ASPEN, Colorado - More than a year ago, when the Aspen Historical Society began making plans for a two-year museum exhibit on the Utes, they needed the help of an actual tribal member, preferably someone who lived in the Roaring Fork Valley.As it turned out, there was really only one Ute living in the Aspen area: Skylar Lomehaftewa. With his helpful demeanor, easygoing personality, experience in talking with schoolchildren about Indian life and contacts with tribal officials at the Uintah & Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, he was the perfect fit."When we first started working on this, we realized it was impossible without Ute representation," said Lisa Hancock, the society's curator of collections. "Skylar had been working with the education community, doing school programs. I went to a couple of those and knew right off that he would make a perfect representative. You can't do an exhibit on the Ute without the Ute being involved."Skylar, 36, who first moved to Aspen about five years ago and has been a full-time resident for about three years, is what rock singer Joe Walsh might have had in mind when he wrote "Ordinary Average Guy." He works each winter as a ski-lift operator; his wife works at Aspen Valley Hospital. He's a snowboarder. They are raising kids together. It's all very mainstream American.But scratch the surface and there's a lot more than meets the eye. He's part Northern Ute, part Hopi, with some Choctaw blood. He cares about his culture deeply, participating in Bear, Sun and Grass dances and pow-wows with Indian tribes all over the West. He wants to preserve the traditions of the Utes, the loosely affiliated tribe whose bands lived and roamed throughout much of eastern Utah and western Colorado for centuries before the U.S. government sent them to live on three different reservations in the late 19th century."I'm just the local dude who's a native," Skylar said humbly. "But I did want to talk to the historical society and tell them what I would want to see in an exhibit. I didn't want it to be all cute, showing a bunch of happy Indians on horses."
The Wheeler/Stallard Museum exhibit, "Seasons of the Nuche: Transitions of the Ute People," had a soft opening last Tuesday and will have a grand opening this Tuesday.It covers a lengthy period of the tribe's history, from the years before the Utes made contact with Spanish explorers in the late 16th century all the way up to modern times on the different reservations where the Northern and Southern Utes were forced to live in the late 19th century. The Uintah & Ouray Reservation, which comprises parts of seven Utah counties and counts an estimated 20,000 residents, is closest to Aspen, a mere 41⁄2-hour drive.Three large bands of Utes - the Uintahs, the White Rivers and the Uncompahgres - were sent to that reservation, which has its headquarters in the small town of Fort Duchesne, Utah, on U.S. Highway 40. Skylar's mother was an Uncompahgre, the band that used to spend its summers hunting in the Roaring Fork Valley amid "the shining mountains," the name it gave to the lands around Aspen.Skylar spent most of his formative years on the reservation, growing up in the small town of Randlett. However, he attended the nearby local learning institution, Union High School, graduating in 1993. He made a lot of friends among the Mormon people in the Roosevelt area just outside of the reservation's boundaries. He said he moved to Aspen more than a decade later partly because he was looking for a job, partly for cultural reasons."Ever since we were kids, those of us who were Uncompahgre or White River were taught that we were from Colorado, and this was our traditional homelands, Aspen and the area around it was Uncompahgre lands," Skylar said.With the Meeker Massacre in late September 1879 - in which the Utes' White River band rose up against Indian agent Nathan Meeker, the U.S. soldiers protecting him and some nearby settlers - the Utes' fate in Colorado was sealed. The northern bands were banished from their lush mountain habitats and sent to live in the rocky high-desert country around Fort Duchesne. Little did the federal government know that the land was mineral rich with oil and gas and that many years later, the tribe would become somewhat wealthy."I can remember as a boy, driving through here, my grandfather would look out the window and get mad," Skylar said. "He'd say, 'Those dang White Rivers messed things up for us in Meeker. We could have had our land over here, and we could have had our reservation over here.'"So for me to come over here and live in the traditional homelands, it was the perfect thing."
