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During the liminal time between winter and spring, the Utes listen for thunder. Whether it’s a rumbling or a roar, the sky’s first song is a signal: It’s time to prepare for the Bear Dance.
It began long ago, as Matthew J. Box, the Bear Dance Chief for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, tells the story. Two brothers went east into the mountains to hunt for days, maybe weeks. As they stood on a rocky cliff and peered into a valley, they noticed a female bear, just out of hibernation, dancing and scratching a tree as if in a mystical choreography. One brother descended into the meadow to live and be with the bear, while the other returned to assure the members of the tribe of the other’s safety. The bear taught the brother many things, including song, dance, and ways of living. “This was the time,” Box says, “when the people and the animals still spoke to each other.”
Eventually, the brother and the bear made plans to return home, and once they did they shared these learnings with the community. For as long as they can remember, before Spanish explorers first made a record of the dance in the 1500s, the Utes, known as the Nuu-ciu, or “the people,” in the Ute language, have embraced the rejuvenation of spring, celebrated the community, and paid respect to the spirit of the bear, which gave them the gift of healing themselves. Nowadays, the Bear Dance unfolds over four days around the last weekend in May. Some of the Ute dancers sew their own moccasins and decorate their own regalia with beadwork as they prepare—physically, mentally, and spiritually—for months. You, yourself, are invited, but not as a tourist. To come, you must participate.
In a corral made of juniper trees with an entrance looking east to greet the rising sun, dancers line up facing one another. The hum of insects in the cottonwood trees, the deep, full sound of the singers, and the rasp of the growlers—special wooden instruments that are used only for this occasion—fill the air. Everyone participates: teenagers and parents, elders and children. The Bear Dance uplifts and honors women, and a woman may choose her partner with a flick of her shawl. If you are inside the corral, the custom is you can’t refuse when asked. As the dancers step in and out, the fringes of the women’s shawls sway, floating over the land as if part earth, part air.
At the end of their dancing, when the people depart the Bear Dance grounds for the year, they leave a plume, if they have one, or another belonging on one of the juniper trees at the corral’s entrance as a symbol of all they are leaving behind—their grief, hardship, and troubles. As they walk away, they don’t look back.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe hosts the Bear Dance in a corral 25 miles southwest of my home in Durango, and I’d like to be able to say that I have attended numerous times. The truth is that I only learned about it a couple of years ago when I picked up a newspaper, the Southern Ute Drum, in my local coffeeshop. As a transplant to Colorado from the East Coast and the daughter of a German father and Canadian mother with British roots, I was looking for resources to help me better understand the history of the land upon which I live and its original inhabitants, as well as contemporary Indigenous cultures and issues in the region, after a pivotal incident I had experienced the year before.
On a statewide road trip in February 2019, I headed to the Eastern Plains of Colorado to visit the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, a park that memorializes the day in 1864 when 675 Colorado volunteer soldiers brutally murdered more than 230 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho, most of whom were women and children, and then paraded their remains through the streets of Denver. The 1865 Little Arkansas Treaty promised reparations to survivors, but, to this day, they have not been paid. The trauma still echoes through the generations.
The park was established in 2007. Simple in layout, it encompasses a bluff, the sinuous curves of Sand Creek, and stately cottonwood stands—all land restored to its natural state from ranching and agricultural activities. It’s now a place for storytelling, prayer, grieving, and reflection. Even though it can be difficult to get to—a three-hour drive from Denver capped with a rattle down a dusty, washboard dirt road—people come from all over the world to learn, listen to stories told by rangers, walk trails through the grasslands, and pay respects.
Not unexpectedly, having time and space for reflection stirred up a cauldron of emotions in me. Later that day, I made my way to Denver, and, as I drove through the asphalt grid, I viewed the city with different eyes. Instead of only seeing the contemporary reality of buildings, roads, signs, and overpasses, I perceived it through the lens of time. In my mind’s eye, I saw the land’s past self superimposed on its current reality, as if an ever-present ghost. The juxtaposition of the two scenes—the vast, undulating plains potent with tragedy and the modern monuments of concrete and glass—unsettled something deep within me.
