Tony Vagneur: Reassessing the view of Ute land from a mountain promontory
It’s a view I see several times a week, looking across the valley. Sloane Peak, Red Table, Larkspur, acres and acres of aspen and evergreen forests, red hillsides, valleys I used to ride all summer.
Looking across from those valleys I grew up in, I see what we like to call the Elk Mountains, Capitol, Daly, Snowmass, Sopris and a host of others. The view just depends which side of the Roaring Fork Valley one is contemplating.
A lot of what I see is framed between my horse’s ears, usually pointed forward with a curiosity to know what lies ahead. The view is indistinguishable from what a Ute might have seen over a hundred years ago and countless millennia before that. The lay of the land hasn’t changed much during that time, if you keep your head up and look tall toward the horizon.
On some level, it breaks my heart to know what the Utes were forced to give up, had stolen from them by unscrupulous whites, bent on taking the land for themselves. Did Utes get a last look from where my horse and I sit, did they sense the tear deep in their chests as their homeland was ripped from them? It’s impossible not to feel for the Ute children who can’t, or won’t, be able to gaze from a spot similar to my vantage point, sitting a well-trained mount, overlooking a land that is part of me, part of them, generations deep.
In past columns, I’ve enumerated the 1879 events leading to the Battle of Milk Creek and the killing of cavalry Major Thomas T. Thornburgh, and an almost simultaneously demise for Indian Agent Nathan Meeker and several of his employees at the White River Agency. Thornburgh and his troops were trespassing on the Ute reservation, in violation of terms of the agreement between the U.S. and the Utes. Meeker’s issue is more complex to understand, but on the face of it, it appears that Meeker somehow thought he owned the reservation land rather than the Utes. While not voiced, the Utes certainly understood Meeker’s attitude.
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Between those two events, the cry in Colorado became “The Utes Must Go,” which led to the formation of the peace agreement (treaty) of 1880. In brief, the Utes were to cede their Colorado land to the U.S. in exchange for reservation lands elsewhere, with the exception of the Southern and Mountain bands, who maintained a very small portion of their historic presence in southern Colorado. It wasn’t like the normal real estate deal, where the purchaser gets to look it over first. No, the Utes were told where they were to go, and for the most part, they went. Either that, or face extermination. Some big choice, eh?
As only could be written by bureaucrats, the agreement needed to be approved by three quarters of the Ute male population, which you might think impossible, but by one-sided and difficult mathematical equations too complicated to ascertain in this modern age, each adult vote was recognized as representing five adult males. Add to that the interference of Otto Mears, Colorado profiteer, who bribed numerous (and many) males $2 in silver coins for a vote of approval. Between the poor arithmetic and the bribes, the Utes overwhelmingly approved the peace agreement by the three-quarters margin. No one questioned the fraud.
It can probably be safely said that the Utes did not entirely recognize what this “voting” would mean for them. The white man never (to this day) took into account the cultural differences that made communication of ideas very difficult, maybe impossible, even if one knew the other’s language.
Prior to 1880, the Ute reservation covered most of western Colorado, extending from just a little bit west of Aspen over to what is now the Utah border. Today, only a sliver of Colorado Ute land remains, in the far southwestern corner of the state.
It is probably safe to say that our mindset of the time, Manifest Destiny, and the earlier, intractable idea that our “taming of the wilderness” was the thing to do, the “right” thing to do, was an unstoppable force. God help those who got in the way of such thinking, especially Natives.
In hindsight, it is possible to think that, at the time, we might have been able to find a way to share the land in a much more reasonable way. But we didn’t try.
And one day, before I check out, I would like to share my mountain promontory with my grandchildren and their counterparts, descendants of those who lived in these shining mountains before the arrival of the white man. It would be a good day.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The events of our lives we toast in beloved restaurants are the same events we recall over and over again in all different times and places. They never die.