Examining 400 years of unsettlement

Essay by George Sibley

Western Culture – March 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Think of two world views coming together with completely different views of the universe, and of nature. A lot of times when we speak of the meaning of cultures, we forget that beyond the initial clash emerges a new view of the world….

— Rudolfo Anaya

WHAT DO THIRD- or fourth-generation ranchers, loggers and miners in the “headwaters region” of Colorado today — the mountains and valleys of Central Colorado — have in common with Indians inhabiting the region 400 years ago?

Not much, maybe — at least not at first glance. But from a larger historical perspective, people in the region today are going through some of the same perplexing “unsettlements” that have marked the history of the American Southwest from the time that it was “El Norté.”

Like the Pueblo Indians in the upper Rio Grande valley 400 years ago, today’s inhabitants are experiencing changes imposed by an influx of powerful ideas and ideologies developed elsewhere (not to mention lots of new people bearing those ideologies).

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the advent into the headwaters region of European ideologies. In 1598, the Spaniard Don Juan de Oñate led a large mixed party of soldiers, farmers, priests, and general adventurers into the upper Rio Grande valley.

Determined to “settle” the region for the Christian God and the Spanish King and Queen, the Spaniards showed little concern about whatever unsettlement they might cause for the people already there.

But the process got about as unsettling as is imaginable a year later, when the Spaniards massacred and enslaved the people of the Acoma pueblo — because that native population had apparently shown too much resistance toward the idea of embracing a new “one size fits all” god, and a ruler half a world away.

Today, the unsettlement in the region comes primarily from three interrelated sources:

First, the new global economic pattern divests from “traditional” raw-resource economies in our region, and invests instead in recreation and relocation for the wealthy.

Second, local enterprises have been steadily co-opted by the chains and franchises of “the United States of Generica.”

And third, people with a spiritual reverence for the environment — a primarily post-urban group — exist in about the same tension with the native population, and many of the newly established entrepreneurs, as the 16th-century Catholic church existed with the conquistadors.

Today, no group is being physically conquered or enslaved, but many longtime inhabitants have had their economic underpinnings knocked out from under them by these changes. And thus they’ve had to adapt their whole worldview in ways not much less extreme than those imposed on the earlier indigenous people.

These, however, were not the only two “unsettlements” of the 400-year Euroamerican period since Oñate’s arrival in 1598.

The Spanish who unsettled the Pueblo Indians in the upper Rio Grande valley four centuries ago were themselves constantly under siege in the 18th and 19th centuries by nomadic native bands, who in turn had been unsettled by the advent of Spanish horses (the 17th century’s version of the “sport-utility vehicle”).

The arrival of the horse had resulted in a “raiding and trading” way of life for the nomads. But that, in turn, changed upon the arrival of the U.S. Army in the region.

And since the army came to make the region safe for capitalists and Christians, the cavalry’s arrival presaged an even more massive unsettlement.

And so it went… from hunter-tribesman to capitalist-merchant, from totems to crosses, from arrowheads to bullets.

Yet the Anglo era in the region can itself be easily divided into two major periods marked by even more unsettlement: the “rugged individualist” era prior to the early 20th century, and the “Federal” era that began with the “enclosure” and bureaucratic takeover of the unsettled public lands that westerners had grown accustomed to thinking of as their own local commons.

THIS PROCESS led historian Donald Worster to observe that “the West remains a highly unstable place, changing constantly, reacting to the forces of nature as much as culture, never arriving at a point of being settled.”

This ongoing process of unsettlement will be the central topic of the eighth Headwaters Conference April 3-5, at Western State College in Gunnison.

The conference will bring together writers, poets, scholars, public officials, community activists, and general citizens to consider not just this process of “unsettlement” in the region, but the larger challenge suggested by Rudolfo Anaya in the statement at the beginning of this article.

How do we get beyond the initial “unsettlement” to the eventual “resettlement?”

And if we are to embrace “a new view of the world” what will or should it be?

As usual, the Headwaters Conference will utilize a variety of presentational formats to stimulate open discussion on the topic — readings from writers like Stanley Crawford of the upper Rio Grande region; presentations by bards like Art Goodtimes of the San Miguel valley and Antonito native Aaron Abeyta; papers by scholars like Devon Peña of the San Luis Valley and Laura McCall from the South Platte valley; and something curmudgeonly from the publisher of Colorado Central.

A highlight of this year’s program will be a Friday evening (April 3) visit to the conference by a group of Distinguished Visitors from the past. Oñate himself and one of his priests will be on hand, along with people from the pueblos unsettled by Oñate.

Joining them will be Colorado’s industrial tycoon William J. Palmer, Colorado’s first Forest Ranger Len Kreutzer, agrarian idealist Nathan Meeker, and one of the Ute chiefs who tired of Meeker and his ideas, and others — all of them wanting to find out how their grand ideas and great schemes for the region look today.

The eighth Headwaters Conference is sponsored by the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities, the Western State College Foundation and other “friends of the Headwaters.” For a schedule of events, information about lodging, or any other information regarding the conference, call or write to George Sibley, Headwaters Coördinator, Western State College, Gunnison, Colorado, 81231; 970-943-2055.

As you might have guessed, George Sibley teaches at Western State College in Gunnison when he’s not writing or rocking the boat.