So who’s really a native?

Essay by Allen Best

Residency – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

by Allen Best

A few years ago I was out on a backcountry ski trip with a guy from Englewood, a computer programmer who works for what we used to call a military-industrial contractor. He began railing about the migration o

A nurse and an engineer from the Denver area who were with us nodded in agreement.

Or maybe they were getting sleepy.

I laughed — and smugly tried to explain why. In the early 1970s, when my trio of skiing friends arrived in Colorado, I had two bumper stickers on my clunker: “John Denver Go Home” and “Native.” I remember very well the efforts by Gov. John Love to recruit businesses from New Jersey and wherever else — efforts that helped bring my skiing friends to Colorado.

Those times — the early 1970s — were parallel to recent years. The immigrants jacked up prices, fouled the air, and took the good camping spots. I saw my first “Don’t Californicate Colorado” bumper sticker in 1973 and my second one in 1993.

Actually, I like John Denver, even if his songs helped effect that which they protested (“…more people, more scars upon the land…”). As for my Native bumper sticker, it disappeared after Alec Jameson, a car dealer in Kremmling, asked me slyly: “What are you, a Ute?”

I moved to Kremmling in 1977. Jameson’s forefathers sank roots there in the 19th century. As for the Utes, it’s unclear when they arrived.

A recent story outlined how a coalition of White River Utes and Steamboat Springs residents hope to erect a monument there to draw attention to the Utes, “the first settlers.” The Utes of the White River and Uncompahgre bands had roamed Northwestern Colorado for more than 2,000 years before white settlers arrived, the story noted.

However, archæologists tell me it’s more likely Utes arrived in Northwestern Colorado 400 to 700 years ago. We know people lived in mud houses literally down the road from Kremmling and Steamboat Springs at least 6,000 years ago, and there’s evidence (projectile points and radio-carbon dating) of people in that area more than 10,000 years ago.

They may have been the grandparents of the Utes, but maybe not.

During recent years two bodies excavated just 40 miles apart were tested with permission of the closest remaining tribe, the Utes. That DNA suggests that those two people, who lived 800 to 900 years apart, reflect two different genetic road maps. In other words, even if one of those bodies was of a Ute, there may well have been other “first” settlers in northwestern Colorado.

This past winter I heard the renowned flutist R. Carlos Nakai perform. He’s of Navajo and Ute heritage, and he acknowledges being a Native American. But he also indicated how little that phrase, now so much in vogue, really means. “You, too, are native Americans,” he said, while sweeping his hand out toward the 500 people at his concert in Beaver Creek. Few of us looked to have American Indian blood.

In fact, some geneticists and linguists now think there were five separate migrations to the Americas before Columbus or even Leif Ericsson. Can all be called first settlers?

Even once in the Americas, there was considerable movement. The Utes may not have been the first in Northwest Colorado. The Navajos definitely weren’t the first in the Four Corners region. They migrated from Canada, probably 1,000 or so years ago, displacing other tribes.

Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians moved to today’s Colorado just a few steps ahead of the white settlers in the late 1700s. Similarly, the Lahkota Sioux made the Black Hills their sacred grounds after previous settlement in today’s Minnesota.

My great grandparents were among the first settlers of Colorado (1887), although I think few people give a rat’s tail about such things. Maybe your ancestors arrived with John Evans and H.A.W. Tabor, and you see my family as a straggler. Does anybody claim Colonel Chivington in the family tree?

Today, ex-Californians hide their origins, but in 60 years their grumpy grandchildren may have “Native” bumper stickers as another wave of immigration occurs. And up in Pinedale and Casper and Laramie, they may already have bumperstickers that say: “Don’t Coloradoize Wyoming.”

As they say, all things are relative.

Allen Best, formerly of Avon, has decided that Colorado native status doesn’t help one whit when selling free-lance writing. He just moved to civilization to edit a new weekly in Lower Downtown Denver.