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‘The other Mesa Verde’: Colorado’s lesser-known but no less wondrous tribal park

By Seth Boster Tribune News Service

TOWAOC, Colo. – Some say the first people of the canyons never left. Not really.

You don’t see them, the Ancestral Puebloans who made homes in the cliffs some 1,400 years ago. “But you can feel them,” says the woman at the ramshackle gas station-turned-visitor center here on Colorado’s desolate southwest corner 15 miles southwest of Cortez on dusty U.S. 491.

Beverly Lehi Yazzie would know, having long ventured and guided outsiders to the wilds overseen by her people, the hunter-gatherers who came after the Puebloans. It is sacred land within the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, made into an exclusive park nearly 50 years ago.

Deep within the ruby rock walls and high on the flat, green fringes of Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, “it’s like you’re right there with them,” Lehi Yazzie says.

Right there, at the bottom of a ladder, beside the dwellings and kivas. Beside the fossilized mud keeping fingerprints and incised slashes on rock that apparently sharpened tools. Tools are all around. So are shards of pottery and art on the walls.

So is peculiar scat on the ground. Turkey. The turkey was important to the people who lived here. The birds, evidently, still reside.

“They say the turkey represents the wildness of the world,” says Rickey Hayes, the Ute Mountain Ute man guiding just two of us this day, no one else around where canyons rise and fall, and the San Juan Mountains and mesas appear to float in the sky beyond.

“No man can control it,” Hayes continues of the turkey. “All man can do is admire it, appreciate it and pray for it.”

That is what man is meant to do at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

The ruins here are more famously synonymous with neighboring Mesa Verde National Park, widely regarded as America’s richest archaeological preserve. The tribal park, more than double in size at 125,000 acres, has been called “the other Mesa Verde.” The crow seamlessly flies from the national park to the western boundary, where the rugged roads are only for tribal members to drive, sometimes with paying guests in tow.

Says Ernest House, Ute Mountain Ute member and former executive director for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs: “I often tell people it’s the best-kept secret in Colorado.”

House grew up exploring the park and led tours as a teen. “As selfishly as I want to keep it to myself,” he says, “I’ve seen firsthand people’s lives being changed by going out there and experiencing that.”

Hayes, a guide for more than two decades, says customers have ranged between 1,500 and 2,000 in tour seasons from April through October – around the population of his tribe and a small fraction of Mesa Verde’s visitation. The national park tallied 556,203 visitors through the gate in 2019 before the pandemic.

Hayes likes to joke: “Every Monday, they probably see more people than we do in one season.”

The farther he drives, he jokes about being closer to what he calls “downtown Mesa Verde.” Closer to the rumbling motors.

Hayes is a joking man with a deep, belly laugh, but he’s also serious. He’s serious about the land and the cultures rooted here, serious about his tribe’s age-old dances and rituals. He’s serious about history and telling it right. He knows the reservation-spotted Four Corners region by the songs he hears. He tells long, winding tales about creation and lessons from people before him. He drinks water and pours some for the soil.

And this is all part of what makes a tour at the tribal park different from that at Mesa Verde.

“It’s more intimate,” says Holly Norton, the state archaeologist.

It seems far from “downtown.” There is no traffic in the tribal park. No crowds. There is no pavement, no sidewalks. No running water.

The dwellings are remote – naturally protected that way, one hopes – but there are otherwise no barriers to them. No barriers to the artifacts lying around or to the markings left on stone. Guests are encouraged to touch.

So it’s been since the 1970s, when the tribal park was slowly, steadily unveiled to the public – sites left out of Mesa Verde National Park’s formation early in the 20th century. It was a vision of Jack House, the last hereditary chief of the Ute Mountain Utes. He spent much of his life vying for tribal water rights.

“It was not until later in his life and his health was starting to deteriorate where he finally gave the OK to bring non-Ute people on to the reservation,” says Ernest House, the late chief’s great grandson.

Similarly to the casino that would come later in 1992, the tribal park was seen as a way to lift an economy on its knees. But when it came to the park, ecotourism was the idea before it became the popular term.

A nonprofit enterprise was formed alongside the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, and a mission was stated: “A low-impact type of tourism will protect the natural resources, preserve the ruins and environment, yet give the visitor a quality experience while on the lands of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.” Visitation, like construction, would be kept in check.

Not all tribal members were convinced.

House met pushback from Utes who held the same trepidation as the ones before them who warned Richard Wetherill of the hidden ruins that would become Mesa Verde National Park; the white rancher is credited for bringing broad attention to the intrigue Natives knew as spiritually dangerous, a place to be feared and respected. Utes worried the land that was theirs, that was the hunting and burial ground of ancestors, would be overrun and taken.

Veronica Cuthair is the tribal park’s longtime director. Her family has been involved since the beginning. All along, the relationship between the tribal park and national park has wavered between contentious – with issues of crossover grazing, hunting and timber cutting – and nonexistent.

