplish this, she and her husband traveled north to Idaho to the lands of the Shoshone, cousins to the Utes. "My husband approached the Shoshone Sun Dance chief and asked for me," she recalls. "He said sure. Shoshone women were allowed to dance."
For the next three days Grove went without food and water while she danced with the Shoshone women and prayed for her people. As she danced, the pain in her leg and hands disappeared. "It really wasn't so bad," she says of the ordeal. "The only thing I really missed was a cup of coffee that I could smell from the camp."
Sun Dancers make four-year commitments, and for the next three years, Grove returned to the Shoshone. And the spirit made other requirements, including the admonition that, rain or shine, she was to wear no shoes other than moccasins during those four years.
After the fourth year, Grove returned home from Idaho and insisted that women be allowed to dance at the Ute ceremony. Some in the community resisted: It would bring bad luck, they said. But in the end, Eddie Box Sr., then the Sun Dance chief, relented.
At that, the spirit left her its blessing. Exactly what that blessing was, Grove won't say. "That," she says with a wry smile, "is a secret between me and my spirit. You can read all the books you want about Indians and think you know all the answers, but we never tell everything, we never give away our main essence. That is sacred."
Grove continued to Sun Dance until a few years ago. Today she still follows the path set for her by her spirit guide. And the spirits, she says, are troubled by the Animas-La Plata water project.
When she was still a little girl, her grandfather told her about white surveyors who had come to the reservation to chart all the springs and streams they could find.
"If you know about a secret spring, don't tell," he warned her. "Someday they'll be fighting over the water. Someday you will have to pay for every drop."
Grove stops and shakes her white head. "We're at that time."
On a recent video produced by opponents of the water project, Animas La Plata...At What Cost?, Grove asks, "Who speaks for the water? In the prophecies it says that whatever happens to the water...that is what is going to happen to the human beings."
Grove explains, "I'd had a dream where the spirit of the water came to me and said, 'Pray for me. Pray for the water that nurtures and must flow to live, ever renewing.' When you stop water from flowing with a dam, it becomes dead water."
In April the committee of elders, an advisory group on cultural and senior affairs for the elected tribal council, signed on to a letter sent by the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization, the Indian group opposing the project, to the Congress, declaring the project "a hoax that will not benefit our people; instead, it will enrich a small number of non-Indian farmers and developers at enormous taxpayer expense." The letter concluded by asking Congress to "refuse to provide further funds for A-LP until the Bureau of Reclamation thoroughly studies other alternatives."
The tribal council reacted angrily. In a letter responding to the elders' action, the council said the group was advisory only and had no right to act without first consulting the council.
Grove was among the elders who signed the protest to Congress. "This is just the way I feel, but I have to be careful. It is a sore subject around here," she says, nodding toward a short brown man in a white cowboy hat and Western-cut jacket. "My brother is on the other side.
"He's Leonard Burch, the tribal chairman."
By a small monument to Chief Ouray, "who died near this spot," Leonard Burch is locked in conversation with Judy Knight-Frank, the chairwoman of the Ute Mountain Utes. She's angry about continued opposition to the water project coming from such groups as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Colorado Rivers Alliance, anti-development factions in Durango and, even more irritating, the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization.
In its latest incarnation, the Animas-La Plata project is designed to be built in two phases. The first will create a pumping station on the Animas that will take 157,000 acre-feet of water per year out of the river, pump it hundreds of feet uphill and dump it into a yet-to-be-built reservoir called Ridges Basin. An off-stream site for the reservoir, nearly ten miles from the nearest Ute lands, was selected to avoid getting into a debate with environmentalists over plugging one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West.
The Bureau of Reclamation estimates the construction costs of the first phase at $551 million--all federal tax dollars. Opponents of the project, including Phil Doe, a former bureau official hired as a consultant by the Colorado Rivers Alliance, contend it could cost three times that amount, if cost overruns on other Southwestern water projects are any indication.
Although the Animas-La Plata project has been billed by its proponents as the fulfillment of government promises to the Utes concerning water rights, the two camps disagree on exactly what this first phase will accomplish for the Utes. Under the 1988 water-rights agreement, the Southern Utes have been assigned 26,500 acre-feet of water per year for municipal and industrial use, and 12,000 acre-feet for irrigation; the Ute Mountain Utes are assigned 6,000 acre-feet of water for municipal and industrial use, and another 3,000 for irrigation.
