Utes Must Go: American Expansion and the Removal of a
People, by Peter R. Decker. Published in 2004 by Fulcrum
Publishing, Golden, Colo.
If anyone has failed to learn the wonderful story of
the Lewis and Clark Expedition that set out 200 years
ago this summer, it's not for absence of opportunities.
Undaunted Courage , the book by Stephen Ambrose, is only
the best known of a long list of feel-good books, films
and magazine stories celebrating this first U.S. articulation
of a divine imperative to settle the North American continent,
a concept later called Manifest Destiny.
But there's a dark, harsh interior to this perceived
mandate to conquer in the name of civilization, and that
story was played out most spectacularly after the Civil
War. As well as any other, perhaps better, this story
can be illustrated by the displacement of the Ute Indians
from Colorado. It could be called "Unflinching Arrogance." Using
a phrase common in the wake of the U.S.-Ute confrontation,
Peter Decker, author and member of the Fort Lewis College
Board of Trustees, calls it The Utes Must Go!
How we describe that 1879 confrontation tells much about
the bias of our story. It's the "Meeker Massacre" to
most of us even now, and although Indian agent Nathan
Meeker indeed was shot and clubbed by his Ute killers,
the more telling detail of his demise is that the Utes
who killed him drove a stake through his mouth. To them,
his series of lies during his brief tenure as agent for
the Ute reservation along the White River of northwest
Colorado was capped by his summoning of the U.S. Calvary.
To put that story into contemporary terms, Meeker was
a stubborn, arrogant (phrases even used by contemporaries)
religious fundamentalist, and the concerns of the Utes
were homeland security. Even a more neutral reading of
the history should remember this as the "Battle of Milk
Creek," or even the "Invasion of the White River Reservation."
The specific history of this 1879 confrontation has
been told in several good books, but Decker puts the
story into the broader and fundamentally racist context
of Manifest Destiny that was first formulated under President
Thomas Jefferson and his successors, John Quincy Adams
and Andrew Jackson, then embellished by Sen. Thomas Hart
Benton and others.
Guided by this philosophy, respected liberal Samuel
Bowles of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican explained
in 1869 that white Americans possessed a superior claim
to the continent because God had gifted the earth to
them for "its improvement and development." Hence, white
settlers must say to Indians that "you are our ward,
our child, the victim of our destiny, ours to displace,
ours to protect," Bowles wrote.
From this sense of religious entitlement it was only
a step further to what today we would call "ethnic cleansing." Even
as the United States emerged from a bloody, protracted
civil war ostensibly to give freedom to people of different
skin colors, the dominant attitude was that Indians had
no rights - not even to living. If the United States
hadn't already begun down-sizing its Army, argues Decker,
the ultimate solution of the United States to the "Indian
problem" could have been the same as Hitler's solution
to Jews and Gypsies. This thinking was not of radicals,
he says, but near the center of political thought.
"The 'doom of extinction' so confidently prophesized
by scores of Anglo-Saxons reflected a racism so pervasive,
so harsh and ultimately so violent that it was the rare
individual who raised his or her voice in the West to
defend the Indians," says Decker.
Is Decker overstepping the evidence? It would seem not.
After one Ute raid of a mining camp that had intruded
onto their territory, the Rocky Mountain News editorialized
that the Utes are a "dissolute vagabondish, brutal and
ungrateful race and ought to be wiped from the face of
Investigating the story of the Utes, Decker does not
deny that the Utes were capable of transgressions of
their own. But the overarching story he tells is one
of "countless hateful, dishonest, and corrupt men and
their insensitive and often brutal actions against an
Indian tribe that wanted only to be left alone." In looking
beyond the myths, historical investigation reveals "no
heroes, only ones less evil than others," he says.
We continue to extol those hateful, dishonest, corrupt
men. Nobody came out of this looking very good - not
Otto Mears, not General William Tecumseh Sherman, and
most certainly not Gov. Fredrick Pitkin nor Sen. Henry
Teller, after whom our counties, streets and schools
What is the value of pinning down the truth of our past?
Inasmuch as we seem to think that our episodes of "undaunted
courage" are worth remembering, obviously the flip side
is also relevant.
But surely there are other and more important reasons
for sorting through the dirty laundry of our national
experience, and Decker acknowledges the need. He argues
that there was no inevitability to this particular clash
of civilizations. People had choices.
And that may be true. But his answer does not really
answer his own question of "Why care now?"
I often think about what Denver Post columnist Ed Quillen
said about dredging up injustices of the past in the
various global Hatfield vs. McCoy genocidal spats. There
should be a statue of limitations on such grudges, he
said, and he's right.
But my response to Decker's question is that, in ways
we probably don't realize, we continue to embrace the
assumptions of Manifest Destiny. It wasn't all that long
ago that we finally acknowledged two truths in Montana
with a new name, the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But
those are my ill-shaped thoughts. I would have enjoyed
an epilogue from Decker that details his thoughts on
how this story from the past applies to the present and
My complaint is a left-handed compliment. I would argue
that the quality of research, writing and analysis all
make it worthy of national attention. Because it is published
in Colorado, I suspect it will not get that sort of deserved