Steamboat Springs Standing in front of a scribbled map of American Indian extermination, Ute tribe historian Roland McCook sprinkles jokes and sage sayings across a deadly serious topic.
"I come here today with an open mind, just to talk with you folks, at random if you will, and I don't have an agenda - but if you don't say anything, I'm going to ramble on," McCook said to a crowded room in the Utterback Annex of the Tread of Pioneers Museum, taking questions from the 100 or so people who showed up for his Thursday evening talk.
Donning a full headdress, a beaded vest and a pair of Wranglers, McCook, who grew up on the Uintah Ouray Reservation near Fort Duchesne, Utah, recalled his family's version of the threat that the boogey man would get him if he stayed out too late to play.
"The earliest that I remember, growing up in that area, my mother would say 'Come in, or the white man's gonna getcha,'" he said, offering his image of a white man with "white skin and a hairy face."
McCook - who serves as vice chairman of the board for the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, and as vice chairman for the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose - has spent much his life between tradition and assimilation. Fielding questions about the Meeker Massacre, the Yampa Valley Curse and whether he prefers "Native American" or "American Indian," he offered a perspective on his heritage he introduced by saying, "you won't read this in your history books."
In a lot of ways, that perspective does stick to the common knowledge. A nomadic tribe in the Shoshone linguistic family that favored summers in the Steamboat Springs area for its natural hot springs and grassy riverbeds, the Utes were placed on a Colorado reservation in 1868. Within a decade, white settlement had changed the landscape they were accustomed to roaming. That didn't always go over well, and the Utes ended up on small, less-than-desirable plots of land that didn't suit their lifestyle, after government promises of something better.
"They've never been able to deliver that, and the lands that they gave us were so poor that they never measured up to irrigable lands," McCook said.
After spending years as a civil engineer and forest manager, McCook heeded his father's advice to "go live like the white man, and then go back and help your people." In addition to the boards he serves on, McCook helped start the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in 1995, encouraged students of Ute descent to go to Colorado Mountain College, started a skiing program with Billy Kidd for Ute children, and ran a leg for the Olympic Torch preceding the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Part of helping his people means offering education and information to "non-Indians."
"My heart could be angry. I could stand here and give you a different idea and tell you how I really feel. But what would be the point of doing that? I would rather come here and educate you," he said.
Earlier Thursday, McCook visited Camp Namana, part of Steamboat Springs' Humble Ranch and a facility for the Humble Ranch Education and Therapy Center. The campsite got its name from the Shoshone word for "together," as a way to honor the area's Ute heritage and represent the facility's mission to provide therapeutic activities to people with special needs, said Humble Ranch executive director and physical therapist Cheri Trousil.
"We always thought it would be a special experience to have a Ute elder come and bless that site so we could honor the land in respect for what we do," Trousil said of McCook's 7 a.m. blessing.
"He was sharing with us today that he doesn't just go around and do blessings. He does it only for locations that he feels have a worth," she said, explaining McCook is kind and gentle in sharing his vast firsthand knowledge. "It was just really him honoring us in his willingness to come up and do it."
As he reflected on a religion that values natural surroundings and holds to a creation story that put the Utes on top of the Rocky Mountains so they could be closer to the heavens, McCook is aware of how his culture has adapted, and he is adamant that its traditions be preserved.
"It isn't like I wake up in my tepee and put on a headdress and go stand on a precipice," he said. "I just want people to understand where we come from."
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