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From Military Skills to Tribal Statesmanship

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Plunging from an aircraft, relying only on a parachute, and doing so at night may seem a little terrifying, but for one ex-soldier from Colorado it was a preferred experience.

To Ernest House Sr., Ute Mountain Ute, it beat parachuting down in the daytime because of the added challenge: “I liked night jumping better than the day. I liked it because you didn’t really see where the ground was.” It gave practical application to the maps and pre-jump training the soldiers received in advance of every exercise.

The former Green Beret will be singled out for his years of varied military service at the 11th annual Tesoro Indian Market and Contest Powwow May 14 in Morrison, outside Denver, as the 2011 veteran honoree and in recognition of Armed Forces Day.

House, E-5 in the Special Forces (Airborne) Group, recalled that he enlisted at Cortez, Colorado, near Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands, along with a few others who joined up because “a lot of it had to do with things going on at that time, when Vietnam was still a hot spot.” Even more tribal members were drafted, he recalled.

He was initially in the Army National Guard in 1966 in the artillery and Signal Corps, and was in basic training at then-Fort Ord, California. He took medic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and then joined the Special Forces and trained at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The Vietnam War was winding down then, so it turned out that he wasn’t called overseas, but he was combat-ready after intensive training and lots of parachute practice near Denver, in Wyoming, at Fort Benning, and in New Mexico.

Was it rigorous? “It wasn’t that bad. I went to boarding school (at Towaoc and Ignacio on Ute lands in southwest Colorado) and you had to run a lot. When it came to training, it was mostly the same—we walked, ran, jumped. Two other Native Americans were in the Airborne at Fort Benning, both of them from up North. We didn’t have a problem with the physical part of it.”

“It was interesting—it was good,” he said. Today’s Army is different, he observed, partly because “you have your equal opportunity for females to be in the same unit—you couldn’t do that years ago.”

After he left the military, he ended up serving a total of 37 years in several capacities on the Ute Mountain Ute tribal council, 10 of the years as tribal chairman, in what was apparently anyone’s longest stint as a Ute Mountain Ute tribal official.

House, who is the grandson of the last Ute Mountain Ute (Weeminuche Band) chief, Jack House, said he was tribal chairman in about 1976 when the Ute Mountain Ute reservation got running water—before that, he recalled driving the water truck from house to house and delivering to each resident.

Then the tribe got irrigation water for the tribe’s farm and ranch operation, yielding prize-winning sweet corn and, more recently, alfalfa hay sold to Texas dairy farmers.

He was also in a key position to shepherd what became today’s Ute Mountain Casino, with 700-plus slots, one of the largest gaming and resort destinations in the Four Corners region that includes the tribal headquarters. It came about after some uncertainty.

“Lots of tribes and leaders didn’t want to proceed with gaming, but many of the people wanted to pursue what they could get out of gaming,” he recalled. “After all, at that time, we were not sure what the states would ask for and how the states would hold on to Indian dollars.”

Not that there aren’t a lot of issues remaining, among them the nuts and bolts of oil and gas development, renewable energy, and others.

“We’re still resolving our sovereignty issues” and there can be problems with waivers of sovereignty when dealing with outside interests. “We have to be careful about what we want to give up.”

It’s been a lot of years back in his tribe’s homeland after his military service, perhaps one man’s response to a major pitfall facing Native soldiers: “A lot of our Native American warriors that went into the service got homesick—it was a totally new environment,” he said.