When going to classrooms to talk to youths about Indian culture, he usually has to field a few silly questions."Skylar found, when going into the classrooms, that the kids would always ask him things like, 'Do you live in a teepee?' Or, 'Do you ride a horse?' They view the Indian culture as being strictly historic," Hancock said.She said the goal of the exhibit is to educate, not only about the Native American culture of yesteryear but also with regard to how the Utes live today."Our exhibit talks about adaptability. What did the Utes have to do to adjust to the changes they have faced in a short amount of time?" Hancock said."I tell them, 'Just like my great-grandparents might have lived in a teepee, your great-grandparents may have lived in a log cabin.' But times have changed and so have we all," Skylar said.He also makes an analogy with the Scots."I tell the kids, we were different in the way the Scottish people were different with their separate clans," Skylar said. "We're all Utes, but we're separate in our bands. And through times of war, we would get together with the other bands and go and fight, just like the Scots."Hancock explained that along with the historical and educational components, the exhibit is taking steps to be sensitive not only to the Ute culture but other cultures, as well. For example, many white Americans still feel guilty about what happened with the Native American tribes, but the historical society doesn't want to use the exhibit to bring everybody down or point fingers.They recognize that there's a critic in every corner, such as when The Aspen Times published a simple preview story of the exhibit last month and got a call from a woman who identified herself as Native American and working in Aspen. She took offense over the use of the words "squaw," "papoose" and "braves," terminology taken from historical photos loaned by the Denver Public Library that identified an Indian baby and two young hunters.Certain words can be considered derogatory depending on their tone, Hancock said. Terminology that today might be considered suspect in some quarters was applied to Native American images in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and museum-goers shouldn't take offense should they find something like that in the exhibit."There is a lot of emotion attached to this subject," Hancock said. "What happens for a lot of white people - and I'll speak for my tribe here - is that they feel bad about what's happened. They don't know what to do to make it right, so they try to be politically correct, they try to be sensitive and say the right thing."But what I've learned is everybody thinks differently. One tribe thinks 'Native American' is the way to refer to themselves, while another tribe thinks 'Indian.' And within each tribe, there are people who feel the opposite of the others. You're not going to make everyone happy."She said her panels in the exhibit are careful in their references."If there's a Ute man, it's described as a Ute man. If it's a Ute woman, it's a woman," Hancock said.Skylar put the controversy into perspective.He said for his sophomore year, he voluntarily attended a Pueblo Tribe boarding school in Santa Fe."We were the Braves at that school," he said. "And every basketball game was wild because the crowd would sing the national anthem before the game started, and when we got to the last part, 'And the home of the brave,' everybody just screamed it as loud as they could."
Still, Hancock said, the exhibit will attempt to dispel some of the stereotypes surrounding Native American culture. "It will present things in a more factual way," she said. "We want to take out the Hollywood representations. What I have found is there are perceptions of Indian people. There's the older one, who's a heathen savage. That conjures up the tomahawk and attacks on the white settlers. Then there's the noble brave. He's on his horse, he's wearing a headdress, the wind is blowing through his hair, and there's a sunset in the background."Then maybe there's a modern stereotype. They're not educated. They're overweight. They just live off of casinos and gambling."While it's true that many older-generation Native Americans of different tribes have had a longstanding mistrust of U.S. public schools, there's a reason for that, Hancock said. In the early 20th century, Indian youths were sometimes rounded up and taken from their families to attend boarding schools. It was a practice that continued through the 1960s."The last boarding school was closed in 1973," she said. "Times have changed, but the scars run deep. It's going to take generations and more positive experiences for that to change culturally."Skylar said his parents always made sure he attended school."My family, they always knew the importance of modern education," he said. "If we were traveling to a pow-wow or another reservation on the weekend, they always made sure I made it to school on Monday."He said the situation is changing for the better. He recently was at the Southern Ute Reservation, near Ignacio, for a Bear Dance, and one of the elders spoke to youths about the importance of modern education."To hear it coming from an elder Ute man, telling younger people to go to school and not to miss school, was really a positive thing for me. I liked hearing that," Skylar said.He also knows about the stereotypes concerning Indian politics. In many reservations across the U.S., infighting over tribal resources is prevalent, a situation not unlike mainstream American politics.His uncle, Curtis Cesspooch, was chairman of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation until he was ousted in 2010 by rival factions."I really hate politics," Skylar said. "I try to stay away from it. But no matter where you run to, it's always there. "Any government's going to have your politicians. But the politics over there (in Fort Duchesne) can be brutal at times."The Utes in northeastern Utah, many of whom are descendants of the Uncompahgre band that roamed the Roaring Fork Valley, are generally doing well, Skylar said. And they are proud to be Americans: The proof can be found in the U.S. flags on veterans' graves at a small hillside cemetery off Highway 40 near Fort Duchesne."Indian people will always fight for their homeland," Skylar said, "no matter who's in charge in Washington. Time has killed a lot of the old resentments."