Celebrating Sacred Places in Colorado
June 21 at the headquarters of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder.
Native Americans are “more closely tied to the land than any other group, yet the increasing exploitation of natural resources and population expansion has caused previously undisturbed tribal sacred places to become vulnerable to destruction,” the fund said in connection with the June ceremony.
Colorado abounds in spiritual places, from little-known medicine wheels in the high mountains to sacred springs and sites that suggest ceremonies held from time immemorial. But, as NARF suggests, because of Colorado’s growing population and urbanization some of the places face human disrespect and interference.
Among sites of concern are the Garden of the Gods, part of the Ute homeland, and Mounts Blanca and Hesperus, two of the four mountains that mark the boundaries of traditional Navajo territory.
Garden of the Gods
The Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs was a place where people lived at least 3,000 years ago, mainstream scholars contend, because of ancient hearths and fire rings that have been found. That’s not surprising, because it is “part of the Ute homeland,” said Kenneth Frost, a spiritual leader of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
After the gold rush of 1858, settlers filled the area, including the present-day Garden, which became a Natural National Landscape some 40 years ago and is a strong tourist attraction because of its tall, multicolored sandstone spires and cliffs and, behind them, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.
Yet “Sacred places, including the Garden of the Gods, will always and forever be sacred sites,” Frost says.
The Garden is still used by the Ute people to pray, Frost added, noting that he goes there three or four times each year to gather medicinal plants.
Highway 24, which descends through Manitou Springs to Colorado Springs, is the Old Ute Trail traveled by Frost’s ancestors on horseback en route to the Garden of the Gods where, at one time, the annual spring Bear Dance was held.
Today, the Garden seems immune to most natural disasters, including fierce wildfires nearby in Colorado that have burned thousands of acres recently and in 2012.
“People have been talking and talking about the wildfires, but they have not affected the Garden of the Gods because it is protected by the Great Spirit,” Frost said.
It’s more likely that the paved roads and trails to accommodate tourists and the ecological damage caused by people who leave designated paths—in short, the human influence—are its greatest danger.
Pan-tribal powwows were conducted at the Garden of the Gods in the 1960s and 1970s, but were banned until very recently because of citizen complaints about damage to the landscape as the area became more densely populated, said Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.
Finally, there’s a lack of knowledge, Frost said. “Although they’ve preserved it the best they can, they need to bring in Ute speakers to educate the general public and tourists. The tour guides are not knowledgeable about stories of the Ute people and the Garden of the Gods, and more needs to be done in that area.”
Mount Blanca (Tsisnaasjini’), Dawn or White Shell Mountain and Mount Hesperus (Dibe’ Nitsaa), Obsidian or Big Mountain Sheep Mountain
Mount Blanca, a 14,344-feet peak near Alamosa in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado, marks the easternmost point of the Dinetah, or traditional Navajo homeland, while Mount Hesperus, with a 13,237-feet summit near Durango in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado marks the northern boundary of Dinetah in an area that is also important in Ute history.
“People still go to the sacred mountains to gather special plants or to pray,” said Timothy Begay, cultural specialist for the Navajo Nation. People who carry the spiritual practice further “get soil from all four [sacred mountains] in the late summer or early fall.”
“We as indigenous people still believe these are sacred places and the deities are still there and we still pray to them as we did from time immemorial. Some people believe everybody’s Christian and we’re all modern, but still a lot of Navajo people pray and live by the old ways,” he said.
Begay’s concerns center on the possible encroachment of the recreation industry, minerals extraction, changes to accommodate winter sports, or other large-scale commercial ventures.
He may have a point—five-acre land parcels are being advertised near Mount Blanca and one of the selling points is for jeep trails near high-mountain lakes. A proposed gold mine expansion had environmentalists and members of the Buffalo Council at nearby Fort Lewis College in Durango concerned about possible impacts to Mount Hesperus last year.
“It’s an adverse effect on these places when such things happen—they were held as sacred places,” Begay said. “But when they’re outside of tribal lands we don’t have a say in what happens on the mountains.”
For more information about the sunrise ceremony, contact the Native American Rights Fund at 303-447-8760.