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American Indians: It’s on your shoulders now

John Colson

It was a study in incongruity.

The normally placid environs of the Aspen Institute’s campus, above the juncture of Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, were awash in human frenzy as the institute’s Environmental Forum cranked into high gear last week.

Old junker Subarus fought for parking spaces with high-priced SUVs; bejeweled and fashionably draped scions of wealth and privilege strode purposefully toward the Doerr-Hosier Center while swanky black Hybrid SUVs sped past in manic flight. Those gleaming behemoths sported signs shouting their status as shuttle vehicles for Forum participants, but all those that I saw were empty, and their pilots seemed determined to get to some unknown destination at top speed, regardless of the risks to human and other life that happened to step into their paths.



Inside the Doerr-Hosier Center, a buffet table filled with delicacies offered a bit of sustaining energy to the participants, who were seated in overflow style at tables while a small band of American Indians gave the welcoming invocation onstage at the front of the room.

The juxtaposition of the luxurious surroundings, the pampered guests and the Indians in full regalia was, to me, a bit disconcerting. Not two centuries earlier, the ancestors of these two disparate people might just as easily have been firing guns and arrows at each other as the battle for ownership of the Roaring Fork Valley wound to its inexorable conclusion.




And, in fact, the words of these native inhabitants of this land appeared to echo my sense of alarmed confusion. It seems as though every other phrase was some variant on a theme that we “white eyes” have put ourselves in charge of this continent, and we aren’t doing a good job of keeping it together. And the truth behind the words is a demand that we get it together or give it up, possibly to dump the whole thing back in the Indians’ collective lap.

The undercurrent, of course, is that the Indians did much better as they muddled through their tenure at the top of the animalistic hierarchy here, but of course they didn’t have plastics, an oil-based economy and a penchant for fouling their own nest, all of which seem to have become the ruling ethos of white society.

This brings to mind a couple of times back in the 1980s when I, in the company of a coal company’s environmental apologist and a couple of semi-retired hippies in street clothes, visited two ancient Ute Indian sites.

One was in the hills above the improbably named nexus of human enterprise called El Jebel, which once was just a trailer park perched alongside Highway 82 between Carbondale and Basalt. I was told long ago that the name means “The Mountain” in Hebrew, perhaps a reference to the looming presence of a nearby massif, Basalt Mountain. How a Hebrew moniker ever got applied to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere was never properly explained.

But I digress. That first site was little more than a house of sticks, intertwined over a living space so small that the Indian who lived there must have been either single or gay, and there were no others nearby to indicate any kind of gathering place of the tribe. But it offered a splendid view up toward Aspen and down toward Glenwood Springs, and seemed like a nice place to hang out or stand lookout for an approaching cavalry troop.

The second was more sacred in nature, a hollow in a canyon where paintings festooned the walls of a cave and one, in the shape of a spiral, was at the exact spot where the sun first shone on summer solstice mornings ” or would have, if a gnarled old pinon tree hadn’t grown up to block the view. The tree looked to be 400 years old or so, tall but hunched, like an old man doing penance for a sin long forgotten.

Again, no sign of the multiple habitations that must have served as temporary shelter for the wandering tribe.

And perhaps that was the message to be taken away from these two sites, and from the Indians’ tenure in general. They left no massive garbage dumps, no bombed-out relics of homes gone empty, no ribbons of concrete and asphalt scarring the watchful hills, no toxic residue in the land.

So those regally robed representatives of the displaced Indian nations were right, I guess. We’ve done a lousy job of stewardship so far, and we’d better wake up and fly right before, as one of the Environmental Forum speakers mentioned, this old Earth tires of our ways, shrugs mightily and dumps us onto the garbage heap of history.

“You, the white man, killed us off or herded us onto reservations,” their words meant to me. “Fine. It’s all on your shoulders now. Don’t make hash out of it, leave us alone to preserve what we can of our culture while making a little money off your gambling addiction, and keep those whiskey drummers out of our wikiups. That’s all we ask.”

Amen to that.

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