Cultural divide: Utes, county leaders wrestle with differences during talks about COVID-19

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The Sleeping Ute Mountain to the south of Cortez dominates the landscape of Montezuma County. Relations between the Ute Mountain Utes, on whose reservation the mountain sits, and the county have always had their ups and downs. Now, the issue of how to handle the coronavirus pandemic has brought the leaders of the two entities together for discussions, but these talks have not always brought the parties to complete agreement.

The Sleeping Ute Mountain to the south of Cortez dominates the landscape of Montezuma County. Relations between the Ute Mountain Utes, on whose reservation the mountain sits, and the county have always had their ups and downs. Now, the issue of how to handle the coronavirus pandemic has brought the leaders of the two entities together for discussions, but these talks have not always brought the parties to complete agreement. Photo by Silverton House-Whitehorse.

In one sense, the coronavirus pandemic has brought the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Montezuma County closer together, by prompting more extensive discussions than usual between leaders. But the two entities continue to be divided over a number of issues, including how best to deal with the coronavirus.

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart came to the county commission meeting in person on May 19 to read a lengthy letter about matters related to the pandemic, then engaged in a long talk with the board. Tribal council member Lyndreth Wall also came and spoke.

Then, on May 21, the commissioners called in to the tribal council’s meeting, trying but failing to win the tribe’s support for the county’s request for a variance from state restrictions on business operations.

As of press time, the county was continuing to pursue a variance, although the state has already allowed the reopening of restaurants, youth camps, ski areas, and some other operations the commissioners had been concerned about. The county wants permission for gyms and other gathering places to be opened as well.

Montezuma County no longer seems to need the tribe’s support for its latest variance request, but at the time of the May 21 meeting, the commissioners strongly wanted that support. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on May 11 had denied the county’s first variance request and said the county would need the tribe’s support in order to reapply.

But commission Chair Larry Don Suckla did not help the county’s case with the Utes much, at least not at the start of the discussion with the tribal council.

Suckla was the first commissioner to call in to the meeting. He greeted the Utes with, “Ya-ta-hey.”

Heart politely pointed out that phrase is a Navajo greeting and that the Ute greeting is pronounced “mike.”

Rioting?

Other remarks regarding Native Americans that commissioners Suckla and Keenan Ertel have made at recent meetings have been seen as involving stereotypes and have prompted some criticism on social media.

During a May 13 Zoom meeting with representatives of the Colorado health department, Suckla said he’d received numerous phone calls from Ute Mountain tribal members complaining about being under restrictions because of the pandemic.

“Multiple Ute tribal members are contacting me,” Suckla said. “They feel like they’re in a prison. I feel like within a matter of days there might be rioting on the Ute reservation.”

So far there have been no reports of anything approaching rioting there.

At the same meeting, Ertel said it was wrong for the state to deny Montezuma County its exemption request based on concerns about the surge of cases that was then going on just to the south of the county, in San Juan and McKinley counties in New Mexico. At the time, Montezuma County had only 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease produced by the coronavirus. (The county had nearly doubled that with 46 cases as of May 30.)

Ertel said the county shouldn’t be penalized because of “travelers from areas outside our area,” apparently meaning Native Americans who come to Cortez.

“Those people have been coming to our community since back before COVID started,” he said, adding that they continued to come even after the virus arrived. “The native people from the Navajo Nation have been coming into our community continually… please tell me how now we are all of a sudden at a great risk to our public health system if we continue to let these people come to our community.”

Karin McGowan, deputy director of the CDPHE, said people really shouldn’t have been visiting from the nearby counties at that time.

“The gentleman that died due to alcohol poisoning was a Native American, okay?” Ertel said.

He was referring to the third death in the county related to COVID-19. The first two were among senior citizens, but the other was of a younger Ute Mountain Ute, who was found dead in Cortez’s City Park on May 4.

Toward the end of the May 13 meeting, Ertel said the county’s coronavirus cases were primarily among the transient, homeless population.

“It is unconstitutional and unconscionable for this state to hold our business community hostage… over the number of cases that we have in this county,” Ertel said, “and the population that it’s in in this county, which is the homeless alcoholic population that lives in our park system and in our sagebrush, and to hold our businesses hostage and drive them into absolute destitution.”

Ertel’s comments about a population that lives “in our park system and in our sagebrush” prompted some remarks on Facebook about how the sagebrush belonged to Native Americans long before it was claimed by European settlers.

At a commission meeting the next day, May 14, Commissioner Jim Candelaria made a similar remark about being held hostage

“We’re being held hostage for the sovereign nations, one within our own county and two to the south of us,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

‘A partnership’

When Heart came to the commission meeting on May 19, he addressed some of the commissioners’ remarks.

He noted that (at that time) only about 340 people had been tested in the non-native part of the county, less than 1 percent of its population, meaning that the true number of COVID-19 cases was unknown. He said the tribe, meanwhile, was launching a mass-testing effort.

Regarding people who are “hanging around at the City Park or other areas of Cortez,” Heart said the tribe was working with the sheriff ’s department and Southwest Health System to get the homeless tested, and was trying to get the Navajo Nation involved too.

“We need to do these things in a partnership,” he said.

As the largest employer in the county, the county in the fall after they are over the peak of their coronavirus cases.

“Maybe Navajos will be our saviours,” he said. “They will have already had it and we’re going to get it this fall.”

County Administrator Shak Powers, when reading the online comments during the May 14 meeting, said racist remarks were going back and forth on the screen, and condemned them.

“The Ute Mountain Ute nation is not our enemy,” he said, adding, “We do not condone anybody that would use this as an opportunity to escalate” racial conflicts.

But at the end of their meeting on May 26, when the commissioners were taking public comments both in person and online, they did not seize an opportunity to emphasize their positive view of the tribes.

One person, identified on screen as Robert Kardokus, had submitted an online comment asking Suckla and Ertel to apologize for what he called “recent racially insensitive remarks to Utes and Navajos.”

There was a dead silence in the commission room.

Finally, Candelaria said Powers could just read the comments aloud and no one had to respond.

But a little later, when Powers started to read a comment from a Ute tribal member, Silverton House-Whitehorse, Suckla interrupted. “Don’t read anything from him,” Suckla said. “He’s a racist.”

The only remark Whitehorse had made online during the meeting as a public comment was one in which he said he agreed with Kardokus. But that comment of his was not read aloud.

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