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.
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.' "
A town of 2,200, Meeker sits in a serene valley, with the peaks of the Flat Tops looming in the distance. Some of the country's largest deer and elk herds roam nearby. Many residents make a living from guided hunting and fishing.
Residents here have a "live and let live attitude," says Dr. David Steinman, a local physician and head of the local historical society. Many feel frustrated that the Utes perceive them as racist, he adds.
Over the powwow weekend, some of those perceptions seemed to fade. Ute members Chimburas and Ms. Arrum say they were impressed by the sincerity of the Meeker residents at the powwow.
White River National Forest officials first initiated a relationship with the Utes by seeking their input in land management. Bill Kight, an archaeologist with the Forest Service who began working with Ute elders in the early 1990s, used his standing in both communities to facilitate ties between them. "You don't want to enter into a relationship like this if you are not in it for the long haul ... The Utes want to see if you are for real," he says.
It's a big step for homesteading families, too. "There are lots of small towns with skeletons in the closet, but very few ... willing to face the challenge of bringing them out in the open," says Mr. Kight.
Meeker residents like Tom Kildiff seem ready to do so. Commander of the Meeker VFW, he grew up hunting Ute artifacts on his family's ranch. "I've been studying what we did to native Americans all my life and I think it is a damn shame," says Mr. Kilduff, who was part of the color guard that led dancers into the arena.
More cultural exchanges are being planned. Community leaders hope to bring kids from Meeker and the reservation together for hiking and horse riding trips and art programs.
But beyond these feel-good projects lie tougher questions – such as whether land should be returned to the Utes. Ute member Arrum says an area in the Flat Tops should be set aside for the tribe to harvest berries and roots. They should have hunting rights, too, she says.
Such issues will eventually have to be addressed, acknowledges Clifford Duncan, the spiritual adviser for the powwow. But for now, he says, it's important to recognize what they all have in common.
Mr. Duncan invoked his ancestors when he blessed the arena in the powwow's opening ceremony.
"Back in these hills there is a story – a story about our way of life. We will find that. This is just the beginning. To the ancestors we say, 'Thank you for allowing us to come back.' We did not forget you. Ancestors, the sound you will hear today is not of a gun – it is from a drum."