My cursory schoolbook understanding morphed into a visceral feeling of despair. I wasn’t just thinking about colonization at a dispassionate remove but feeling it as an integral part of my own history, too. I felt ashamed: It was clear just how much I had been oblivious to a very important element of my own relationship to—and context within—the beloved land that I call home and the welfare of my neighbors.
Not long before that experience, I’d started to notice the ubiquity of land acknowledgments. Formally acknowledging land is originally an Indigenous practice, a gesture of gratitude, connection, and the expression of a respectful relationship with nature that dates back centuries, if not longer. In settler communities—that is, non-Native communities—the custom has become more widespread within the past decade, first in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and now in the United States. At their simplest, land acknowledgments recognize the original inhabitants of the land upon which an individual or organization lives or works. This magazine’s office, for example, sits on the ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho and has also been home to the Ute, Kiowa, Lakota, Comanche, Shoshone, and Apache peoples. Land acknowledgments may also go further to recognize the impact and trauma of colonization, express gratitude for Indigenous stewardship of the land, and celebrate the resilience and contributions of Indigenous communities and individuals today.
Over the past five years, I have heard land acknowledgments read at the beginning of meetings. I have seen them on websites and in email signatures. Cities from Denver and Longmont to Tempe, Arizona, and Portland, Oregon, have adopted these statements in the past couple of years and now read them aloud before city council meetings. Universities post them on their websites. At Fort Lewis College, in Durango, an official reads a land acknowledgment before sporting events. It is also printed on class syllabi.
The ways in which I saw the practice in my professional and personal life made me both curious and uneasy. Making Indigenous presence more visible seemed like a good exercise, but the statements often felt like Band-Aids on gaping, centuries-deep wounds. It felt as if there was so much left unsaid, and so much left undone. Some have indeed criticized the practice as performative or perfunctory. Still, I wondered if land acknowledgments could be a gateway into deeper understanding that could then form the basis of beneficial action. And, if so, how?
Durango and the surrounding Four Corners region, where I have lived for 17 years, is layered deeply with the intersecting stories of human beings. According to the Utes, many of whom reside on reservations in southwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah, their people have lived here since the beginning of time. Within their ancestral lands and hunting grounds—which stretch from the mountains and canyons of Utah, all the way across Colorado, into the Oklahoma Panhandle, and down into the deserts of northern New Mexico—the remnants of Bear Dance corrals grace the land. Among the mountains of Colorado’s Western Slope, wickiups, conical dwellings made of boughs, and migratory trails remain in the backcountry, some dating to the late 1800s—well past the establishment of reservations, suggesting that the Ute people defiantly stayed on their land despite attempts by European settlers to forcibly remove them.
Many others who moved away centuries ago retain deep ties to this land. The Hopi, who have lived in 12 villages on three mesas in northeastern Arizona since time immemorial, can trace some of their clans back through the greater Durango area. Petroglyphs related to migration dot the walls of canyons in the Four Corners region. After centuries-old buried Native remains and objects have resurfaced during construction projects in the community, the Hopi have claimed and repatriated them.
The Navajos’ ancestral lands extend through the Four Corners area to the peaks just outside of Durango, and Pueblo communities—such as the Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, and Rio Grande—all currently in New Mexico, also chart the activities of their ancestors nearby. For many who currently reside here, as well as those who no longer do, the land bears a gossamer web of ancestral connections.
“My personal perspective is, this is home,” says TJ Atsye, speaking of the area around Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado. Atsye is a Laguna Pueblo tribal member and former Mesa Verde National Park employee who created and voiced the park’s audio driving tour. “Just because we no longer live here does not mean that we have lost that connection,” she says. “This is considered home. You come to visit it. You come to give prayer offerings. You come to see and reconnect with home and the ancient ones.”
