Making Ute history live: The enduring legacy of Clifford Duncan

Above, in August 1997, Clifford Duncan and Betsy Chapoose of the Northern Ute Indian Tribe and Kenny Frost of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe participated in a Ute Culture Camp at Trappers Lake deep in the White River National Forest.


Clifford Duncan passed away this winter, and with his passing went centuries of Ute cultural knowledge about land and landscape. A World War II veteran in his 80s living in Neola, Utah, near Fort Duschene, he traveled across the West visiting public land managers, archaeologists and historians.

"There was no one like him. No one can replace him," says Kenny Frost of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Duncan knew the cultural ways of his people. To be with him in the field in the White River National Forest, on Uncompahgre Mesa, at Dinosaur National Monument, in the Piceance Basin or following the route of a proposed gas pipeline was to understand how the Utes valued the landscape they called "The Shining Mountains."

Clifford was a tribal historian working with the Northern Ute Cultural Rights and Protection Office.

"Clifford had a rare ability to listen and to try to understand the world," says Mike Metcalf of Metcalf Archaeological Consultants from Eagle and Denver. "Although he believed in and practiced the traditional values of his people, he had an open and inquiring mind and was willing to learn from and teach others, including archaeologists who demonstrated an honest interest in Ute culture."

I had the privilege of being with Clifford, Betsy Chapoose and Kenny Frost at a summer "culture camp" at Trappers Lake two decades ago, and I'll never forget walking the shores of the lake beside Clifford and learning to see a sacred Ute landscape in a new way.

He inspired me to learn about complicated issues related to tribal preservation and encouraged me to research and write Sacred Objects & Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions.

"Days in the field with Clifford were always special," Metcalf remembers.

I agree.

On the Ute Trail with Clifford

Federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) 36 CFR 800 and Section 106, trigger consultation with tribal officials to identify and assess a site's significance. Section 800.2 explains which parties must be consulted, including Native American tribes with ancestral ties to public lands. Tribes also are consulted under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) if human remains are found on federally managed lands.

Because Utes historically moved during seasonal rounds throughout Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, tribal cultural offices can be extremely busy consulting on projects for the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, other federal agencies and contractors working on federal lands. I assisted Clifford and other team members to help identify the historic Ute Trail that went from Dotsero, where the Eagle and Colorado rivers meet, 57 miles northwest up and over the Flat Tops toward Meeker.

Those summers were some of the most rewarding of my life as I learned how Utes moved through mountain landscapes with their horses, travois and camps. They traveled at a pace slow enough for children and the elderly. Always on alert, scouts would ride ridgelines. Clifford helped us to understand that in traditional Ute culture, travel was never aimless or random; families and clans always had a specific purpose or destination in mind.

Because of the injustices American society has perpetrated on Native tribes, some consultations can be tense and confrontational and very little accomplished. Not so with Clifford. He possessed an extraordinary ability to work with people. He listened well. He explained things carefully, and he earned enormous respect from everyone he worked with.

"Clifford was a person that I would call a perfect gentleman," says Michael Selle, Bureau of Land Management archaeologist from the Meeker office. "Gracious, and at least for me endlessly patient, he gave me information that he felt was important when he felt I was ready to accept it. He also came across as very humble."

Clifford taught Selle about cultural values and how when someone needs advice from a Native consultant, the grandfather or elder should receive a small gift of elk, venison or tobacco.

For Clifford, the Ute spirit world continued to exist. He helped us to understand that the sacred and the secular were "seamlessly intertwined in traditional Ute culture," says Selle.

I learned from Clifford and Kenny Frost to give thanks after visiting a site so I offer something precious which I've carried far - water. From Clifford I received braided sweetgrass, which I will always treasure.

"Though raised in the wisdom and values of the traditional Ute culture, of which he was an endless reservoir of information, Clifford also could look at modern science and appreciate it," says Selle.

'Thoughtful, forthright, honest'

In the late 1980s as energy boomed across the West, Duncan consulted on major pipelines. He consulted when archaeologists uncovered human remains.

As large-scale projects are planned across federal lands, Native American tribes are involved in a government-to-government relationship. Federal staff members meet directly with tribal representatives. Private contractors occasionally serve as facilitators. Energy companies can have fixed budgets and tight deadlines. Equipment and workers sitting idle cost money, yet tribal consultation can drag on over large and small details, such as how to mitigate and preserve a prehistoric or historic site, possibly by recording it or even changing a pipeline's route.

To the relief of both federal archaeologists and private contractors, "Clifford's approach to consultation was always thoughtful, forthright and honest," Metcalf says. "His depth of knowledge was unparalleled, but when he encountered places or things that were unfamiliar, he would say so, and would strive to learn and understand. He respected the fact that some questions cannot easily be answered, and he never pretended knowledge that he didn't actually have."

Clifford worked with former Grand Junction Daily Sentinel editorial page editor Robert Silbernagel on Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of Utes from Colorado.

"Although he was happy to work with whites to set them straight about Ute history, he was not one to sugarcoat things to make it easier for whites to accept," Silbernagel says.

In the treaty of 1868, Ute Indians retained the entire western third of Colorado, but after the Meeker incident in 1879, they lost millions of acres. The Meeker conflict began at Milk Creek on the northern border of the Ute Reservation. Ute sharpshooters pinned down federal troops in one of the longest sieges by Native Americans against U.S. cavalry in Western history. The commander, Maj. Thomas Tipton Thornburgh, was killed first.

Silbernagel studied the site with Clifford and remembers, "I visited the Milk Creek Battle site with him, and he was the first person who I heard state unequivocally that - despite what white authors and military officials had been saying for 130 years - Milk Creek had not been an ambush of Thornburgh's troops. 'Look around you,' he said, pointing to the hills where the Utes were positioned and the low ground where the troops took shelter. 'If our ancestors had wanted to kill all the soldiers, they could have done so.'"

Clifford consulted on battle sites, but he also assisted with gardens.

In 2009 at the Mesa County Fairgrounds, a 2½-acre project was started named the Ute Learning Garden.

Clifford "taught us and our volunteer docents a great deal about Ute culture, history and plant lore," says Susan Rose, a horticulture education specialist.

Clifford helped with projects and consultations across four states and the entire spectrum of Ute land usage. How ironic that as a boy he was sent to boarding school to learn white ways and to give up his Ute culture. Thankfully, he never did. We will miss his wisdom.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.