Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
They cut through the edge of the park, colorful in their everyday dress, and the familiarity of the open expanse hung like a warm blanket over their brown skin. Colorow, noticeably overweight and one of the younger and more aggressive Ute chiefs was, from a distance, the most discernible of the four riders as their horses danced and swayed across the red, melting sky.
Normally, they’d stop at a ranch or two in the large Middle Park area near Kremmling and beg for “biscuit,” the generic term for food, or ask for a little whiskey, but tonight they weren’t in the mood. Hung over from cheap Denver liquor and incredibly angry over the cold-blooded murder of one of their fellow braves near the Fraser stage station the previous night, they were on a mission – to kill a white man for revenge on their way home to the White River Agency.
The Utes, of all Native American tribes, had a unique ability to get along with their historic enemies as well as the rapidly encroaching white man. If the danger got too great, the Utes simply galloped their horses away and disappeared into the canyons, ridges and vast forests of the Rocky Mountains or, as they called them, the Shining Mountains.
If the writings of Brigham Young can be believed, the white man did some despicable things to the Utes: “Indians have had a most flagrant and savage feeling of vengeance because of the [white man’s] practice of indiscriminately shooting and poisoning them.”
But it was 1879 and the native bloods were running short of patience at the decimation of game herds by the influx of miners and settlers. The new agent over at the White River Agency, Nathan Meeker, with absolutely no understanding of Ute culture, refused to distribute the U. S. government food and clothing promised to the Utes in a previous treaty, unless the braves (hunters) themselves showed up every week to personally collect it. Worse, Meeker foolishly told the Utes they had too many horses. Bellies were hungry, tempers were rising and the situation was becoming untenable.
As the four mounted Utes passed close by, Abraham Elliot, a rancher in Middle Park, having earlier received word about the brewing discontent, had promised his wife that, “come tomorrow, we’ll pull up stakes” and move closer to civilization until the unrest “dies down.” With that, he wandered out of the cabin to get some firewood and was almost instantaneously killed by a single rifle shot, emanating from behind a small rise not 50 yards from the house.
Tracks from the hill soon verified the Utes had gotten their revenge that evening. A posse of 26 white men, attempting to gain retribution for the death blow, took off after the Utes the next morning, but found it tough to catch the renegades. By the fourth day, the Utes had reached the safety of the White River reservation and with no knowledge of who had actually killed Elliot, the posse was forced to retreat.
Shortly thereafter and not totally unrelated, on Sept. 29, 1879, the Meeker Uprising, or Meeker Massacre, as some poetic pundits have chosen to call it, erupted. That incident, of course, has been examined in detail and won’t further take up your time here.
And so, as the Utes killed in retaliation for murder of their own kind, they were forced to run, hide and eventually pushed onto small reservations while the white man, for his part, was given carte blanche over what did not belong to him. Grasses that once fed deer and elk were fenced for cows and sheep, chokecherry and serviceberry bushes were chopped to enlarge plowed ground; the once-thick forests were logged, the streams diverted, and the Native American became a stranger in his own land.
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Teachers are underpaid. They can’t find housing. Turnover is unacceptably high. If you are a teacher in Aspen today, you face losing your entire current work group five years hence.