There are different ways to know history and heritage, and in the way I have been taught, dates, periods, categories, and bullet points are the norm. Many people have come to understand history and heritage through different means, such as story, ceremony, and relationship. When I decided to learn more about the land and its people, I didn’t know where to begin, and sometimes different ways of knowing were at odds with one another. Western archaeologists, for example, believe the Utes arrived here in the 1600s, based on physical evidence, but the Utes themselves say they’ve been here for far longer. As people who traveled in relationship to the flow of the seasons, they left scant impacts on the land.
I’m not sure how to reconcile these things, but maybe on some level, they don’t need reconciliation, because they reflect different aspects or interpretations of the same story. Or, perhaps, they will be reconciled in the future as more research and details come to light. The recent unearthing of 23,000-year-old fossilized human footprints in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, for instance, begins to align Western research with the stories that Indigenous elders have kept safe for millennia through oral tradition.
As I undertook the process of filling in the gaps in my education, I explored resources that are publicly available and paid for professionally guided tours. In addition to speaking with many Native people who live and work near my Durango home, I watched videos and read histories on tribal websites. I leafed through tribal newspapers, went to art exhibits, and pored over history books. I perused the work of organizations supporting Indigenous sovereignty, culture, and rights, and I scanned social media for news and events. I scrolled through a fourth-grade school curriculum on Ute history, culture, and contemporary issues. Seeking road maps, I also read the land acknowledgments of local organizations, which invariably turned up more questions than answers.
The more I discovered, the more I began to see the land on which I live through different and illuminating lenses. The names I have always known and used for certain landmarks, for example, are not the only names that belong to these places. Dibé Ntsaa, which rises in imposing glory in the La Plata Mountains west of Durango, is one of the sacred mountains that define the ancestral lands of the Navajo, the Diné in the Navajo language. I have always known it to be Hesperus Mountain. Within Hopitutskwa, the Four Corners region the Hopi have lived on and traveled through over the centuries, the Yotavayu river flows through the sage flats and canyons not far from where I now live. I have always known the river by the name Spanish explorers gave it: the San Juan.
I also gained insight on the ways in which I’d had blinders on. When I first moved to Durango, in 2005, the history of the previous century and a half was impossible to miss. As with many Colorado mountain towns, the community’s biggest industry, tourism, is built on a celebration of the rowdy newcomers who streamed in during the 19th century in search of quick fortune and new beginnings. They were largely of European descent but also included Black Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese. Learning about the wild tales of prospectors and miners, cowboys and cowgirls, barroom shootouts and backroom brothels may seem innocuous, but the primacy and valorization of the recent past in the town’s mythology seemed to invite and ingrain, at least for non-Native people like me, a certain kind of cultural amnesia. On a subconscious level, one could conceive of the land before colonization as a kind of tabula rasa, effectively erasing the living presence of the people who have been here for as long as they can remember and have never left.
Last fall, I buried myself in archaeological records and books at the Animas Museum a few blocks from my house and persuaded a local archaeologist, Mona Charles, to have lunch with me. I learned that people have likely been here, whether living or passing through, since the last glaciers receded up the valley at least 10,000 years ago. Projectile points found in the area date to between 10,000 and 5,500 B.C.E., and there’s evidence that people who lived centuries ago picked up these even more ancient projectile points and either used them or perhaps collected them as curiosities.
Different groups of humans have always interacted with one another through both space and time. In hidden caves that overlook a trail I often hike in Falls Creek, amateur archaeologists in the 1930s discovered mummies, jewelry, sandals, and various possessions belonging to people who lived some 2,000 years ago. A few blocks from my home, a gravel pit turned up an entire village that dates to the 820s. It’s now an apartment complex.
