Bob Berwyn is exploring the decolonization of the West. In this article he takes a look at the Naa Ohn Kara River in Colorado:
Until quite recently, I partly believed in the modern western myth that a snake can survive by eating its own tail. Sure, I watchdogged wetlands, development and ski resort expansions, and tried to hold governments and agencies accountable to environmental laws as an environmental reporter in Summit County, starting in 1996.
Even in the early days, I already understood that global societies were on an unsustainable path. But I was partly in denial, so I failed to convey crucial information to readers, letting them, and myself, believe that it would all be OK.
Water, of course, was discussed at nearly all of the hundreds of meetings I covered, and I unquestioningly adopted the frame of reference and the parlance of the officials who seemed to have everything under control.
By adopting the terminology wholesale, I enabled them to shape the narrative around natural resources and create a version of reality that leaves out many important things, including the complete displacement of Indigenous People from the very lands and rivers that are still being exploited to this day.
How can that possibly be fair, I started asking myself. I slowly realized that I was becoming part of the problem rather than the solution, which made me frustrated and sad. I wrote angry op-eds that made me feel slightly better, but probably didn’t change things a bit.
And I realized that, deep down, the institution I was working for was still part of the same colonial tradition, still mostly denouncing “obstacles to the advancement” of business, as described in the “Utes Must Go! chapter” of Peter Cozzens’ 2017 book, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West.
Back in the late 1800s, the governor of Colorado vowed to expel the Utes in a decade, and Denver newspapers wanted the job done immediately, similar to the way today’s government, business and media institutions push for more water development, fracking or ski area expansions with an oversized sense of entitlement and absent humility, with any opposition being seen as an impediment to progress.
The initial ruthlessness and the artificial veneer of structural legitimacy we’ve created since then enables decision-makers and societies to disconnect from the moral and ethical implications of our choices. We’ve created strictures with no room for emotions, which makes them dehumanizing. That’s why we numbly accept that, still today, streets, and for that matter, entire counties, are still named after a man who advocated for the expulsion of Indigenous People.
That structure also makes it easy to justify small things like a half acre wetlands encroachment, or another 5 cfs diversion from a river, but all these unsustainable small things add up to the global climate and biodiversity crisis we’re facing right now. It can’t go on if we want to survive. Scientists are telling us we’re literally killing the things that keep us alive, including our rivers.
So what to do after nearly 20 years of failure? And it’s hard to describe it any other way, because things have not really improved during the time I spent reporting in Colorado. In significant ways, like the escalating climate crisis, they’re getting worse.
I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. So I decided to start learning about the Indigenous history of the Colorado River. I figured that awareness and knowledge might be the first step to making amends some day. And I decided to start with a simple thing, like learning the indigenous name for the river valley in Summit County where I lived for nearly 20 years without ever giving it much thought.
But every now and then during that span, there were flashes of awareness, like on a hot summer day in the main plaza of Keystone Resort, when my then seven-year-old son and I listened to Leon Littlebird tell Native American stories and make music beside a wood fire pit that’s long since been replaced by a gas fireplace.
“What happened to those people?” Dylan asked me after the fireside session. Explaining the expulsion of Native Americans in second-grade terms wasn’t all that hard — I told him that the playground bully came along and shoved the smaller kids off the swings.
Littlebird, well-loved in Summit County, gives guest lectures these days at Colorado Mountain College to share music and Indigenous lore, and his local concerts are always packed. I called him to see if he could help answer some of the questions I had about Indigenous names for the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Thanks to some support from The Water Desk, we were able to spend a half day with him near one of the Colorado River’s major headwater streams near an area we now call Hoosier Pass.
Some of the answers were more complicated than I expected.