Today, “we don’t have nothing in any way,” Cuthair says of the relationship. “I think that could be improved.”

Then again, she says: “I think it’s probably best this way. You can’t change the government.”

National parks occupy a place of deep-seated apprehension in Indigenous communities across America. Mesa Verde is no different.

As David Treuer, an Ojibwe author and historian, put it in a recent Atlantic essay: “(W)hile the parks may be near us, and of us, they are not ours.”

They were taken by bloody force or nefarious agreements. The latter was the case for Mesa Verde.

“All of our national parks are built on stolen land,” says Norton, the state archaeologist, “but Mesa Verde, that land was stolen twice.”

When Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906, the Ute Mountain Utes had already been “boxed into an arid parcel of land in an isolated corner of the state,” Bruce J. Noble recounts in a 1995 article for the state record. It is titled “A Legacy of Distrust: The Ute Mountain Utes and the Boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park.”

Where they once roamed free all across the Rocky Mountains, now the Weeminuche, as the tribe is historically known, were confined to a southwest sliver of Colorado. Noble writes they “had barely adjusted” at the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s proclamation of Mesa Verde.

Celebration soured when surveys revealed the national park did not include some desired dwellings. Those were still on reservation land.

Negotiations commenced in 1911. Representing the government was Frederick Abbott, the Bureau of Indian Affairs assistant commissioner, and James McLaughlin. McLaughlin is recalled as “the Indian Office’s favorite troubleshooter” in “American Indians and National Parks,” the 1998 book by Robert Keller and Michael Turek.

“He drove hard bargains, usually convincing a tribe to see matters the government’s way,” according to the authors.

Dubious and jaded, Ute Mountain Ute leaders resisted the offer for their reservation to be expanded in exchange for the dwellings. They were reportedly reminded of the 1903 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made Natives wards of the government, subject to decisions deemed in their best interest.

The supposed wards countered: What about food and rations that were promised? Abbott and McLaughlin opted to keep the focus on the land.

“For the Utes, this hesitation appeared like another government effort to hold them hostage,” Noble writes.

They reluctantly agreed to an exchange, only later in the 1930s to have their suspicions confirmed in a lawsuit. A court ruled the government “traded” land already held by the Utes.

The side-by-side nature of the tribal park and national park puts particular perspective on a question brought to the forefront by Treuer’s Atlantic piece. National parks should be returned to tribes, he posed, sparking a larger conversation about restitution and shared management.

“I’m completely supportive of that,” says House, who after leading the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs now works on tribal matters as a senior director at Keystone Policy Center.

The tribal park and national park may be separate, but they share the burdens of fires, drought and climate change, House noted. “I can’t think of a more important time than now for why we need Indigenous voices at that management level.”

And he noted the constant problem of looters across the archaeological space with a “skeletal” Ute Mountain Ute staff. Norton wonders: Could the national park help more with enforcement?

“I’m worried about it in the same way I worry about almost any other (archaeological) park,” she says. “But I also would never want to infringe on sovereignty.”

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park is an example of Native land blending in tourism. A 2014 analysis of tribal parks in the journal Geoforum, exploring the economic, political and social intersections of geography, cited “tangible benefits” from such a model.

The open yet territorial approach by the Ute Mountain Utes “unsettle(s) the U.S. national park system’s erasure of contemporary Indigenous land claims,” the analysis found, adding: “Simply put, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park reminds American citizens and other guests that they are on Indian land.”

Mesa Verde has strived to do that, says Kristy Sholly, the park’s chief of interpretation and visitor services. Along Wetherill Mesa Road, panels tell of how the park rose from a depleted reservation. New exhibits are in the works for the museum – long overdue, Sholly says.

“The museum is going to be 100 years old in another three years, and a lot of the exhibits there did not include tribal collaboration,” she says. “So we’re really thinking all the time: OK, who gets to tell this story? It’s important for tribal communities within the landscape to tell this story.”

At the tribal park, Hayes is pleased to provide.

He takes issue with the common story of pain and suffering told at Mesa Verde, of primitive and anguishing Ancestral Puebloans whose disappearance has been debated by researchers. Drought? Sickness?

It was a hard life, “but it was the good life,” Hayes says. It was, he says, life before reservations and forced assimilation and the greed and hardship that followed, plights disproportionately plaguing Indigenous people today. Hayes has been witness to poverty, depression and addiction.

“To me, it’s like they drink to forget,” he says.

He thinks of the Puebloans not as despairing but as peaceful. Go ahead, he says here at the tribal park: Feel what they left behind. See the land as they saw it.

“This is here to say, ‘We prayed for you,’ ” Hayes says. “That’s what they are telling us, that they prayed for us. Take care of it for the next generation.”

Before leaving the dwelling, he bends over to pick up something. A turkey feather. He places it between rocks so that it is upright and secure, a proud symbol.

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