At one time, the Roaring Fork Valley was home in the summer to the Uncompahgre Ute tribe. They hunted and camped in the mountains surrounding Aspen. Now, most Northern Ute Indians live on a reservation in Utah but, one man decided to return. There may be only one Ute living in the Roaring Fork Valley now. Skyler Lomahaftewa says he’s the only Ute Tribal member living year-round in the Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.
Skyler Lomahaftewa bangs a rawhide drum and sings a round-dance song common at Ute social functions. Sitting at his feet are two dozen deeply captivated third graders.
"I grew up on the reservation. I’m pretty sure you guys know what reservations are now, right? (kids: yes.) Just to clear some things up - I didn’t come from a time machine, I was born 30 some years ago, so I didn’t live in those days of history," he says.
Lomahaftewa, with his long braids and beaded necklace, presents to the kids several artifacts from Indian culture.
"And, what I’ve got here is a cradleboard or baby carrier. A lot of native people use these both in history and today."
This is a normal Wednesday morning for the 38 year old who teaches local students about his ancestors for the Aspen Historical Society. Nina Gabianelli with the Society says kids across the Valley have heard him speak.
"For them, it’s just the experience of even seeing a Native, or Indian. They actually say, ‘Are you an Indian?!’ They’re amazed that the modern Indian that we don’t see in this Valley can be represented. And so, that opportunity becomes really special," she says.
In the late 1800’s the Utes were forced from their territory onto reservations in Utah and southern Colorado. Lomahaftewa ventured out of the reservation, in part, to teach snowboarding.
"I came out here and started working as a lift operator, or a “liftie,” and from there, I’ve been just stuck here. Not really “stuck,” I like it here. It’s the same story for a lot of people - they came here to check it out and get away and ended up living here, and that’s pretty much my story as well."
But, his story is unique. As a boy he learned to speak “Nuche” or Ute in school on the Northern Ute reservation in Utah. After school, he and his friends would remove the wheels from skateboards, creating a makeshift snowboard.
"We would go up to the intertubing hills and go just straight down the hill on those snowboard decks and that was my introduction to snowboarding."
He says snowboarding drew him to Aspen, as did a need to escape what he calls “negative reservation life,” or getting into substance abuse. Another draw was his desire to connect with his homeland.
"I just really identify with the Ute people and the mountains. That’s a big part of our identity, as the Ute people, is being a mountain people."
Deanne Vitrac-Kessler encouraged and helped Skyler Lomahaftewa move to Aspen. She’s the director of the Aspen Ute Foundation.
"It’s amazing to have Skyler here with us because he’s a very unique person and he represents all of his tribe in a way," she says.
Back at the Historical Society, Lomahaftewa answers questions from the third graders.
"Student: Why do you have long hair?"
Lomahaftewa: "I like to choose to wear long hair because I was raised with my native culture. And, when I look at my history and see the old natives and how they lived, I think that’s awesome and I’m going to wear my hair just like that."
Lomahaftewa says moving from the reservation to Aspen wasn’t an easy transition but, it has ushered in opportunity.
"I guess I’m fortunate to be the only Ute tribal member because it provides an opportunity for me to have a job with the Historical Society and to give my version and opinion of native culture and history to the young kids."
According to the Ute Indian Tribe’s website, there are more than 3100 Northern Ute tribal members and over half live on the reservation in Fort Duchesne, Utah.