Area author details Utes' struggle

The 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 the earth."

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 are named.

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 future.

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 attention.







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