Forcing farming: the Utes’ sad story
Americans today shudder at the concept of ethnic cleansing, but in the 19th century, it was widely considered a noble endeavor, at least where Indians were concerned. “The Utes Must Go!” by Peter R. Decker chronicles the sorry treatment of that particular tribe. Taking its title from an 1870s Denver Tribune editorial, the book recounts how fear-mongering politicians ousted the Utes, a group of disparate, far-ranging bands, from their traditional territories in Colorado and Utah.For two centuries, the Utes coexisted with their Spanish and Mexican neighbors, but American settlers, pumped up by Manifest Destiny, were not interested in amicable relations with “a dissolute vagabondish, brutal and ungrateful race (that) ought to be wiped from the face of the earth,” as the Rocky Mountain News opined in 1863. Not all whites wanted to see the Utes exterminated; some were bent on “reforming” them. Equating Christianity, agriculture and capitalism with civilization, they sought to turn the nomadic Utes from communal hunter-gatherers into deed-holding farmers.The effort was doomed. In a fascinating chapter, Decker describes how Nathan Meeker, a reformer who had participated in two failed utopian communities, became the Indian agent for the White River Reservation in northern Colorado. Meeker’s obsession with forcing the Utes to farm led to the 1879 battle at Milk Creek. U.S. Army troops invaded the reservation after Meeker alleged he’d been assaulted by one Indian who didn’t want a valuable horse pasture plowed. Scores died in the ensuing combat, and Meeker and a number of other agency civilians were killed or abducted. The consequent outcry led to the Utes’ removal from their lush homelands to arid reservations in Utah and southern Colorado.Well-researched and readable, “The Utes Must Go!” is a tribute to a distinct but neglected people. VT By Gail BinklyHigh Country News (www.hcn.org) covers the West’s communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colorado.