Longtime Southern Ute tribal lawyer Sam Maynes Sr. says that when completed, Phase I will deliver all the Southern Ute water--both municipal and industrial, and irrigation. Because the water-rights agreement only guaranteed the Ute Mountain Utes a storage facility, he says, completing Phase I fulfills state and federal obligations.
But Doe contends that not only does Phase I fail to deliver a drop of water to the Ute Mountain Utes, it will provide none of the municipal and industrial water and only some of the irrigation water promised the Southern Utes. Most of the water delivered under Phase I, he says, will go to non-Indian farmers on the western "dryside," where the tiny La Plata River runs, as well as to land development and municipal interests in and around Durango. Even Leonard Burch, Maynes's boss, concedes that Phase I only stores his tribe's water.
Delivery of most of the Indian water--as well as the water promised to municipalities in southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico--would occur under Phase II. But there are no federal funds committed to this second phase...and no obligation to provide them. The bureau's estimated cost of $159 million for Phase II would apparently fall on the shoulders of Colorado taxpayers, who are already obligated by the water-rights settlement to commit $60 million; other potential beneficiaries of the project, including the State of New Mexico, appear to be backing out. And under Amendment I, Colorado taxpayers would have to vote to finance more of Phase II--a far-from-sure bet.
Faced with such economic realities, even the project's proponents concede that Phase II will probably never be built. If the Utes want the water delivered, they may have to pay for it themselves.
But that prospect doesn't daunt Knight-Frank. The Ute Mountain Utes remained isolated from the rest of the world much longer than their cousins to the east; only in the past twenty years have they exchanged their traditional chief system for a tribal council, and they are still playing catch-up when it comes to developing their own natural resources--hindered in part by the lack of water. Until recently, when a pipeline was built from Cortez to Towaoc, the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, water had to be trucked in and stored in cisterns. Even with the pipeline, though, there's not enough water available to settle other parts of the reservation, and most of the population has to remain in Towaoc.
"We want to know the water's there," Knight-Frank says. "Then we will find a way to get it to our land." For starters, she says, the tribe could use some of the money it earns from its casino.
"People opposed to this are very shortsighted," she adds. "It's been very frustrating to have people who don't have to live under the conditions we do tell us they know what's best for us."
Knight-Frank and Maynes, representing the Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Utes, will head to Washington, D.C., after Chief Ouray Day to lobby Congress to support the Clinton administration's proposed $10 million appropriation that would finish the environmental statements on the project and get it rolling.
It's been a long time coming. A water project for the Utes in southern Colorado was first discussed in the 1950s, when government surveyors came to the area and tried to quantify how much of the 500,000 acre-feet of water that flow through the Animas every year belonged to the Utes. That was during the tenure of Leonard Burch's father, Sam Burch.
Ever since the days of Ouray and then Chief Buckskin Charlie, the Southern Utes had been criticized by other tribes--and even the more recalcitrant members of their own--for adapting too easily to the ways of the white man. But forward-looking leaders contended that the best way to ensure the culture and independence of the tribe was to learn the white man's ways so that the Southern Utes would be financially and politically poised to determine their own future.
Sam Burch was the first to urge the Southern Utes to wrest control of their natural resources from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and buy back reservation land from white settlers.
"My dad told me that a real leader sees the needs of the people, not only in the present but the future," Leonard Burch recalls. "He stressed the importance of protecting our precious natural resources. To work with the elders and to stress to our youth the importance of education. I have done my best to do that."
And the Southern Utes had a lot to work with. Although the U.S. government didn't know it at the time they deeded over the land, the Southern Ute reservation contained huge reservoirs of natural gas and extensive coal beds. In the Fifties and into the next decade, outside companies leased the rights to the gas resources and paid the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which maintained the tribe's accounts.
That changed in the fall of 1966, when Leonard Burch was elected to the tribal council, which in turn appointed him chairman. Under his leadership, the council demanded--and received--the right to handle their own natural resources, including negotiating the leases, receiving the payments and even establishing their own natural-gas production plant. Leonard Burch contracted with a young Durango attorney, Frank "Sam" Maynes Sr., to help handle the legal end.
