Editors note: This is part one of a two-part series.
By Heather Scofield
Herald Staff Writer
An eagles nest rests atop a ridge overlooking serene Lake Nighthorse.
For Bureau of Reclamation employees, the nest is a reminder of obstacles to be overcome as they dammed and filled the lake.
But the nest means much more to the Native American tribes involved in the 40-year process of securing water for the Animas-La Plata project. They refused to allow the nest to be disturbed while the reservoir was under construction.
Eagles are spiritually significant in Native American culture, said Manuel Heart, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal council member, gazing toward the cliff from atop the dam. The tribes of the Four Corners believe the regal bird that calls the nest home watched over the valley during the projects construction and will continue to protect the valley, he said.
The nest is an example of how cultural heritage drives Native American tribes interactions with government, the environment and their neighbors. Both tribal and nontribal leaders say the heritage that has long led tribes interaction with people, businesses and nature the same set of beliefs and practices that led them to fight for the protection of the eagles nest is eroding. Fears of what that could mean to the tribes and their neighboring communities has prompted a battle to save the Ute culture.
What is culture?
Local tribal members say its filled with meaning and importance and is not something taught or learned in a day. Experts and leaders say it can affect a range of things from crime rates to a childs educational success. It affects health and spiritual condition, some members of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes said. And it dictates how the tribes and their members interact with the planet, business communities and U.S. government at all levels.
Our culture is a way of life, said Ute Mountain Ute tribal member and cultural artist Norman Lansing.
For the Ute nation, the word culture describes countless aspects of life learned over centuries and generations, from the language and spiritual ceremonies, to the circle of life, to everyday crafts, clothing and meals.
And losing those traditions could threaten the prosperity of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes and their relationships with neighboring communities, tribal leaders and officials said.
Why? Because the Ute tribes traditions dictate so much of what they do, and their interactions with government, businesses and the communities around them have a tremendous economic impact on the region.
I think its pretty clear to see the interconnectedness of their communities to ours, said Joe Keck, director of the Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College. They have a tremendous impact on our region.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is La Plata Countys largest employer and provides some of the areas highest paying jobs with the best benefits, Keck said. The tribes investment portfolio is worth more than $1 billion, according to the latest Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy report by Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.
In neighboring Montezuma County, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe is one of the largest employers and a major contributor to the regional economy, the report said.
The two tribes operate nearly 150 government agencies and departments and about 100 private enterprises and businesses.
Though they represent just over 3,000 of the regions residents, they invest heavily in area hospitals and charities and influence local legislation. They are real estate developers, environmental innovators and energy producers for the region, state and nation.
The tribes see the world a little differently, and their impact on the regional economy and government is great, said David Lester, executive director of Council of Energy Resource Tribes. His organization is made up of more than 50 tribes dedicated to building economic strength, independence and strategies for working with local, state and federal agencies.
A forced melting pot
Loss of tribal language and culture can be attributed, in part, to more than a century of federal efforts to subdue, segregate and assimilate American Indians.
The assimilation practices have done a tragically good job of ensuring identity loss, said Susan Harness, field director, Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University.
The United States has been an ethnic and cultural melting pot since its founding, as generations of immigrants strove to blend into a oneness called American.
But many Native Americans, whose ancestors were here for centuries before the first immigrants arrived, dont want to be part of the melting pot. They are still rightfully angry, Harness said, about centuries of government efforts to destroy their language, spiritual beliefs, educational traditions and other elements of their life and culture.
Its been a nonstop assault on American Indian culture in a variety of ways, she said.
Pearl Casias, Southern Ute tribal chairwoman, agrees.
Whether people admit it or not, they tried to annihilate us physically and culturally, she said.
All immigrant groups go through forms of acculturation and assimilation that erode their distinct identities, languages and belief systems, Harness said. But for most of them, integration into American lifestyle was a choice: Most nonslave immigrants came to the United States because they felt they could gain something here they couldnt in their native countries.
American Indians were not immigrants, and Americanization was forced on them by what some see as reprehensible government actions military attacks, mandatory relocation and incarceration, giving them disease-infested blankets and sending Native children away from their homes to boarding schools to cleanse them of their culture.
Political assimilation is one thing, Harness said, but forcing cultural assimilation can provoke moral resistance. Its one reason, among many, fueling the movement to revitalize and preserve the Utes cultural traditions.
Fortunately, the Ute Nation has a history of being good at adapting to cultural change, said Brenda Martin, a Farmington-based cultural anthropologist.
Despite their small population, Martin said, the Utes have survived painful historical traumas while remaining pioneers of Indian adaptation.
At the turn of the last century, everyone thought Indian tribes would be extinct or assimilated by now, she said. In light of everything that has happened, its amazing when you see where the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes are today.
As part of their cultural revitalization effort, the Southern Ute tribe has created a new Culture Department and hired a director. It also is working with the two other tribes under the Ute Nation umbrella in the Four Corners Ute Mountain Utes and the Northern Ute Tribe in Utah on educational, environmental protection and economic development projects.
Theyve opened schools and museums, built curriculum partnerships with public education systems and formed private clubs and groups to preserve and teach cultural practices, ceremonies and trades.
This spring, the Southern Utes opened a $38 million museum that some observers said is among the largest efforts to provide a view of Native American history as told by the Indians themselves.
Nationwide, tribes alarmed by the loss of their heritage have formed alliances and scheduled conferences to promote language preservation and cultural proliferation.
The Southern Utes will host a language convention next summer at the Sky Ute Casino and Resort. They expect to draw nearly 1,000 Native American leaders from around the country.
It all amounts to a figurative war against culture lost. Casias and Heart say its not too late to win the fight.
The impacts of culture lost are top to bottom, Heart said. We want our members to find their way back to our cultural roots. And as long as our tribes come together to find solutions, we are going to move in the right direction.