“Some people say you can’t dig anywhere without finding something,” Susan Jones, a board member for the Animas Museum, told me one day this past fall. Durango old-timers, she said, remember bicycling around kivas in the Crestview neighborhood decades ago as new houses were springing up. Other residents remember finding arrowheads and pottery in an ancestral Pueblo village that was destroyed with the construction of a prominent water tower on Animas Mountain, which I can see from my living room window. If the region’s history had once felt distant, it now felt living and breathing. Based on the sheer number of archaeological sites and pit houses found in Durango and its immediate vicinity, archaeologists believe the population boomed and thousands of people lived here in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Durango was literally built on top of the vast remnants of multiple civilizations that had started to become smaller starting sometime in the 13th century.
How did I not know this? “Nobody does,” Jones told me. “Durango doesn’t want you to know.” While some conscientious contractors and landowners willingly arrange for archaeological surveys on new sites, there are no local regulations governing archaeological discoveries on private land. Since the 1880s and continuing through today, settlers have quite literally paved over the evidence of both past and more contemporary occupation in the name of a certain kind of progress.
History doesn’t conform to tidy narratives, and within the interwoven stories of individuals, families, and peoples who have lived in Colorado, there are tales of friendship and betrayal; fruitful trading and merciless raids; and greed, brutality, and altruism. But the systematic deceit and injustice embedded within multiple treaties between the United States and tribal leaders and the cumulative impact of the trauma of colonization are well-documented.
As white settlers devoured more and more land in the 19th century, new treaties supplanted the word of prior treaties, continually shrinking the territories of Native people through broken promises. In the same treaty that promised reparations to the survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, for example, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were banished from their homelands in Colorado. The Brunot Agreement of 1874 coerced the Utes into opening the snowy bastion of the San Juan Mountains to settlement and mining. They were subsequently forced onto reservations that represented a sliver of their homelands and compelled into a foreign way of life that threatened to destroy the people’s bond to the land and the natural world, which had always provided food, medicine, and spiritual sustenance.
Perhaps most important, the process of colonization is not over. For many Native Americans, it is experienced in the present tense. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council member, currently serves as the cross-cultural programs manager for the Montezuma Land Conservancy and is working to reconnect tribal members with the land. She recalls that her father was part of one of the last groups of Ute Mountain Utes taken from their families and forced to assimilate through boarding schools—and that the grief and loss is continuing.
“He experienced the negative impacts of forcibly being told not to speak your language or sing your songs or play your music and things like that in the school and was forcibly taught English,” she says. “He said, you know, one of the things we don’t realize is the way we live, the way we talk, the language we speak in isn’t our language. The systems that we live in, this world we live in, really isn’t the world that our elders and ancestors lived in. It’s not the life, the process, the way we brought food to our people, and how we interacted with one another. The way we’re doing things right now is in the process of colonization. I am who I am today talking to you all because this is how I was forcibly educated to speak, and this is how I’m sharing. In my world, it wouldn’t be like this.”
Whether undertaken individually or on an institutional or governmental level, land acknowledgments are delicate and often fraught. As they proliferate in universities, nonprofits, governments, businesses, and on social media, the practice is coming under increasing scrutiny.
This past October, the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists (AIA) officially requested that the American Anthropological Association pause the practice of land acknowledgments. In an editorial published that month in YES! Magazine, a trio of anthropology professors involved with the AIA—Elisa Sobo, Michael Lambert, and Valerie Lambert—argued that contemporary land acknowledgments can spread false information and harmful narratives, reinforcing the idea that the land no longer belongs to Indigenous peoples and minimizing the profundity of the trauma. At Microsoft’s Ignite conference in November, a host began by recognizing that the company’s campus has been home to the “Sammamish, Duwamish, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Snohomish, Tulalip, and other coast Salish peoples” and that they are still there. Critics derided the casual and confusing wording—did they still live among the office buildings?—and the lack of any substantive recognition of the connection between past and present, the trauma of colonization, and the need for redress.