One of Burch's other profitable investments was the hiring of a young man to manage the Southern Utes' horse-training facility. His name was Ben Campbell. A former U.S. Olympic judo-team member, Campbell had bought property near Ignacio, where he raised horses and made jewelry.
Years later Campbell told Burch that he'd been asked by the local Democrats to run for the Colorado legislature. "We've always donated to his campaigns," he says.
The money was well-spent. As a state legislator, Campbell supported a number of bills beneficial to the Utes. After he added a name, Nighthorse, and moved on to Congress, he was able to promote casino gaming on the reservations--the Southern Utes rake in a considerable amount of cash at their Sky Ute Casino--and the water-rights settlement.
"Now he's in the U.S. Senate," Burch says, "and whenever I go to Washington, I look him up and he always says, 'How'm I doin', boss? I doin' all right?'"
Some of Burch's decisions weren't immediately popular. At one point he stopped distributing the profits from gas revenues and instead insisted that the money be invested. Once the investments were profitable, he said, tribal members would receive dividends--much like stockholders in a corporation--leaving the principle intact.
As a result, the Southern Utes have been able to establish a college education fund that will pay for the education of any enrolled tribal member. Also, from the time a child is born and enrolled on the tribal scrolls, dividends totaling as much as a few thousand dollars a quarter are placed in trust for that child. They're then paid out in three stages: at ages 18, 21 and 25. Adults also receive quarterly dividends, which can total as much as $10,000 a year. There are low-interest tribal loan programs and even death benefits that will pay up to $10,000 to bring the remains of tribal members back to the reservation for burial. And, of course, each new head of a household is entitled to 160 acres of land.
Today even former skeptics agree that Burch's investment strategy was the wisest course, and he's been rewarded with their votes.
Except for a gap from 1984 to 1987 when Burch was out of office--forced to take a hiatus because of a 1975 change in the Southern Ute constitution that prohibits more than three consecutive three-year terms--he has been the recognized leader of the Southern Utes for three decades. And he was back in power in time to preside as the tribal chairman when Congress approved the Indian Water Rights Settlement Act negotiated between the tribes, the feds and the State of Colorado.
Initially authorized by Congress in 1968 as an irrigation project, in 1987 the Animas-La Plata project was adapted to meet Ute water claims for the Animas. Older water projects completed two decades ago had created reservoirs on the Florida River and the Piedras, both of which supply water to Southern Ute lands. But under the terms of the water-rights agreement, the tribe was entitled to more.
Before they would support the Animas-La Plata project, however, the lower basin states of New Mexico, Arizona and California forced the Utes to agree not to sell their water to out-of-state, downstream interests. "We had to bite the bullet on that one," Burch says. "But it was worth it." The Utes also agreed not to take their water claims to court--so long as the project is completed by the year 2000.
But getting the agreement past Congress and the lower basin states turned out to be the easy part. Since then the project has faced numerous delays, including environmental challenges and even an audit report from the Interior Department's inspector general that concluded the project was neither financially feasible nor economically justifiable. The final environmental impact statement from the Environmental Protection Agency is due at the end of July; it could either open the door to construction or slam it firmly shut.
And on the Southern Ute reservation itself, the project has had some rough times. Two years ago Burch and the tribal council faced a recall election; opponents of Animas-La Plata claim the vote centered on the water project. Burch and Maynes deny this, saying the recall attempt was inspired by a general dissatisfaction with the tribal leadership. "From people who weren't getting their way," Burch adds. The tribe split down the middle. Burch and the council were retained--after Maynes determined that a vote cast against the council by proxy was not constitutionally acceptable.
Burch and the council still have their staunch supporters. Last November Nighthorse Campbell attacked opponents of the project, calling them liars, cowards and backstabbers. The senator then tried to introduce language to the funding bill that would insulate the project from future environmental challenges. Threatened with a White House veto, though, Congress revised the measure so that it only urged the Interior Department to proceed without delay.
