• Meghan Winkler

Sacred Land

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Ute Tribe member describing petroglyphs on rock wall
Ricky, a member of the Ute Tribe, describing petroglyphs on a rock face during our tour.

In Southwest Colorado, Native American history and culture is somewhat prevalent, as compared to here in Ohio. Places like Mesa Verde National Park make these ancient peoples' history a tourist attraction. Their cliff dwellings, kivas, and sacred spaces are available to be visited and provide education and perspective to people today. And it should be. The history of these people is not just fascinating, but it is an essential part of our modern history as well.

One special place we visited during our trip was the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, a private reservation that belongs to the members of the Ute Tribe in Southwest Colorado. Because of COVID, they have not been running tours for the past year, but we were able to go on a private tour with a Ute Tribe member named Ricky. In just 3 hours Ricky managed to expand my perspective through his vivid storytelling, his deep spiritual connection with the Earth and his people, and his friendly yet firm reminder that his people are not ancient history; their culture and spirit is still very much alive and present today.

Our tour guide, Ricky, is a Ute Tribe member. I loved how his sunglasses reflected the land that is such a meaningful part of who he is.

Ute Tribal Mountain Park tour
Driving through Ute Tribal Mountain Park during our tour with their Chimney Rock in view

Ute Tribal Mountain Park
The desert valley we were in was surrounded by tall rocky peaks

In our short tour, we drove through an expansive desert valley, surrounded by rocky peaks full of rich history, sacred meaning, and a very lively spiritual presence that even I felt. We were visited by wild horses, walked through ancient neighborhoods, and touched beautiful pottery once used for everyday tasks and now scattered against the red dirt, a token of the history of the hands that made them.

Ricky filled the tour with long, beautiful stories of his people. He told them as though he were watching them unfold right then and there, but there was no sadness in his voice. Instead, he joked often and laughed contagiously. His spirit was light-hearted and vivacious while also full of strength and equanimity.

A pile of ancient pottery shards
Ancient pottery collected into a pile on top of a rock. Ricky showed us what different shards meant or what they were used for.

Ancient pottery shards on a dusty dirt mound.
We found several piles of pottery throughout our tour, which showed how many people once lived here.

Ancient petroglyphs on a rock wall
Ancient petroglyphs cover many of the rockfaces throughout the canyon. Some tell stories, others were simple "we were here" markings from different tribe members.

The history of indigenous people in our country is wrought with tragedy, war, loss, and pain. As a white girl who grew up in a white world, I, like many of you, have always been aware of this fact without truly feeling the impact of what it meant. As the native people were erased from their land, they were also, in many ways, erased from the history of their land as well. But, as Ricky reminded us, they are still here, still strong, and still pulsing with a tenacity and a spirit that is characteristic to their culture.

Ricky told us that he and other members of his tribe still do sacred dances throughout the year to ask for blessings for the earth and all of the people who inhabit it - all of them. You, me, his tribe, and all of our future generations. He spoke of the Rocky Mountains as the back bone of North America. When they bring their foot down against the earth during the dance, you can feel it reverberate ("BOOOOOM" he said) throughout the entire mountain range - a blessing spoken into the mountains, into the earth, and received by everyone.

A plane flew above us as we studied petroglyphs on the rock. I took this photo to show a juxtaposition between what was then and what is now. Our view of the rock and the sky is just as the indigenous people would have seen it hundreds of years ago, but the plane is a modern addition that shows the passing of time.

I have always felt a special connection with Earth and nature, as I'm sure many of us have. But I don't typically like to speak about it out of fear of sounding too "woo-woo" or "hippie-dippie". But hearing Ricky's portrayal of the exact feeling I have changed my perspective on what it means to speak about this connection.

This is what I interpreted his people to believe: The land is a sacred gift from Earth, given to us with love to provide, protect, and sustain for generations to come. She is a blessing, and we should revere her with everything that we do. Her land is not ours to own, but rather to tend to, respect, and thrive off the fruits of her trees and the water that flows along her surface. And when we do that, we ensure that her gifts will be present for our children and our children's children, and that they too will love and respect Earth, our home, and the blessings she gives us.

The photographs of these short 3 hours with Ricky mean a lot to me. In them I see a story that goes deeper than our tour with him. I see the stories he told, I hear his voice recalling the reverberation in the mountains as he asks for blessings to come to all of us. I hear his muttered prayers as he pours water from his water bottle on each site we visit. I see dust being kicked up behind our car as we drove down these dirt roads, tucked in a sacred valley with more history than I can even comprehend. And I feel the same feeling I felt when I was listening to his stories about loving Earth and opening up our connection to her, and I'm reminded that it's not silly to feel that connection and to talk about it. Maybe it's just a part of being a human being, and we should talk about it more often.

But, more importantly, maybe we should listen more often. Listen to the voices of the very people we have historically tried to silence. Ricky's perspective of the land and his people's history was rich, vibrant, and passionate. We went on other tours of sacred spaces given by white people, and they simply did not measure up. How can we truly honor indigenous cultures if we don't ask indigenous people to tell their own stories using their own voices? Without this essential component, we're not actually including them in their own space. I feel so grateful for our tour at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. It opened my eyes and my ears to perspectives that are different from mine, which is the only way we can expect to expand as a society and progress in an inclusive and positive way.

This is an ancient bullet hole that struck ancient art on the face of this wall during the conflict that drove these people from this land. Aside from this being a marker of history, I found it very striking that it hit the braid, which is a strong indicator of Native American culture. To me, this signifies the extraction of Native American culture from North America.

Click through for the remainder of the photos from our tour:


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