“Because non-Indigenous people are generally unaware of this trauma, land acknowledgments are often heard by Indigenous peoples as the denial of that trauma,” Sobo, Lambert, and Lambert wrote. “This perspective is reinforced by a tendency to cast Indigenous peoples as part of prehistory, suggesting that the trauma of dispossession, if it happened at all, did not happen to real or wholly human people.” It’s essential, they say, to both tell the unvarnished truth and ensure that words are backed up by action.
Some proponents of land acknowledgment say it can help issues facing Native Americans seep into the broader culture, spurring action in ways that can’t be precisely tracked. In other instances, land acknowledgments have more tangibly led to change. In October 2020, Jamie Torres, a representative on Denver’s City Council who had listened to land acknowledgments in her own social gatherings for years, introduced the practice to the council’s weekly meetings. “I wanted it to become a reminder, each time we gather on Monday, that this is what we center on,” she says. “This is something that we feel is important in our daily work, even if you don’t work with Indigenous communities on a regular basis…. And then, beyond that, these land acknowledgments can’t just be lip service. There’s always got to be the question: What does that inspire? And what does it inform? And how do things change?”
Within a couple of months of adopting the land acknowledgment, the parks and recreation department approached Torres with an idea. The city of Denver owns two bison herds—one in Genesee and one in Daniels Park, in Sedalia—and every year the department auctions off animals to manage population numbers. Instead of selling them to private entities, what if they passed them along to tribes? In 2021, they delivered the animals to the Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma, and the department plans to give them to tribal communities from now on. There’s a synergy, Torres told me, between recognition, deepening awareness, and the capacity for meaningful action on an institutional level and an individual level.
There is no one path that leads from the words of a land acknowledgment to action that serves Native communities, and numerous organizations and individuals throughout Colorado are trying new ways to move forward. Montezuma Land Conservancy (MLC), a land trust in southwest Colorado, considered adopting a land acknowledgment but wanted to embody it more fully in practice. The organization’s leadership realized that they first needed to develop trust and deepen relationships with tribal members, and they had a powerful tool for connection: the land itself.
This past summer, MLC, along with members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and the Telluride Institute, co-sponsored Native and other underrepresented youth on a two-week trip that was aimed at helping them connect to the land through science and recreation. The organization is building a trail that will showcase native plants and Ute culture and hopes to have interpretive panels in as many as four languages (Ute, Diné, Spanish, and English) at Fozzie’s Farm, the organization’s educational center in Lewis. In October, Lopez-Whiteskunk led a storytelling gathering in which Ute elders and various community leaders came together over their mutual love of this place, shared stories and visions for caring for the land, enjoyed flute music, and feasted on Indigenous foods together.
Lopez-Whiteskunk has a more expansive vision of what land acknowledgment should and could be—not as a backward-looking apology but as a recognition that the land contains much more than human history and that our own healing and the health of the Earth are wrapped up in each other. “It’s not always just acknowledging the Indigenous people who were there before the settlers and the miners and that group of people,” she says. “It’s about acknowledging the life that was out on the land, and that could be anything from the animals to the plants—all the life that has happened beyond human existence.” Lopez-Whiteskunk has a dream of re-creating portions of the region’s Ute trail system, which used to take people from the valleys to the mountains and back again with the flow of the seasons. People who come from all over the world to hike and ski these peaks would not only see the vistas but also understand the context in which they find themselves, including the historical and living presence of the Utes and the importance of the animals and plants.
In addition to the work of organizations, individuals in Colorado and beyond are experimenting with new steps toward healing and reparation. While researching her family history, retired education professor and activist Christine Sleeter discovered that an inheritance she had received from her grandmother originally stemmed from the sale of land that had been stolen from the Utes and then homesteaded by her great-grandparents. Sleeter decided the money didn’t rightfully belong to her and, in 2017, wrote a $250,000 check to the Ute Indian Tribe, headquartered in Utah. The tribe used it to help build a school. “I intentionally framed what I wanted to do as ‘returning what was stolen,’ however, rather as than [sic] giving the Tribe a donation,” she wrote about the project. “That framing also put the spotlight on the injustice of settler colonialism rather than the ‘generosity’ of the donor.”
