Town faces up to past, does right thing with powwow

RBC — Meeker has been receiving its share of criticism — some would say deservedly — for its unwelcoming attitude toward outsiders.
But it did itself proud last weekend.
Based on the number of recent letters to the editor, as well as comments I hear on the street, there must be a fairly significant segment of the population out there that thinks the town can be inhospitable to newcomers who move into the community. Actually, Rio Blanco County has received its share of the blame as well, particularly over the housing issue.
Last weekend, however, during the first-ever Smoking River Powwow, the townspeople showed just how welcoming and friendly they can be.
From everything I saw and heard, the event was a success.
Organizers, particularly Liz Turner and Lynn Lockwood, as well as all of the powwow committee members and volunteers, are to be commended. They, along with all of the folks who worked behind the scenes, deserve our thanks for giving so generously of their time and effort.
Thanks should go out, too, to the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Rio Blanco County Historical Society and the Meeker Chamber Commerce, as well as all of the corporate sponsors.
The powwow had been in the works for three years. From what I’ve been told, it wouldn’t have happened without Glenn Adams of the Forest Service, who initiated the effort. But, like so many things of this magnitude, there were many people along the way who helped to make this happen.
I remember, during my initial visit to Rio Blanco County, back in early April, hearing about the powwow for the first time from Liz Turner. I was at a dinner where Liz and her husband, Kai, were seated at the same table. I knew nothing of the history of the Utes or the Meeker Massacre at the time. But as Liz talked about plans for the powwow, and how it was an effort to reconnect the Utes with the area that had been the home of the ancestors for hundreds of years, I remember thinking, this is a really big deal.
Not everyone thought so, of course. I heard comments, like, “I didn’t do anything to the Utes.” Or, “I don’t owe them anything.”
None of us, personally, of course, was responsible for driving the Utes out of the White River Valley and banishing them to the Utah desert, for the killing of Nathan Meeker and 10 other Indian Agency workers. Heck, that happened almost 130 years ago.
But, the collective “we,” as in the white race, was responsible for all kinds of atrocities toward the American Indians. History is littered with stories of ugly acts committed by both sides. Yet, there’s no denying, they were here first.
It’s understandable that modern-day Utes would feel uncomfortable coming back to this area. When you’ve been forcibly kicked out and told never to return, or else, it tends to make you feel unwelcome.
You could sense the uneasiness, particularly with some of the older Ute members. They had sort of a wait-and-see attitude. I had one tribal leader tell me, “It will be interesting to see how it goes.” But as the weekend went on, some of those walls seemed to be coming down, albeit, perhaps slowly.
The powwow was an emotional experience. You could see it on the faces of the Utes, again, especially the older ones, as well as on the faces of townspeople, who attended the powwow. You could see it in the way people danced, including a number of locals who joined the Utes and danced in the powwow arena. You could hear it in the public sentiments expressed by both tribal leaders and community leaders.
I joined a small group last Friday morning that toured the site of the Milk Creek Battle, where, in 1879, Ute Indians and U.S. soldiers fought and died. It was fascinating to hear people like Joe Sullivan describe what had happened here. It was also interesting to see the reactions of some of the Utes, who were visiting the site for the first time. Some were emotional. Some expressed hurt. Some were even angry. At one point, when the discussion centered around Major Thornburgh, who was killed during the battle, a Ute woman said, “Maybe the man had it coming.”
As Sullivan noted, the Utes, justifiably so, viewed the arrival of the soldiers as an invasion.
“The Utes were defending their country,” he said. “There was reason for you to believe that the military moving in was to annihilate you.”
But the Utes survived.
“The Ute people were a great nation, and still are, despite genocide at every turn,” said Loya Arrum, one of the Utes who toured the battle site. “But not all of us died. Because of the strength of our people, that’s why we’re here today.”
I admit, I am ignorant of the Ute ways or culture. So often, it seems, the differences or conflicts between cultures arise over, simply, a lack of understanding.
During a visit last Friday to the site of the Milk Creek Battle, I approached a Ute woman, asking for help in tracking down the spelling of some of the tribal leaders’ names. Trying to make conversation, I asked, “So, where are you from?” She looked at me somewhat in disbelief and said, “Uh, Utah.” I immediately realized how silly my question must have seemed. Of course she was from Utah. That’s where generations of Utes have lived ever since they were removed from the White River Valley. Boy, did I feel stupid.
Nathan Meeker, naive as it sounds now, was convinced he could change the Utes’ culture, that he could convert them from hunters to farmers. How ironic, then, that last weekend’s powwow was an invitation for the Utes to return to the White River Valley and share their culture with us.
It may have taken us a long time to get here, but we’ve come a long way in 130 years.