A tale from Towaoc

About 10 years ago I took work full-time as a paramedic down in Towaoc, Colo., on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. As that employment allowed us to buy our farm, or the mortgage, as such, I was damned glad to have the job. I had been working down there for a few years teaching classes for tribal enterprises and rarely pulling a shift.

In one of those classes was a Cheyenne person named Whiteman. He worked for Weeminuche Construction and had been on a job up at the park. We had quite a laugh at the spectacle of tourists seeing an “Indian” at Mesa Verde.

The only reason that I knew that Whiteman was a Cheyenne was because I asked him. He was so obviously not Ute, not Navajo, that even a white man like me could tell that he was not from there.

I put that in the back of my head, that Cheyenne Whiteman in Towaoc.

One of the first people I met when I started working full-time in Towaoc was another Whiteman, a tall, older Cheyenne man named Darwin Senior (mostly known as Senior). Darwin had been an EMT back home in Oklahoma. As a first responder in Towaoc, Darwin and a few other people did their best to keep the wheels turning on an ambulance, to be sure that help was there if someone called. That is a remarkable gift to be able to give to another anywhere, but especially there.

Darwin could tell quite a story, and once, in the quiet of the day, while waiting for the surreal activity of night to fall, he told me this story. I pass it along now not to give a true account, but simply that I might remember. Over the years, as this story has tossed about in my mind I have tried to calibrate certain facts, to sight on an understanding of a story so fantastic, a story so much of the West.

While still a graduate student in anthropology, in January of 1938, Omer Stewart was a participant-observer in an all-night peyote meeting held near Towaoc. In 1945, after the war, he would return to academic work with an appointment to the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Omer Stewart would go on to become the great authority of peyote religious traditions. His testimony helped overturn laws banning the use of peyote in religious ceremonies. Stewart wrote the definitive book on the history of peyote religious traditions.

Among the people that Stewart wrote about was John Peak Heart. Heart was a proselytizer, the first important and continuous peyote teacher to the Ute Mountain Utes. Sam Lone Bear had brought the Utes in Towaoc peyote in 1915 or 1916, but it was John Peak Heart who brought peyote to the Ute Mountain Utes continually, each summer. Eventually James Mills would apprentice with Heart, traveling back and forth with Heart to Oklahoma, becoming the first Mountain Ute to lead peyote rituals.

Once I asked Darwin how the Cheyenne came to be in Towaoc, how he came to be there. Senior was raised by his grandparents. He came here with them. His grandfather brought peyote to the Utes.

At the time of Darwin telling this story to me I am sure of my ignorance of the connections of which he spoke; still I do not purport to know the truth. But here is Darwin’s story, in my poor retelling.

These Utes knew that the Cheyenne were coming, they had heard it. Back in Oklahoma the Cheyenne pulled teams upon their buck-board wagons to the train stop, and then on the steam-powered train onward to Ignacio, Colo.

I imagine that it was summer, that season being dry enough for travel. The Mountain Utes drove Model Ts in a caravan, down past Chimney Rock, into the Mancos Canyon, below the mesas. Piñon, juniper, sage, sandstone stratifications of color, bands of time, past the abandoned stone remains of the old civilization, in and along the rocky, shallow river bed. Following a trail that I fail to define over a number of days of which I am unsure, they motored to Ignacio.

After the rituals were performed and taught to the Southern Utes the Cheyenne and the Mountain Utes returned to Towaoc. There, somewhere on the reservation, Darwin told me, they sat apart, the Cheyenne on one side and the Utes on the other. There was one Ute that could speak Ute and English; Henry Mills was his name.

And there was a Cheyenne, Harry Whiteshield, who could speak Cheyenne and English. So they sat there across from each other. Questions were passed, prayers, recitals, proclamations from Cheyenne to English, English to Ute, Ute to English, and English back into Cheyenne. Back and forth it went, the didactic of God.

And then to return, on that rough trail in those stiff cars to Ignacio, to the steam locomotive, to the buck-board wagons back home.

Darwin saw both sides of this story — the leaving, the journey, the passing of the ceremony, and the return. Here and there, Darwin understood the movement of a people displaced as refugees on their own land, prisoners in the land of the free, but the promise of a spiritual awakening spreading across the First Nations. He was the product of that event. His children in Towaoc are both Ute and Cheyenne.

In memory Darwin, just around the edges.

Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Garden Nursery and Café in Cortez, Colo.

From Jude Schuenemeyer.