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MEEKER — Historic sites were visited, long-ago events —still painful for both sides — were remembered, and past fears and attitudes, reinforced by years of misunderstanding and resentment, were discussed openly.
Yes, last weekend’s Smoking River Powwow was significant for many reasons.
But, most of all, it meant a new beginning.
The two-day powwow represented a good-faith effort to re-establish present-day relations between the Ute Indians — the tribe was banished from the White River Valley some 130 years ago — and the town of Meeker — named for the man responsible for instigating events that led to those fateful days in September 1879.
Organizers had hoped the powwow — three years in the making — would pave the way for the Utes to reconnect with the area they used to call home.
“I’m thrilled,” Lynn Lockwood, one of the event’s organizers, said afterward. “It was everything I hoped it would be and then some.”
Liz Turner, another one of the organizers, agreed.
“I think it went amazingly well for a first time,” Turner said. “It’s all been very positive.”
Both Lockwood and Turner work for the U.S. Forest Service, one of the organizers of the event, along with the Bureau of Land Management, the Rio Blanco Historical Society and the Meeker Chamber of Commerce.
From all accounts she heard, Lockwood said interaction between the townspeople and the Utes was positive. She even noted a sign in front of a Meeker business proclaimed, “Welcome Home Ute Tribe.”
“Everyone I spoke with said the people in the town were being very gracious to them (the Utes),” Lockwood said.
The powwow was, Turner said, an important first step in what could become an ongoing event.
“It is a healing process,” Turner said. “This was a pretty emotional thing for (the Utes). We want the powwow to be an avenue for people to meet, to enjoy the public lands, to bring their kids here.”
Since being transplanted to the Utah desert in 1881, two years after the Milk Creek Battle and the Meeker Massacre (when Nathan Meeker and 10 other workers at the White River Indian Agency were killed during a Ute uprising), subsequent generations of the tribe have been hesitant to return to the White River area.
“Coming to Meeker had been a fearful thing,” said Loya Arrum, a Ute tribe member who participated in the powwow. “That’s been the feeling a lot of us have had.”
Slowly perhaps, but those feelings are starting to change.
“It’s time to bring the children here again, and take them around the land,” Arrum said. “In our history, we were told never to talk about it (the Milk Creek Battle and Meeker Massacre), because of fear. But it’s time to talk about it. The children need to know.”
While she was happy to return to the White River area, it was also painful.
“The Utes are mountain people,” Arrum said. “They come from a very strong tribe of people who survived in the mountains. You’re walking on the bones of our ancestors. It hurts to see (the mountains). This is really where I want to be.”
Representatives of both sides agreed — a coming-together event such as the powwow was long overdue.
“I’m just happy to be here … for all of the things that happened,” said Marshall Colorow, whose great-grandfather was one of the Ute chiefs involved in the seven-day battle with U.S. soldiers at Milk Creek. “To come and see where my great-grandfather made footprints. I’ve been wanting to come here, but I didn’t know where to go.”
Arrum and Colorow were among the members of the Ute tribe who, last Friday, visited the site of the Milk Creek Battle, about 14 miles east of Meeker. At the battle site, monuments pay tribute to both the Utes and the soldiers who were killed.
“We’re trying to do a better job of portraying both sides,” said Joe Sullivan, local historian and a member of the Rio Blanco County Historical Society, which has been involved in developing the battle site. “History is so important. If we can understand history, maybe we can avoid the mistakes of the past in the future.”
Sullivan and others involved with the tour of the battle site and the powwow did their best to make the visiting Utes feel welcome.
“We are all Americans,” Sullivan said. “You were the first Americans. This is as much your land as it is mine.”
But while the Meeker community has extended an invitation for the Utes to reconnect with the White River Valley, the gesture can’t undo history.
“It’s hard to talk about the past and what happened,” said Curtis Cesspooch, a leader of the Ute tribe.
Yet, as was stated many times over the weekend, the powwow represented a step in the right direction.
“We’re very honored to be hosting this event,” Mandi Etheridge, mayor of the town of Meeker, said during Friday’s opening ceremony. “I hope it will help bridge the gap between our past and our future.”
“We have an opportunity here … it’s an open door,” said Bill Kight, archaeologist for the White River National Forest, who has worked closely with the Utes for many years.
About 75 dancers registered for last weekend’s powwow, and an estimated 600 people attended the event. Around 300 people were fed at Saturday morning’s pancake breakfast, sponsored by the Rio Blanco Masonic Lodge.
Lockwoood was pleased with the numbers, since she didn’t know what to expect for the first-time event.
“I thought it was a perfect size for this first year,” she said. “It was small enough that people could interact. It made me so happy to see the community participating in the dances.”
From everything she heard, Lockwood said, both townspeople and members of the Ute tribe are open to the powwow becoming a regular event.
“We would love for it to be an annual event,” she said. “We will continue our discussions with the tribe, to see how they feel about it. But, we definitely got feedback that they would like to have it again.”
For Clifford Duncan, one of the Ute tribal leaders, the powwow was a homecoming.
“It (the White River Valley) used to be my people’s homeland,” Duncan said. “The remains of my people are here. It’s always a good feeling to come back home.”
Duncan had a message for those long-ago Utes who inhabited the White River Valley.
“I want to say to my ancestors, I did not forget you,” he said.
But, while acknowledging the legacy of his forefathers, Duncan noted how the ceremonial sounds of last weekend’s powwow represented a new start, for both the Utes and the town of Meeker.
“The sound you’re going to hear is not a gun,” he said, “but a drum.”