Andersen: A long-overdue apology
How do you make amends for something you didn’t do? How do you say “I’m sorry” to a people you never knew?
In May, the San Miguel County commissioners did just that in an official resolution offering an apology to the Utes, the native people of the “Shining Mountains.”
The Utes frequented the San Miguel Valley for summer camps, as they did the valleys of the Roaring Fork and Crystal. The Utes reigned supreme in places that today are known as ski resorts, ranching communities and public lands.
The resolution states: “San Miguel County apologizes to the Uncompahgre Ute people and their descendants for their forced removal from western Colorado in 1881 and their relocation to Utah. The county also extends a formal apology, government to government, to the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray reservation.”
Commissioner Art Goodtimes drafted the apology. Goodtimes saw the need to acknowledge the “cruel manner” in which the Utes were removed from most of their former territory, literally at the points of U.S. Army bayonets and the muzzles of Army rifles.
“I want to start the process of reconciliation,” Goodtimes was quoted as saying in the Telluride Daily Planet. “We have never owned up to the fact that we illegally removed people from here. … When you look at the history, it’s clearly illegal what was done. It’s way past time for an apology.”
In Pitkin County, a similar apology would seem appropriate, especially given that the county is named for Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin, under whose administration the Ute removal was executed.
It was Pitkin who infamously stated in 1881 that the “problem of the Utes” would be settled by either their forced removal or their extermination, opening 12 million acres of Colorado to white settlement.
In 1881, Coloradans were seething from the Meeker Massacre, where a band of White River Utes slaughtered Indian agent Nathan Meeker and a dozen of his agency staff. The Utes also kidnapped Meeker’s wife and daughter and held them in a Ute camp on Grand Mesa.
Meeker had provoked the Utes by plowing under their racetrack in a coercive move to transform these warriors and hunter-gatherers into placid farmers. The Utes were already fed up by a series of treaty violations. They rebelled with a violent act that resulted in their demonization by Pitkin and thousands of eager settlers.
As a footnote, Meeker’s wife and daughter, when later returned unharmed, said they had no complaints about their treatment by their captors, painting a rather idealized image of the noble savage.
Still, the die was cast, and the Utes were pushed out. That was the plan all along. It just took an incident to make it happen. Today the Utes live in two reservations — one in Ignacio in southern Colorado and the other in Duchesne, Utah, near Brown’s Park in northwest Colorado.
Goodtimes worked on the apology with Uncompahgre Ute Roland McCook, who said more needs to be done.
“An apology is like the wind,” McCook said. “It disappears as soon as it’s said. I would want to have something more substantial such as a park or a naming of something solid.”
San Miguel County plans to dedicate a plaque reminding residents and visitors that the Utes were the first people of Colorado. That plaque would be placed at the warm springs in Placerville, which was a camp for Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta.
Goodtimes reportedly got the idea for the apology during a conference at the Center of the American West in Boulder, where a presenter explained that reconciliation with wronged native peoples consists of five parts: the offense, an apology, acceptance of the apology, restitution and finally, reconciliation.
The first thing to do is admit that there was an offense, which, for most Native Americans, amounted to genocide. It may seem like an empty gesture — too little, too late — but for anyone who feels sorrow for historic wrongs, an apology can start the necessary healing.
How far should the apology go? Date it 1491, and send it across the winds of time to all natives of the Americas.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.