Colorado Views

A couple of weeks ago, we made the long journey back to our summer home in Colorado. We arrived in hot weather, then experienced gale force winds and finally, snow! It seemed a good time to stay indoors and do a little musing.

My Dad, (ninety three and living in the UK,) recently moved to a residential care home due to a number of health issues. He’s as comfortable as possible there, and my Mom, (also in her nineties), visits him every day. Even so, it’s a milestone and one that made me nostalgic. One of my early memories is of watching our flickering black and white TV with him, a TV that was impossibly small by today’s standards and one that blew a valve when someone spilled orange juice over it at my birthday party!  Dad and I, we didn’t watch just anything – we watched Westerns. Especially John Wayne Westerns.

Snow in Colorado
Deer in Colorado

I couldn’t imagine then that my life would lead me to Cowboy country  in Colorado, and how my views on Cowboys and “Indians” would change. We understood the movies as a conflict between good and evil with the white cowboys as the “good guys,” and the “red” Indians as the “bad guys.” It bordered on cathartic that the “good guys,”  who looked like us, only tougher and making a curious fashion statement with their headgear, almost always won the day.

How differently I see it now with updated insights about colonialism and exploitation. As a child, I didn’t know that the indigenous peoples had been deprived of their sacred homelands and confined to small reservations, so that “pioneers” could settle their land, mine its minerals and impose their culture.

My childhood wasn’t all about distracting ourselves with misleading TV fantasies; we lived on the edge of farming country and, indeed, my Mother had been raised on a “smallholding” – or small farm. We watched the fields, some growing hay to overwinter the black and white cows that contentedly chewed the lusher grass in richer pastures.

With this in mind, when we started coming to Colorado, I couldn’t comprehend why cowboys had to “drive” the cattle hundreds of miles persistently in search of good grazing. Visiting a local ranch, I learned that the cattle were moved from Texas to the railroad heads to be transported to the major rich cities, or to Colorado where wealthy prospectors had an appetite for beef. Over the years, twenty-seven million cows were driven in huge herds across the country. Picture the scene, hundreds or thousands of cattle with their longhorns flashing, thundering across the plains kicking up huge clouds of dust, guided only by a few men and boys on horseback. The younger cowboys often worked only for their keep, until they acquired skills of advanced horsemanship. At the ranch, we watched in wonder as a trainer encouraged his horse to follow the gentlest of instructions, the merest hint of pressure, the least twitch of the reins. Naturally, the Westerns focused on the drama and the danger, a stampeding herd of heavy horned animals escaping bullets and arrows, led by heroic handsome men on horseback with only their chaps to protect them.

Roping in Colorado
Branding in Colorado

Over the years I’ve lived in the US, I’ve discovered much more about the native Americans too. There are many tribal groups, some of whom came close to extinction due to the white settlers’ prejudicial laws and practices. In our area the Ute people predominated – but the picture’s complicated!  The name Ute encompasses many tribes or bands, who came together to form three Ute peoples. They were nomadic, living both on the plains and in the mountains, as they followed the migrations of buffalo, elk and deer. These animals were their food source and they used the skins for teepees and clothing. Apparently, they took care not to kill more animals than they needed. Their sacred practices embraced dance, especially the bear dance and the rain dance, and a deep respect for nature, revering certain mountains they considered the homes of sacred spirits. These people had no concept of land ownership, invisible, arbitrary, boundaries, or permanent settlements so, inevitably, they came into conflict when white men and (to a much lesser extent) women, imposed their way of life and forcibly took over the lands the Ute had inhabited for ten thousand years.

Modern native Americans now live both in contemporary towns and cities and on the reservations that replaced their ancestral lands. The Utes, as you can guess, were moved from their extensive territory to a reservation of Utah. Many native Americans are working to restore their cultural heritage, their language and traditions, yet there are serious problems resulting from being abruptly dislocated from their past.

I don’t regret the hours I spent watching Westerns with my Dad, severely limited as they were by the misunderstandings and distortions of their time. They introduced me to the wide open landscapes, the massive mountains, where Chris and I now hike and fish – and no, we don’t catch more than we can eat on the rare days when we catch anything at all.  I learned of the Spanish and Mexican influences, (and yes, at one time Mexico’ extended a finger into Colorado.) I heard of the pueblos, the mesa, and their vaqueros. Appalled by the terrorism of 9/11, native American poet and writer, Sherman Alexie, chose to abandon his resentment of all those who exploited and continue to exploit his tribal nation, opting instead to work for a greater understanding of all peoples. What courage!  I’m inspired to find some of my own to try to bridge differences.  

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End Notes

Reading

Blasphemy
Sherman Alexie

Centennial by James A. Michener

Centennial
James A. Michener

Listening

Viewing

Sherman Alexie in Conversation
with Bill Moyers

Poetry

I Give You Back
Joy Harijo

In Cold Storm Light
Leslie Marmon Silko

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