Even if Phase II is never completed, Burch says, Phase I is still a good deal for the Southern Utes. For example, the tribe could sell its share of the stored water within the state, particularly to Durango developers. Durango, one of the fastest-growing cities in the Southwest, has only a ten-day supply of water in its reservoir. It has already signed up for its own water from the Animas-La Plata project, but as realtor signs sprout up in all directions, it's obvious that water, or the lack of it, is the only thing preventing the Durango boom from turning into a developers' bonanza.
Burch is also convinced that "something can be worked out" with the lower basin states to allow the Utes to market their water downstream. And that someday, somehow, the water can be brought to the reservation. "We have young people who want their assignment of land so that they can raise livestock," he says. "But they need water for that, and there's not enough."
This fall the Southern Utes will elect a new chairman. Burch is about to complete his third consecutive term and cannot run again. But he's not particularly looking forward to retirement. "I'll probably do some things around the house my wife has been wanting me to do for the past thirty years," he says. "I sure am going to miss politics."
Burch believes Animas-La Plata will be the major issue in the upcoming election, and he's troubled that he won't be in a position to see the water project through to completion.
"I wake up at night sometimes," he says, "and wonder, 'What's going on here? What's going to happen to the people?'"
High in the sharp gray peaks of the Uncompahgre primitive area in southwest Colorado, snowflakes fall from clouds formed a thousand miles away off the coast of California. Melted by the sun, the snowflakes turn into drops of water that join to form a thin, quick-silver trickle across a face of granite.
The trickle merges with others that run from every ravine and seep between multihued layers of seemingly impenetrable rock walls. By the time it passes the Weminuche Wilderness, the trickle has become a stream that leaps and bucks like a colt new to the saddle. It prances past the old mining town of Silverton, which has found a new life as a tourist destination, and hurries past the long abandoned diggings.
The stream is now identifiable on maps as a tributary of the Animas River. The River of Lost Souls. The lost souls of conquistadors, miners, trappers and the Utes who once called this area home, kan-ne-ga, but were forced to move on, leaving only their names behind. Uncompahgre. Weminuche. Ouray.
Downward the water snorts and plunges to where the valley widens and the hills slump down to the river. Cool mists cling to the upper reaches of the valley, even in late spring. The underbrush is thick, and the silver-trunked, satin-skinned aspen are huge compared with their cousins in other parts of the state. The coniferous forest looks like it belongs in the Pacific Northwest rather than the arid Southwest.
Twenty miles north of Durango along Highway 550, the forest has been carved out to allow for gated mansions and rows of townhomes. Soon golf courses and new housing projects appear; sprinklers spew the Animas into the air. Although a few ranches continue to operate along the river, the land is stabbed repeatedly with For Sale signs.
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."
Most Southern Utes had no idea what the council and chairman Leonard Burch were getting them into when the water-rights agreement was finally reached a decade ago, Eagle says. After generations of forced reliance on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal members had simply transferred that blind faith to the council and were rewarded with a vastly improved standard of living and the trust-fund money. "Sometimes there is such a thing as giving people too much," she says. "They get lazy and spoiled."
Burch, she says, began his political career as a young idealist whose vision of prosperity for his people helped give them everything they could want. But for the water project, he made the mistake of trusting a white man. "Sam Maynes," Eagle says, in a tone usually reserved for epithets.
Eagle began looking into the project when her son, Sage Douglas Remington, who'd started the public radio station on the reservation, began airing critical programs in the early Eighties. "Up until then," she says, "we were kept pretty much in the dark. All we heard was the government was building something to give us more water and everyone would be happy."
Now a member of both the committee of elders and the Southern Ute Grassroots Organization (SUGO), which her son helped found, Eagle says "common sense" tells her that the only people the water project will benefit are white farmers and land developers.
"When we completed the original environmental impact study in 1979, it was an irrigation project for dryside farmers," says Phil Doe, who was then head of the bureau's reclamation law division in Salt Lake City. "But the feeling, at least in Salt Lake, was that it would never be built. Irrigation projects no longer had any swag in Congress.
"The only way to get it done was to, as we say, 'wrap it in an Indian blanket.' Suddenly, it was an 'Indian' project."
Doe is now working with the Colorado Rivers Alliance, which opposes the project. According to his calculations, of the 115,000 acre-feet of water captured by Animas-LaPlata for irrigation, three-fourths would go to non-Indian farmers.
