Colorado Mountain College Reflects on the State’s Relationship with Indigenous Communities
To commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Colorado Mountain College invited the community for a conversation about Native tribal histories with Ernest House Jr., senior director of policy at the Keystone Policy Center and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
House’s father, Ernest House Sr., was an elected tribal chief for more than 35 years, and his great-grandfather was the tribe’s last hereditary chief, Chief Jack House. House Jr. is a former executive director of the Colorado Indian Affairs Commission and has a long history of working to maintain government-to-government relationships between the state of Colorado and tribal governments and organizations.
House opened to recognize King on National Day by reading one of his quotes that House said he always comes back to:
“Our nation was born in genocide when it adopted the doctrine that the native American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onwards bloodshed in battles for racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation that has attempted, as part of its national policy, to eradicate its indigenous population. Moreover, we have elevated this tragic experience to the level of a noble crusade. Indeed, even today, we have not allowed ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our dramas, our folklore all extol it,” King wrote in his 1963 book “Why We Can’t Wait.”
House said everyone in Indian Country, which he said includes tribes across the United States, as well as Native American organizations and advocacy groups, honored King.
“Through this process, we all recognize that American Indian rights, American Indian movements, efforts in the 1960s and certainly in the 1970s, we wouldn’t be here if Dr. King didn’t hadn’t also brought up this conversation for Native Americans,” House said.
House said there were approximately seven Ute bands, which coalesced into today’s three Ute tribes. His tribe is the Weeminuche Band, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Ignacio comprises two bands. The other four bands were driven out of the state and now form the Northern Ute Indian Tribe in Fort Duchesne, Utah.
He explained that the Utes originally inhabited more than two-thirds of what is now Colorado, as well as more land in surrounding states. Their territory has steadily shrunk with treaty changes, but the mountains of Colorado still mean so much to House and his tribe. His tribe now owns 600,000 acres across Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, and the neighboring tribe to the south has 300,000 acres in Colorado alone.
“Colorado archaeologists and anthropologists will tell you that they believe Ute has been here in what we call Colorado for 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House said. “…But if you ask me or any of my tribe…they will tell you that we have been here since time immemorial, that is, before there was ever had any kind of record.”
He said understanding the true history of indigenous cultures is an essential part of moving beyond simple acknowledgments of the land. House also discussed efforts with tribes and the county to rename the Gore Range, named after a 19th century aristocrat.
House also talked about the land reconnaissances, which he says are meant to plant the seed; they are not the finish line. If an entity plans to do one, he said the work must go beyond simple recognition.
“It has to be a long-term commitment,” House said. “It can’t just be something that you highlight in a report or the 10-year management plan that’s set aside and no one will see.”
As a board member of Fort Lewis College in Durango, which began as an Indian residential school, House said the school now has its ground recognition. on all of its lesson plans, and it works because it starts with the students. House said 30% of the college’s student body was Native American.
Colorado Mountain College President Carrie Besnette Hauser noted that the college owns a 35-acre parcel of land in Montezuma County, in the heart of the Four Corners region, which is part of the ancestral home of the Ute tribe. Mountain Ute. She said the college board was discussing whether he was the true owner of the plot or if he could otherwise be entrusted.
“What we haven’t done adequately is learn and reflect on the long-term history of this land and all that it encompasses and how we recognize more meaningfully and humbly our heritage,” Hauser said.
Host Patrick Staib, professor of social sciences at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs campus, asked House how higher education can work with tribal communities to take meaningful action and move forward.
House said that was question #1 and that each entity would follow a different path. He said entities that have not worked with tribal communities should be informed about the people they are working with, and that building relationships is the first key element which can take time and should not be rushed. . He also said that tribes and government entities do not have the best history and that trust must be built through collaboration. He also reiterated the importance of working to develop relationships with tribal nations and indigenous communities. Even if a campus is far from a tribe, there are Native Americans in every county in Colorado, he said.
House also shared something his dad often said after he returned from meetings with the feds as tribal leader, something House said is one of his dad’s best quotes.
“After I left him, he always said being at the table was so important, and for so long, if you weren’t at the table, you were on the menu,” House said. “And that’s been the native community.”
Colorado Mountain College recorded the event and will make it available to the public this week. The college will also host several follow-up coffee and conversation events for students and faculty to continue talking about moving beyond acknowledgments.