Other people have returned private land directly to tribes across the country. After purchasing 2.51 acres in Costilla County in southern Colorado, a plumber named Rich Snyder found signs of Ute habitation and experienced a powerful dream about the Indigenous presence on the land. Upon reflection, he believed the tract didn’t belong to him, so, in 2018, he became the first person to officially return land to the Ute Indian Tribe.
Some Native individuals and communities question the very premise that portions of the Earth can be claimed for oneself and the merit of perpetuating a system that divides it in this way. “The elders don’t believe you can own land,” says Rickey Hayes, a Ute Mountain Ute guide who took me on a tour through the Ute Mountain Tribal Park on the western flank of Mesa Verde National Park. “We keep it for our children and grandchildren. We’re just here for a while.”
Hayes is a born storyteller and speaks in poetic loops and refrains, returning to the same themes and symbols. During our exploration of Lion Canyon one hot afternoon this past August, I noticed the way he moved through the landscape and the ancient buildings, dating to about 1145, with mindful respect for the people who came before. The Ute Mountain Tribal Park encompasses the structural remnants of Pueblo communities that have since relocated—people who, Hayes tells me, the Utes used to raid. As we gingerly stepped around magnificent kivas and marveled at multistory masonry dwellings in solitude, Hayes made offerings of water to the ancient ones and said prayers in Ute. One time, I asked him what he’d said.
“I pray for your family and all your relatives,” he said.
“Are you speaking to the people who once lived here?” I asked.
“Everybody,” he said. “Past, present, and future.”
Across the region and beyond, people of different Indigenous heritages talk about the thinnest of veils between past and present. Karen Wilde, the former tribal liaison for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, has spoken of hearing distant drumming in the trees and feeling the presence of the spirits of those who perished there. Contemporary Pueblo people say the spirits of the ancestors still walk among the piñon and juniper trees and the thousand-year-old homes and ceremonial buildings perched on the imposing hill of Chimney Rock National Monument in southwest Colorado.
“For many years, these places have been called ruins or places that were abandoned or moved on from,” says Curtis Quam of the Pueblo of Zuni, according to an interpretive panel at Chimney Rock. “But in our view, these places are still alive. Our ancestors are still here. It’s all of our heritage. It’s our history. It makes us who we are.”
In a 1979 essay, Leslie Marmon Silko, a writer who grew up in the Pueblo of Laguna, suggests that those who have passed on, those who are not yet born, and living people all dwell on this land and that storytelling is a way of being together. “When Aunt Susie told her stories,” she writes, “she would tell a younger child to go open the door so that our esteemed predecessors might bring in their gifts to us. ‘They are out there,’ Aunt Susie would say. ‘Let them come in. They’re here with us within the stories.’ ”
Box, the Bear Dance Chief for the Southern Utes, learned the special stories and songs of the tradition from his grandfather, Eddie “Red Ute” Box Sr., who served as the Bear Dance Chief for the community more than half a century ago. While the original story remains the same, much has changed since then. There are actually more people who attend the Bear Dance now, people from all over the world. And, more than ever, participants embrace what Box calls the physics of it—the ineffable, mysterious alchemy in which song, story, community, ceremony, presence, and the power of human feet moving together over ancient soil come together and open the door for healing. The practices the she-bear gave the people, Box says, were a gift of creation in the name of healthy community, celebration, strength, and rejuvenation, a gift that reverberates through time. All the dancers, as they converge with one another and the land itself, are part of the continuation of the story.
“I’m not sure what the Bear Dance looks like 50 years from now, but I can see that the physics part of it is magnificent,” Box says. “It could be incredible as far as what it provides to individuals, to families, to communities, and to the world. I see everybody getting something from this, as it was intended as a gift to mankind to become healthy and stronger and be in harmony with the world and creation—and each other.”