Littleton Politics Flare Up Over Land Acknowledgement Controversy

On October 19, Littleton resident Iftin Abshir stepped up to the podium during the Littleton City Council public comment period and put the group on blast.

"I am here since council is either unwilling or unable to engage in a conversation about a land acknowledgment at every meeting," said Abshir, who ran for Littleton City Council in 2019 and served on the Littleton Next Generation Advisory Committee, which was established that same year to collect input from residents between the ages of 16 and 36.

Abshir then read the proposed wording for an acknowledgment: "We honor and acknowledge the land on which we reside is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe peoples. We also recognize the 48 contemporary tribal nations that are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of Colorado. We honor elders past, present, and future and those who have stewarded this land throughout generations. We also recognize that government, academic, and cultural institutions were founded upon and continue to enact exclusions and erasures of indigenous people. May this acknowledgment demonstrate a commitment to dismantle ongoing legacies of oppression and inequalities and recognize the current and future contributions of indigenous communities."

Municipalities across the United States, including Denver, have recently adopted land acknowledgments that are read before public meetings as a way to acknowledge past injustices, honor past and present Indigenous residents, and promise to do better going forward. The one that Abshir read aloud was almost identical to what Denver City Council began reciting before meetings starting in October 2020. At recent Littleton Next Generation Advisory Committee meetings, that group had discussed the possibility of establishing a land acknowledgment for Littleton.

But now the Littleton discussion is on pause. On November 9, all but one of the seven members of Littleton City Council voted to remove Abshir from the Next Generation Advisory Committee.

Abshir's removal had nothing to do with her insistence that the council start meetings with a land acknowledgment, city officials contend, but instead involved the way that she conducted herself at the October 19 meeting.

"During the Public Comment portion of the meeting you accused Council multiple times of being either unwilling or unable to adopt a recommendation by the Next Generation Advisory Committee (“NGAC”) of a Land Dedication Acknowledgement before every meeting. This topic had not been scheduled before City Council to discuss and indeed a majority of Council had no idea what you were referring to. Your insinuation and implications were that City Council was dismissive and racist for failing to adopt a recommendation by the NGAC," Mayor Jerry Valdes wrote in a letter to Abshir, noting that she had made comments later at the October 19 meeting "insinuating and implying that certain members of Council were not honoring their individual commitments and that presumably those statements were just a way to get elected."

Valdes concluded the letter by saying that it was "entirely inappropriate at a public hearing" for Abshir, a  committee member appointed by council, "to be critical of actions that Council has taken or not yet had an opportunity to act upon." And then he added: "It is further entirely inappropriate to impugn the integrity of those that appoint you. Both myself and the Mayor Pro Tem have tried to contact you multiple times to address your actions and our communications have gone unreturned."

Valdes gave Abshir an ultimatum: Resign by November 3 or council would vote to remove her at the November 9 meeting. When Abshir didn't resign, council did just that.

But Abshir didn't go quietly. "I expect a lot from my elected officials," she said during the November 9 public comment period just before the vote to remove her. "Littleton deserves the best from our elected officials. If asking you these questions made you uncomfortable, then that is on you. If you did not want to stand by what you said during the campaign, then you should not have said it. But I, for one, will never stop holding you accountable for your promises to voters."

"I don’t think speaking publicly or passionately should be punished in the City of Littleton," she tells Westword. "Perhaps I was feeling a bit of frustration with what I perceive as the ineffectual actions of council. But again, I do think that this is important. I think that the meeting on November 9 has shown that there are many other people in the community that care about these topics, and care about these people."

Asked about Abshir's removal from the committee, Littleton spokesperson Cathy Weaver sent a statement noting that "false claims and accusations" on October 19 violated the town's boards and commissions protocols and standards of conduct; it also referred to Abshir's "refusal to privately discuss these concerns with Mayor Jerry Valdes and Mayor Pro-tem Scott Melin."

The statement concluded: "Littleton City Council does not take an action like this lightly. However, all board, commission and authority members serve at the pleasure of City Council pursuant to City Charter and can be removed at any time. The Littleton City Council appreciates Mrs. Abshir’s two years of service to the community and wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

Not surprisingly, Abshir disagrees with Valdes's characterization of his attempts to reach out. After reading his texts, she says, "I did feel some hostility coming from the mayor that I didn’t feel was my duty or job to respond or try to make them feel better in any way. I spoke as a private citizen. I don’t believe that I was attacking." Even so, she adds, she planned to contact Valdes and Melin later and set up a time to meet with them. "I don’t know if I had called them back right away that things would have turned out differently," she says now.

Pam Grove does. She's the lone city councilmember who voted against removing Abshir from the committee. "I am distressed, because I think if these conversations would have happened, we would not be in this position," she said during the November 9 council meeting. "Unfortunately, they did not happen because calls were not returned, and I’m sorry to see that we are as a council in this situation."

At the same meeting, Melin opted not to discuss Abshir's conduct, but instead questioned the committee's work on a land acknowledgment statement. “Speaking of erasure, I’ve heard that no one advocating for land acknowledgment has been in communication with the Ute, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, or the Arapahoe," he said. "I hope that if this rises to the level of a conversation, a priority in our community, that we do it at the highest levels and that we do it with our utmost conscientiousness, because the issue is too important to the people affected."

According to Abshir, the Next Generation Advisory Committee had met with Ean Tafoya, an Indigenous environmental activist from Denver, to discuss the idea of a land acknowledgment, and planned to continue consulting with Indigenous individuals if the conversation on land acknowledgment progressed. However,  city management had informed the committee that Littleton City Council wasn't ready to take on land acknowledgment as an issue, according to minutes from meetings with city staff provided by Emily Przekwas, another member of the committee. Abshir was "just responding to information that staff was giving to us about city council," Przekwas says.

The Littleton situation is "wild," says Denver City Councilmember Jamie Torres, who brought forward the land acknowledgment that Denver's council approved in fall 2020.

"Maybe the thing that I’m most stunned by is how this woman who proposed it is removed from the committee," Torres says. "I think there’s maybe an interpretation of what impugning character is. If they’re just critiques, that seems like a pretty extreme take on that code of conduct or that language."

Going forward, Torres sees a learning opportunity for Littleton arising out of this controversy. "Maybe they have some continued work to do, even through this conflict or circumstance," she suggests. "If anything, it might give them an opportunity to ask themselves, 'What is our footprint when it comes to Indigenous communities?'"

Even though she won't be serving on the Next Generation Advisory Committee, Abshir plans to continue participating in the discussion. "I think it’s important that this has started a larger conversation," she concludes.