Colorado Tribe Puts Cultural Riches On Display

Jun 13, 2011

It's not often that you hear of Native American tribes flourishing thanks to the U.S. government, but that's what happened to Colorado's Southern Ute.

With the help of a historic government blunder, the Southern Ute have become one of the country's wealthiest tribes. So wealthy, in fact, that they've just transformed their old museum into an impressive new cultural center in Ignacio, Colo. It's called the Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center and it's housed in a new $38 million building. The hope is that center will help boost tourism, but it's also meant to teach outsiders and tribal youth about Southern Ute history and culture.

History's Happy Accident

In the late-19th century, the U.S. government divided the Ute people up into three different tribes, sending them north, 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 less 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'd 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 eachother. 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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