Eagle doesn't believe the dryside farmers want the water for irrigation. "I think they want it to increase the value of their property for land development," she says.
SUGO contends that the tribal council sold out the tribe on the advice of Maynes, who also represents several water districts in the Durango area. But Burch defends his longtime attorney and friend, pointing out that Maynes has stepped aside and doesn't represent the tribe on water issues so as to avoid any conflict of interest. (Critics, noting Maynes's lobbying trip to D.C., say he isn't as removed as he and Burch assert.)
"SUGO pounds their drums and says, 'We need to look at alternatives,'" Burch says angrily. "We looked at alternatives a long time ago, and this is the best way.
"SUGO is in the hip pocket of the Sierra Club; they're the ones being run around by white people. These are a bunch of people who just want to accept 'big wampum'--big money--now for themselves without looking to the future."
Maynes thinks that elders like Eagle were "taken advantage of" by Sage Remington and councilmember Ray Frost, who opposes the project and is expected to run for the chairmanship on that platform. "I'm not angry at the elders," he says. "They're poor people who were fed a lot of baloney by younger members of the tribe. That they would sink to those depths just hurts their credibility. If you talked to the elders who signed that letter, you would find out that they don't have a clue what Animas-La Plata is about."
According to Maynes, there's no chance that the water will be used by white developers rather than farmers. "By law, that water can only be used for irrigation," he says.
And on that, Doe agrees--to a point. "The bureau has been very lax in the past about watching out for that sort of profiteering," he says. "That's 'unjust enrichment.' A change in purpose for the water would mean they would have to pay a different, much more expensive, rate for the water."
Doe quit the bureau after a series of run-ins with his superiors over his outspoken opposition to several projects, including Animas-La Plata. "It's a monument to old nineteenth-century thinking when agriculture and real estate controlled natural resources," he says. "It's the old mindset of get somebody, namely the taxpayers, to bankroll private enterprise. And the bureau wants it because it preserves their infrastructure of a bunch of engineers who build big dams. And I think the Ute Mountain Utes want it because they have a big construction company over there and see a lot of short-term potential."
If past water project overruns are any indication, this one will end up costing taxpayers $2 billion, Doe predicts. And even if it comes in at the bureau estimate, he says, it will still drive the Utes into debt.
Here's why: Once they begin using the water, the Utes must start paying their share of the cost. Using bureau figures, Doe calculates that the two tribes could incur debts of at least $900 million for the municipal water, which must be repaid within fifty years. Because Animas-La Plata water carries such a fierce price tag, Doe says, the Utes won't be able to sell it to help with the debt. The Utes won't be asked to repay any of the costs for providing irrigation water--estimated at about $300 million of the project's overall $710 million price tag. And Maynes and Burch both hurry to point out that the Utes don't have to pay anything unless--and until--they start using the water.
"Common sense tells me that we are going to throw our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren into something they will never be able to pay back," Eagle says. That's why the elders spoke out against the project, assuming their traditional role as leaders whose advice should have been at least respected by the council. But the council didn't listen.
"There was a time any tribal member could go to the council and harangue them with no repercussions," Eagle says. "But you can't talk to the council anymore. If you speak out, you get blacklisted...They take it out on your family. They're no longer eligible for jobs, or they're fired for the slightest reason, or they're overlooked for promotion.
"Somebody's going to make a lot of money off of this water project, but it's not going to be us."
The wind people send the dust devils dancing like the ghosts of Ute warriors across the hallowed Sun Dance grounds north of Ignacio. Sage Remington can almost hear the drums pulsing and the sunrise prayer song of his people as they greet the new day.
But for now, the vast grounds, large enough to hold several football fields, are empty of other humans. In the distance, mountains hover and waver like mirages in the warmth of the afternoon. A green line of cottonwood trees on the far side of the grounds marks the course of Los Pinos.
"I can see the children, a horde of them going to the river to bathe. I can hear their voices," Remington says softly, although where he looks there is only the flat, trodden surface of the earth and the trees, and the only voices are those of songbirds.
The pole frames of shade huts ring the area. During the four days of the dance, they will be covered with cottonwood branches to shade the members of the tribe who attend to support the dancers. Circular marks in the grass show where their tepees stood.
