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It is with mixed emotions that I write this letter but I do so to make good on a promise and to solve a mystery. This is a follow-up letter to the Meeker Herald’s coverage from 1991 to 1993 of the events sparked by the mysterious appearance of the “little black granite monument” honoring the Ute warriors at the Thornburgh battleground. I realize that 20 years is a long time to respond to a news story; however, it was more than 20 years ago that I promised my mother, Una Raley, who passed away on Dec. 28, 2010, while visiting me in California, that I would reveal her as the person responsible for the monument and at the same time explain my involvement in her scheme.
This story begins in the fall of 1990 when my mother came to Los Angeles with the hope of enlisting my assistance with her plan, thereby fulfilling her long-time dream: to erect a monument honoring the Ute warriors. She came with the dimensions of the piece of granite – a gift from a fellow artist and sculptor – that had been in her yard at Rio Blanco for two years. While sitting at my kitchen table and over a cup of tea, we wrote the wording for the plaque and after researching the Yellow Pages, we settled on a local trophy shop. Mother bought the largest and the most substantial plaque in stock and explained her time constraint. The owner, intrigued by our story, promised to have it engraved within a day.
On the drive home, she and I discussed all the ramifications of our scheme and decided to keep the monument a secret. But we knew we had to recruit my dad to help us. He was a willing accomplice. He drilled the holes and attached the plaque to the granite, he hauled the monument to the site, he poured the concrete, setting it in place, and he drove my mother out to Thornburgh to check on it. Sadly, he passed away in 2009, taking the secret with him. Not even to this day have my sisters, Jackie Brennan or Judi Higgins, known of our involvement.
The following spring, on a cold rainy day, my parents drove to Thornburgh, setting the monument in place. Not knowing how it would be received, we anxiously waited for word of it to reach the authorities and that seemed to take most of the summer. In the meantime, thinking that it might be vandalized, my parents periodically checked on it. Mother would scatter tobacco, place the sage around it and burn the sweet grass in a small ceremonial fire. Luckily, it sat unscathed except for the weather having taken its toll on the plaque, as predicted by the owner of the trophy shop.
When we learned that the monument had been reported to the Rio Blanco Historical Society, we felt a sense of relief but braced ourselves for what we thought might be the inevitable – its removal. Much to our surprise and delight, the members, under the direction of Kathleen Kelly, welcomed it and the community rallied behind the Society’s decision to reach out to the Ute Tribes. With pride, we watched as the Northern Utes became more and more involved with the design and construction of the new monument, the first of its kind in the United States built on a battleground by Indians for Indians.
The day after the dedication ceremony, mother called to give me the details of the event. Although she was not demonstrative as a rule, I could hear the excitement in her voice as she described mingling with the participants and the crowd, the music, the color guard and the speakers. It wasn’t until I viewed the video sent to me by my cousin’s wife, Cheri Robinson (who had recognized the granite as being the one missing from my mother’s yard), did I understand mother’s elation. There is no doubt in my mind that day was probably the proudest moment in her life.
Much has been written about the Meeker Massacre and the events leading up to it; and we know the results, the battle at Thornburgh, which ultimately prompted the removal of the White River and Uncompahgre Ute bands from Colorado into Utah. All during my childhood, we made countless visits to Thornburgh. Mother (whose roots went back to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma) always walked by the U.S. military’s monument shaking her head and then she would stand gazing at the valley while my sisters and I gathered rocks. We could feel her unease but she kept her own counsel and was very guarded in sharing her feelings. During those visits, she too must have asked the same question the Ute students asked of their teacher Norma Denver (refer to the Herald’s article titled: “Norma Denver’s dream comes true” by Kathleen Kelly): “Why isn’t there a monument for our people?”
And then when the piece of black granite came into my mother’s life, it seemed as if fate had given her the means and the courage to act upon her dream of honoring the Utes who were either killed or wounded at Thornburgh, and by doing so, she was trying to make people aware that the Ute Tribes not only lost warriors but their way of life. I believe that the results of her action took her completely by surprise and she wasn’t prepared for the outcome – changing history. During many of our discussions after the euphoria subsided, she told me how grateful she was for the Rio Blanco Historical Society’s involvement: their creating an atmosphere of goodwill and understanding, therefore opening up a dialogue between the citizenry of the White River area and the Ute Tribes. And, she hoped that it would continue.
I am proud to have played a small role in helping my mother fulfill her dream. Most of all, I am proud of my parents, Jack and Una Raley: Una, for her vision and determination to right a wrong and Jack, for his devotion to her cause, making her dream come true.
Jessie Raley Duffy
Studio City, Calif.