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Controversy and cooperation join in a tribal/state meeting in Colorado

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DENVER – Past events met current issues at the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, when state officials conferred with tribal leaders in a quarterly session March 19.

Tribal chairmen and councils of the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Northern Ute nations met with Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, chair of the CCIA, and representatives from the Colorado Historical Society, Department of Health and Environment, Department of Corrections, and others.

While the Northern Ute area near Ft. Duchesne, Utah is “nice,” it is “not the homelands we once had,” said Curtis Cesspooch, tribal chairman. The Northern Utes still have family in Colorado among the Ute Mountain Utes in Towaoc and Southern Utes in Ignacio, he added.

The state of Colorado should issue an apology for exiling the Northern Utes after a battle near present-day Meeker, Colo. in 1879, he said, although today as tribal and state officials are meeting, “We affect them, and they affect us.”

Currently, a railway system is crossing cultural sites in Utah, where “we need more teeth” in the state Indian affairs office, he said. Petroglyphs in the area have been identified as coming from Zuni pueblos in Arizona.

Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Matthew Box said a verbal agreement under the Brunot Treaty of 1873 may be invoked to add rights to fishing, the gathering of such traditional plants as bear root and sage, and obtaining sweat lodge rocks, to the hunting rights reserved to the Utes under the treaty.

Today, the Southern Ute Tribe is concerned that oil and gas development could be harmful “without guiding principles of care for mother earth,” Box said. Another current effort involves working with neighboring communities in southern Colorado, including water treatment improvements for the community of Bayfield.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Ernest House described the cultural resources and unique beauty of the area near Towaoc, but said there is a high suicide rate there and on other reservations. He said funding is needed for more mental health services, which he termed “a very complex issue.”

There is a need to educate Americans about contemporary Ute life because there still are queries like, “Do you live in tipis?” said Manuel Heart, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal council member, and others at the meeting. Among measures that may help are updated school curricula and the planned extension of the Montrose, Colo. Indian Museum on Ute culture.

“People in Denver are not educated about the Utes,” agreed Barbara Scott-Rarick, a Southern Ute tribal council member. At two book stores she visited in the city, one had no books at all on the Utes and another had only one. At a Western history themed restaurant, coffee was served with stir-sticks depicting hatchets, she said, “and people are just not getting the message.”

Although more needs to be done in terms of public awareness, said Ernest House Jr. CCIA executive secretary, Denver public schools have 1,400 Native students, there are Indian focus schools, and the school system is trying to hire more Native staff. The CCIA supports the sale of special Colorado license plates – available to non-Natives as well as Natives – that raise money for scholarships for Indian students in the state.

The CCIA is also working for a health summit proposed Aug. 13 – 14 in Towaoc to focus on Native needs specific to the state, following an IHS summit in Denver in July. The possibility of Federally Qualified Health Centers on tribal lands may be explored, House Jr. said.

Dr. Susan Collins, Colorado state archaeologist, told the tribal leaders and others that of 266 cases under a collaborative tribal/state process and the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 155 remains have involved reburial or leaving in situ, and 111 are still in the process of having cultural affiliation determined, where possible. Of that number, 11 are affiliated with specific tribes and 55 are affiliated with pueblos, most, but not all, with pre-A.D. 1300 cultures in southwest Colorado. The remaining 45 are culturally unidentifiable and will follow a federally approved state/tribal NAGPRA process that is a first in the U.S.