Colorado Tribe Puts Cultural Riches On Display

Jun 13, 2011
Originally published on June 13, 2011 4:17 pm

It looks like a bristling, metal tepee poking out of the desert — and it's utterly spectacular. The brand new Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center in Ignacio, Colo. cost $38 million. It's meant to help boost tourism, but it's also meant to teach outsiders and tribal youth about Southern Ute history and culture.

History's Accident

In the late 19th century, the U.S. government divided the Ute people into three different tribes, sending them north or west and letting some stay where they were.

"We remained here," explains museum board Chairman Robert Burch, who grew up on a Ute reservation near Colorado's border with New Mexico. "Little did they know we were sitting on oil — natural gas. And once we started getting it out of the ground [and] producing it, we became a wealthy tribe."

So while the Southern Utes have fewer than 1,500 members, the tribe is worth billions — it's literally a case study in expert resource management.

Helping The Southern Ute Remember

When the Southern Ute decided to diversify their already impressive financial portfolio by opening a casino, it became clear that the time had also come to update their museum.

"It was an awful little building, maybe not even 1,000 square feet," Burch says. "So we decided to build a place where we could have a showcase for our children and grandchildren, and they would always know their culture."

The community set out to retrieve Ute artifacts from all over the world and bring them home — priceless white clay pottery, intricate beadwork and glorious baskets by White Mesa weavers.

But for many Southern Ute, the most meaningful part of the museum is its display of family photographs. It was there that former tribal Chairman Matthew Box discovered a long-lost family photo.

"It is a picture that has my mother, my uncle Leonard, my grandpa and my dad and myself. And we're all sitting around a drum," Box says.

Box gets teary-eyed looking at it. He says he had never seen the photo — which was taken in the 1980s — before it was put on display at the museum.

'A Museum In A Body'

Other, younger tribe members were thrilled to see blown-up color photographs of themselves alongside the museum's expensive replicas of tepees and boarding school classrooms.

Ian Thompson, 33, and Samantha Pacheco, 21, say the museum feels a little like a family album — after all, it's a small tribe, so everyone knows each other. And they say being on display is nothing new — they often perform in front of crowds at public powwows.

"We're usually dancing or singing for everyone," Pacheco says.

"So everybody's usually looking at us," Thompson adds.

"We are literally a museum in a body," Pacheco muses.

And so it feels good, they say, to have a place where they can finally look at themselves.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's Neda Ulaby stopped by the opening in a remote corner of Colorado, near the New Mexico border.

NEDA ULABY: The party for this gorgeous new museum on the Southern Ute reservation has a buffet of what you could call haute Native cuisine; chokecherry pate, elk tenderloin, and there was a live band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: The spectacular building looks like a bristling metal teepee poking out of the desert. It was designed by a blue chip architect and paid for by accident. When the U.S. government split the Ute people into three different tribes in the late 19th century, it sent most of them away.

ROBERT BIRCH: We remained here.

ULABY: Robert Birch runs the new museum's board.

BIRCH: And little did they know we're sitting on oil, natural gas. And once we started getting it out of the ground, producing it, we became a wealthy tribe.

ULABY: One of the wealthiest, in fact. Now there are less than 1,00 Southern Ute, but they're worth billions. The tribe is literally a case study in expert wealth management. They already had a museum.

BIRCH: But it was an awful little building, maybe not even a thousand square feet.

ULABY: And Birch says there wasn't anything in it the Southern Ute were really proud of.

BIRCH: But we decided to build a place where we could have a showcase for our children and grandchildren. And they would always know their culture.

ULABY: And maybe attract tourists visiting a nearby casino, built to diversify the tribe's portfolio.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

ULABY: But this in some ways two museums. One for tourists, and one for the Southern Ute. When I asked Matthew Box what in this museum meant most to him, he said...

MATTHEW BOX: This one picture, which isn't an artifact or beadwork or a vest or anything. It is a picture that has my mother, my Uncle Leonard, my grandpa, and my dad and myself. And we're all sitting around a drum.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING AND SINGING)

ULABY: Besides the expensive replicas of teepees and boarding school classrooms, there's a lot of big blown up photos of the Southern Ute today.

SAMANTHA PACHECO: There's you and Johnny Man.

IAN THOMPSON: Where am I?

THOMPSON: There's Ian.

PACHECO: There's Ian.

THOMPSON: There's my tattoo.

ULABY: Twenty-one-year-old Samantha Pacheco and her friend Ian Thompson say the museum feels a little bit like a family album. It's a small tribe, so everyone knows everyone.

THOMPSON: There's Trav. Wait, there's me right there. See, there's me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PACHECO: I'm back there. I'm probably dancing.

ULABY: Pacheco and Thompson say being on display is nothing new. They spend weekends performing in Pow-Wows in places like state fairs.

PACHECO: We're usually like dancing or singing for everyone.

THOMPSON: So everybody is usually looking at us.

PACHECO: We are literally a museum in a body.

THOMPSON: Kind of right, yeah. There you go.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING AND CHANTING)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee is back with us tomorrow. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.