"I come here and instantly feel as though I've been thrown back two hundred years," says Remington, a Ute activist who spends most of his days in Denver. "This is a powerful place for us...a holy place."
Within the circle of shade huts stands another circle, perhaps thirty to forty yards across, defined by the trunks of large aspen trees set upright in the ground. A sort of arboreal Stonehenge, it is the Sun Dance lodge.
Inside the larger circle is another composed of smaller poles about three feet apart. "They mark the stalls where the dancers rest standing," Remington says. "They're put up on the third day to lean against."
In the center of the circles is a large, Y-shaped cottonwood trunk, perhaps thirty feet high, that has been cut down, shorn of its branches and erected here. "In the old days, they would have gone out, selected a tree, and then one of the elders would shoot it with an old musket...symbolic of shooting a Comanche warrior," Remington says. "Then everyone would count coup on it and the sap that came from the wound, the life force, would have been collected in an old calvary cup and used to bless oneself."
In 1976, long past the days of raids and scalp songs, representatives of the Utes and Comanches gathered in Ignacio and signed a peace treaty. And still, perhaps because there is so much to be learned from a respected enemy, the Utes can't quite let go. "There's still a doll that gets passed around to different Ute Sun Dances--it's a little magic stolen from the Kiowas," Remington laughs. "And sometimes they bring out an old conquistador's breastplate to hang on the tree."
During the dance, the lodge is enclosed with boughs of cottonwood--except for the entrance on the east, facing the rising sun. The drummers sit near this opening, with the women singers sitting on reed mats near them. A bundle of sage and a buffalo skull are placed in the crook of the cottonwood tree, which has been girded with two stripes of brick red and black; four pennants representing the sacred colors of the Utes--yellow, red, black and white--hang from the top.
For four days the dancers, blowing on whistles made of eagle bones to summon the spirits, shuffle-dance to the pole and then back to the edge of the circle. They are allowed neither food nor water for the duration. Elders of the tribe stand at the pole, reminding the dancers why they're there. Outside the lodge, family members and friends urge the dancers on. "When it gets really hot and the dancers falter, the drummers will play a song to refresh them or to bring the wind or clouds for shade," says Remington, a dancer himself.
The drums pound and the dancers move back and forth like a tide until sundown. At night they rest briefly while praying for the strength to go on; each morning at sunrise they gather at the pole to pray to the sun, after which they will be given two hours to refresh themselves with moist towels. "By the second day, the poisons are really starting to come out of your body, and it's like you're moving in a trance," says Remington. At some point, the dancers hope to have a vision, some sign from the spirits offering guidance that they will take to the elders to ponder and decipher.
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."
Remington is also active in gay- and minority-rights issues and Democratic Party politics in Denver. In 1995 he was awarded the Cinco de Mayo civil rights award by the Latino community; this year he was given the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award presented by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Denver Mayor's Office.
But the fight that consumes him these days is four hundred miles away, on the land he calls home. It is the fight over the Animas-La Plata project. Remington first began to worry about the water-rights agreement and what it would mean financially to his tribe in the 1980s, when he was still with the radio station. But it wasn't until a year and a half ago, while talking with other concerned tribal members, that he decided something needed to be done on a proactive level, "rather than wait for it to hit us in the face down the road." That's when he and his friends formed the Southern Utes Grassroots Organization.
Burch scoffs at the idea that SUGO represents much of his tribe. "I went to one of the meetings of those opposed to the project," he says. "There was a hundred people there, but I could count the number of tribal members on two hands. These guys are just puppets."
Remington laughs at Maynes's suggestion that he is in the hip pocket of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and other white-run groups that oppose the project. "Anybody who knows me, and Sam Maynes certainly does, knows I'm in no one's hip pocket," he says. "We knew we couldn't stop this big money consortium of land developers, water districts--and I might add water attorneys--and the tribal council by ourselves. But we have our reasons, and the other anti-project opposition has theirs...It just so happens at this point, our objectives mesh."
SUGO and the other opposition groups say they want to put the brakes on the project until other alternatives have been explored. But Burch and Maynes say all those alternatives were studied two decades ago, and dismissed in favor of the current course.
