In Colorado, reconciliation for a displaced tribe
A powwow builds bridges between the town of Meeker and the White River Utes.
LeAllen Blackhair began the Grass Dance at dusk as thunderheads gathered on the ridges above the White River Valley. The fringes on his regalia swayed in time to the drumbeat as he glided in smooth, symmetrical movements to create a sense of balance on the land.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The significance of the dance was not lost on the hundreds of Ute and non-Ute spectators who ringed the arena at the First Annual Smoking River Pow Wow here last weekend.
This was a dance of reconciliation.
Relations between the ranching community of Meeker and the Northern Utes have been tense ever since the Utes were removed at gunpoint from the valley in 1879 and sent to a reservation in Utah.
One hundred and forty years after the brutal eviction, Meeker and reservation residents are taking the first step toward reconciliation, and bringing the Utes closer to their ancestral homelands.
For centuries, the White River Utes ranged over a wide swath of western Colorado, moving with the seasons between the rich river basins and mountains. All that changed in 1879, when the tribe ran up against Nathan Meeker, a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent.
Sent to convert the Utes into Christian farmers, Meeker tried in vain to get them to settle around the BIA outpost near the present-day town of Meeker.
Tensions between the agent and the Utes came to a head when Meeker decided to plow up some prime horse pasture. This provoked a confrontation with the Ute chiefs. In the ensuing argument, Meeker made the fateful call to summon the military to 'pacify' the Utes.
Twenty-three Ute warriors and 16 US soldiers died in the resulting Milk Creek Battle. Meeker was also killed in what became known as the "Meeker Massacre." Soon after, the White River Utes were forced to move west to the Utah reservation – described by Brigham Young as "not fit for a jackrabbit."
The expulsion was traumatic for the White River Utes. Even now, many tribal members are scared to come to Meeker, says Philip Chimburas, a Ute. On trips to Denver, Mr. Chimburas would drive up to the entrance of the valley, but then turn off, going hundreds of miles out of the way to avoid coming through the town.
"I was appalled by the land we had lost," he says.
Loya Arrum, a retired Ute teacher, echoes his sentiment. "It was scary to come over here. When I heard they wanted to have a powwow, I said, 'In Meeker? Oh no, I don't want to go there.' "