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EDITOR’S NOTE: Friday, Sept. 29 marks the 138th anniversary of the “Meeker Massacre.”
By Brandi Denison
Special to the Herald Times
Meeker | I grew up in Western Colorado, and, maybe like other residents of the area, I learned the story about the Meeker Massacre. I spent summers in my grandparents’ peach orchards, driving tractors and acting out my understanding of the events with my cousins. As a kid, the ethnic cleansing of the Utes from Western Colorado seemed like a distant past, one that had no bearing on my life. It meant colorful play and hunts for arrowheads out on the desert, but I had little chance to reflect on the violent past that allowed me to live in Colorado.
This changed, when, as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, I chose Josephine Meeker’s captivity narrative as a focus of a research paper. This captivity narrative was written in the months after Josephine and her mother, Arvilla had been held by Utes in the aftermath of the Milk Creek and the White River Agency Battles, commonly, but inaccurately, termed the “Meeker Massacre.” (A more accurate name would be the “White River Ute Agency Battle.) In it, Josephine recounts the virtues of Susan, a Ute woman that had reportedly demanded the release of the white women, because of her “Christian disposition.” As a student of American religious history, this description gripped me. Why would Susan, a Ute woman, be virtuous only because of her tendencies towards Christianity? Why could she not have virtues that came from her Ute religious practices? I also wondered why I had grown up with a false sense of the recentness of this past.
The facts of history woke me up to just how recent the past of ethnic cleansing was. The Cavalry marched the last Utes out of Colorado in 1881 (excluding the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes, as they were not implicated in the Battles). Grand Junction was established in 1882. My grandparents arrived just 50 years later. This history isn’t the distant past. It is our present.
Cultural memory was a key piece of why had little sense of my region’s recent past. Cultural memory forms the collection of stories, museums, public monuments, among other things, that build a culture’s understanding of itself, and its past. The captivity narrative fueled my research into the development of cultural memories regarding the Milk Creek and White River Ute Agency Battles. I discovered that in the early days of white settlement of Colorado, Indians were routinely featured in parades and festivals. These Indians were paraded around like caged animals, as symbols of danger that had been conquered.
In those early days, Western communities frequently welcomed Chipeta, the widow of the widely-praised Chief Ouray, with open arms. The most notable was in Montrose when President Taft was invited to push the golden button to open the Gunnison Tunnel. Chipeta had been present at treaty negotiations with three U.S. Presidents. Contrary to popular opinion, Ute women historically had access to leadership positions within the tribe. Chipeta was not an exception. Given her leadership position in the tribe, she most certainly saw this meeting as a chance to make a plea on behalf of her people, starving and dying from disease on the reservation, and facing an increased loss of land from the governmental policy of allotment. Instead, she was paraded around Montrose and propped up as an example of a good Indian, meaning that she did not fight against the expansion of the US. Her pleas for her people went unheard.
As the twentieth century wore on, the physical presence of Indians dwindled in favor of legends, societies and reenactments. As Utes attempted to build a life for themselves in Utah, Colorado cultural memories stopped their history at removal, suggesting, falsely, that Utes ceased to exist. For example, earlier versions of the Meeker Massacre Pageant ends with the actors playing the Utes walking off the stage, hanging their heads in sadness. The implication is that the story ends with removal. With these frameworks in place, it is no wonder that growing up, I had a distorted sense of time, and little connection to modern Utes.
My childhood experience does not need to be the norm. There are promising cultural memories emerging in Western Colorado. The Smoking River Powwow, held for two years in Meeker, aimed to connect the Northern Ute tribe with Meeker residents. This event aimed to acknowledge the pain of forced removal while focusing on the present. Additionally, the Native Garden at the Western Colorado Botanical Garden seeks to make similar connections. The PBS series “We Shall Remain” does much to correct the errors of older cultural memories.
Joe Sullivan, long time Meeker rancher and past president of the Rio Blanco Historical Society, said it best. “We can hope that as people learn about history,” he said in a 2009 interview with me, “they will also understand and hopefully prevent some of the things in the future that have been done in the past.”
On the anniversary of the Milk Creek and White River Agency Battles, it is best to remember that this is an anniversary of great sorrow, not just for the men and women that lost their lives, but for the Ute people that unjustly lost their land. We would do well to remember that despite over a century of hardship, Utes have still built vibrant lives for themselves and their families.
Brandi Denison is an assistant professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. Her book is available for purchase at www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press/9780803276741/