The Animas-La Plata project is a "hell of a good deal" for the Utes, Maynes says. Delays are only driving up the cost, he points out, and could jeopardize more than the budget if the project isn't completed by the year 2000. At that point the Utes could go to court over their water rights, but in doing so they could lose a major portion of the water guaranteed to them by the settlement. The federal and state governments are obligated to meet only agricultural water-rights requirements, not to provide municipal and industrial water as well, he says. With Animas-La Plata, they get all three.
But project opponent Doe says there's plenty of water available for the tribes from projects that have already been built, including dams on the Mancos and Dolores rivers near the Ute Mountain Utes, and at the Navajo Reservoir south of the Southern Utes. Or the government could go with a scaled-down project, dubbed Animas-La Plata Lite, which would build the reservoir on Indian lands and basically serve only the Indians, thus fulfilling government obligations to the tribes. "The problem is that water wouldn't do the land developers around Durango or the dryside farmers any good," Doe says. "So, of course, they start screaming about Indian rights. It's about as two-faced as you can get."
Remington acknowledges that Maynes and his law firm have helped the Southern Utes to develop their natural resources. In fact, the firm recently represented the tribe against oil companies that tried to claim that while the Southern Utes owned the rights to the coal on their land, they did not own the rights to methane gas produced by the coal. The decision on that case is due any day from the Tenth Circuit Court.
But whatever Maynes may have accomplished in the past, Remington says SUGO doesn't trust him now. The debt the tribe would incur as a result of the water project could force them to develop the coal resources on their land in order to meet payments, Remington says. Several years ago the Peabody Coal Company, which Maynes also represents, approached the tribe about developing those coal reserves but was turned down.
"There's no doubt Leonard Burch gave us a good life," Remington says of his uncle. "But there is more to a good life than money...like having a role in your future. The Animas-La Plata will take away that future.
"The bottom line is that for all the rhetoric, not a single drop of water from the Animas-La Plata project will reach Indian country," says Remington. "But we will have this enormous debt to repay, and the taxpayers will be stuck with a bill of at least $710 million. And for what? A few alfalfa farmers and some land developers with dollar signs in their eyes."
SUGO has about 200 active members, Remington says. The total population of the Southern Ute tribe is about 1,500, but he says that if the project were put to a vote, he thinks it would be turned down--although he concedes the vote would be close. SUGO's current strategy is to delay the project at least until this fall's tribal election, when a new, anti-project candidate could be elected.
"It's hard to get people on the reservation involved politically," Remington says. "We have everything. Trust accounts. Employment. Funds for college. New cars. A beautiful place to live.
"But people are waking up. I think we can stop this, if we just have enough time."
On the Sun Dance grounds, Remington stoops to pick up a small cloth bag of tobacco--an offering to the spirits--and a dancer's wreath, which he places at the bottom of the lodge pole.
"The Sun Dance chief should have made sure these were all taken home and burned or buried. Sometimes people who have so much get complacent and take things for granted."
The drums thunder at the Sky Ute Downs pow-wow. Those of the northern tribes are higher pitched, those of the south are lower. Dancers from many tribes have assembled. Oklahoma. Chippewa. Lakota. Navajo. Pueblo. Ute. Small metal cones sewn to the dancers' costumes jangle together in time with the movement--the cones were once made from spent calvary shells gathered at battlefields but today are made from the tin tops of snuff cans.
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An announcement is made. The family of Sadie Frost--grandmother, mother, siblings, aunts and uncles--have requested an honor song in her memory. For a year they have been in mourning, removed from the circle of their community, prohibited by custom from participating in social events.
The family members line up side by side. The drums begin again, pounding like the heartbeat they are meant to represent. As the singers start keening, a sound that conveys more in emotion than words, the family begins moving forward in quiet, bouncing steps.
More than a hundred Indians, Ute and non-Ute, in cowboy hats and eagle bonnets, move toward Sadie Frost's family, one by one shaking hands or hugging, welcoming family members back to the circle of the living. Then they take their places behind the family as the dance moves slowly around the perimeter of the grounds.
Among the Utes who greet the family, there are those who support the Animas-La Plata water project and those who oppose it. But there are no rivers deep enough, or wide enough, or valuable enough, to keep them apart on this day.