Colorado History Center’s Written on the Land Exhibit Brings a Closer Look at The State’s Oldest Residents

We often think of Native Americans as people who lived long ago. They hunted buffalo on horseback, lived in teepees and wore a lot of feathers. What we tend to forget is that they are still here today. They may have adapted their ways to fit into a lifestyle that was thrust upon them,but many have kept their beliefs and traditions from long ago. They have made great sacrifices for those beliefs, even as others continue to take from them.While the rest of us have only begun to understand our planet and how to care for it, Native Americans have always had a special relationship and respect for earth. It might be time for us to pay attention, and listen to what they have to say about it.

The Ute Indians, the oldest residents of Colorado, are believed to have migrated to the Rocky Mountains by 1300 AD.Despite much of their land being taken from them, most chose to stay here. Over the last four years, the Colorado History Center worked with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintahand Ouray Reservation to create its latest exhibition, “Written on the Land.”The exhibit is unique in that it not only teaches visitors about the history of the Ute Indians and their lives here in Colorado, but also shows us what their present-day lives are like. It also takes a closer look at how ancient traditions and methods are still viable today.

When walking into the exhibit, located on the fourth floor of the Colorado History Center, the first thing seen is a wall of lighted photographs. Images of tribal elders are placed next to pictures of young tribal members. The wall celebrates both knowledge and experience, as well as the tribe’s future, at once. At the exhibit’s media reception on December 7th, Aliyah N. Jacket, this year’s Junior Miss Ute Mountain Princess,smiled as she stood next to her own image on the wall. Guests at the center took turns snapping pictures of Aliyah. Her friends stood next to her, pointing with enthusiasm to her image. “You’re famous!” one of them exclaimed.

On the center’s first floor, Executive Secretary for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, Ernest House Jr. spoke to a room of filled seats about the exhibit.

“We want it about the people,” House said.“Hopefully our young people were surprised to see their pictures blown up on the wall, celebrating their work and their heritage. Encouraging them of what’s possible in the future.”

Many young people of the tribe were directly involved in some of the exhibit’s aspects. Jason Hanson, director of Interpretation and Research, said they were heavily involved in mapping traditional ecological knowledge onto contemporary STEM (science, technology,engineering and mathematics) understandings.

“We have spent the last two summers out in the field with groups of young people and elders learning what Ute have known for generations and a millennia, and mapping onto contemporary understanding of science, math and engineering technology,” Hanson explained.

The field work was a learning experience for all involved. Director of Exhibit Planning Shannon Voirol, said the kids learned that they had been doing STEM all along, just like their ancestors.

“We’ve been talking about engineering, talking about the past and plants, and just reminding them how much their elders know,” Voirol said. Tribal youths watched as archaeologists and ethnologists from Kansas University listened and learned from tribal elders.

Colorado History Center Exhibit Developer, LizCook, felt that during the exhibit’s planning, the conversations with the young people deepened their commitment to having more contemporary photos. Tribal youths also brought up the question of where the artifacts in the exhibit came from. Cook said the question was valid, and places in the exhibit were added where they talk about how the artifacts came into the collection.

Cook said creating the exhibit involved researching the text and photos, and tracking down the videos. A big part of the exhibit’s success was the smooth collaboration of History Colorado and over 30 tribal representatives from all three Ute tribes. History Colorado has a 25-year government-to-government relationship with the tribes through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

NAGPRA representative Cassandra Atencio came onto the project at the end of 2013, spending almost five years on the project. She said she was satisfied with the exhibit’s outcome.

“It puts us in Denver,” Atencio said. “It puts us where we know we were. Our oral history tells us we were here before the other tribes were here. And so that sense of place, that location, that setting, that feeling of association. All are types of things you would think about when you think of the National Historic preservation Act. That’s what this was for me.”

The exhibit includes a lot of history and artifacts, but Cook points out there are also hands-on activities for kids. “We’ve got the STEM activities where kids can explore about the mathematics of bead work or the engineering of building a stick shelter or putting the saddle on a model of a horse. I think there are some really cool objects. Sometimes I think objects in cases in museums can be a little boring, but I think the nice thing with the activities is we’re really trying to make the connection between the hands-on activity and the stuff.”

Atencio noted that for her, the most important thing about the exhibit was that the Ute Indian voices were heard.  

“As long as we were the ones that were telling the story,” she said. “And how we were going to let that live on. And what are our grandchildren and children are going to see. And what are the values for them. It was never about ourselves. It’s always about who is coming after us.”

Written on the Land is included in the cost of a general admission ticket: $14 adults, $12 seniors 65+, $10 for students with ID, $8 children 5-15; children 4 and under are free.For complete information, visit History Colorado. The History Colorado Center is located at 1200 N. Broadway, Denver.

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