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Trade-offs: N. Utes reaped benefits and woes from white settlers

N. Utes reaped benefits and woes from white settlers

Published: Saturday, March 2 2002 5:23 p.m. MST

Clifford Duncan of the Northern Ute Tribe rides a horse during the opening ceremonies, which showcased Utah's Utes, Goshutes, Shoshones, Paiutes and Navajos.

Stuart W. Johnson, Deseret News

FORT DUCHESNE — In Mexico, they speak of "The Black Legend" and "The White Legend."

The Black Legend is a dark one, telling how the Spaniards destroyed the noble Aztec culture and replaced it with a culture of self-indulgence based on the European model.

The White Legend spins things the other way. The Spaniards brought the wonders of the world to a primitive people and ushered them into modern civilization.

Utah's Northern Utes have similar discussions.

The Uintah Utes (as they're sometimes called) once made their homeland in Utah Valley. And so more than other tribes they had the good fortune — and misfortune — of living near a group of immigrants intent on modernizing the American West.

And in that exchange, the tribe feels it has come out both winning and losing.

"The negative influences come to mind first," said Forrest Cuch, director of the state's Division of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Tribe. "Alcoholism and other drugs come to mind. Bad diet — sugar, lard, white flour. The pollution of the air and the earth haven't helped.

"As for good influences, I think of education — when provided appropriately, clean technology and modern techniques in art that the Indians have adopted and enhanced."

For generations, being a Ute has meant living with many trade-offs. The tribe's history, in fact, is a tale of accommodation and forced compromise.

The state is named for the Utes, or Yutas, a name derived from Spanish that many say once meant "meat eaters." After several skirmishes with the Utes, the western "Euro-American" immigrants persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to sign a decree moving the Utes out of the Provo Valley and into the Uinta Basin. Today, the Northern Utes number slightly more than 3,000 and oversee 1.3 million acres of trust land.

In an essay for the book "A History of Utah's American Indians," Ute writer Clifford Duncan summed up the current state of affairs this way:

"Even though the Ute Tribe is one of the major economic contributors to the Uinta Basin and the state, the tribe experiences the lingering problems associated with having been proclaimed sovereign yet not being treated as such by the county, state and federal entities. . . . In the past, national politics and economic trends have determined what is good for the Utes. Now, a different approach is needed, based upon the needs and desires of the Ute people."

On the Ute reservation at Fort Duchesne, Larry Cesspooch, public relations officer for the tribe, feels the frustrations of being "sort of sovereign." He also feels, in a very personal way, the tension between the "old" ways and the "new" ways.

Without the advent of the "modern world," he would never have found his passion: documentary filmmaking. But it is also the modern world that has wiped out so many of the things he'd love to capture on film.

"When I was young, I wanted to be a hippy," Cesspooch said. "I wanted to be with the right people, smoke the right stuff. Then I went to Vietnam and my true heritage was all I had to hold on to. I think the heart, mind and spirit of the Ute people are the same as they have always been. Only the objects around them have changed."

To drive the point home, Cesspooch gave a Deseret News reporter a guided tour of the reservation. The tour began with lunch in the deli section of the Ute-run supermarket. Maxine Natchees and Madeleine Martinez were there. On the outside, they looked like two "club ladies" pausing for lunch. But on the inside, the club they belonged to was a very ancient one.

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