Reporter Alycin Bektesh spoke with Native leaders as they hosted a pow wow earlier this month in downtown Aspen.
Roland McCook’s ancestors were among the Ute Indians removed from Aspen after the battle of Milk Creek. The government viewed the clash as a breach of a peace agreement and relocated the 2,000-member tribe to Utah.
“I have returned to these lands where my people roamed to make my presence known and also to bring about presentations and the dance and the lectures,” he said.
McCook now leads the Aspen Ute Foundation, the organization that puts on an annual pow wow, inviting members of all native tribes to gather, dance and share their heritage with current residents of the valley.
Before presenting a traditional hoop dance, members of an Arizona Hopi tribe thanked the crowd and the young Native Americans provided the drumming for the performances. The song and dance traditions displayed during pow wows were passed down in secret through generations because in the late 1800s and early 1900s it was illegal to practice such customs.
Anuk Bald Eagle of the Lakota Nation is a descendant of Crazy Horse and regular visitor to Aspen. He, like his father, has had a career playing an “Indian” in motion pictures. He sees the pow wow circuit as a way to pass traditions on through generations.
“Today I see more pride into youth and into the culture and to the singing and to the dancing,” said Bald Eagle.
He came to Aspen days ahead of the pow wow to work on his “regalia” — the full costumes worn during the dancing performances. He stayed with Deanne Vitrac-Kessler who launched the Aspen Ute Foundation in 2005. Beyond hosting the annual pow wow, the foundation serves as a year-round support group for Native Americans in the valley.
“This winter we have a young teenage Lakota who wanted to get out of the reservation and come and study at the high school here in Aspen, so we sponsor him for that,” said Vitrac-Kessler.
The Aspen Ute Foundation also serves as a reminder of the atrocities two centuries ago.
“For the white community they have to take responsibility and be more knowledgeable about what's going on there because they are a big part of it and they do in some way share a responsibility for what an American Indian is nowadays.”
Though his tribe was cast away from the Roaring Fork Valley, Ute leader Roland McCook said the connection to this region is what defines his people.
“All of the Rocky Mountains consider it as the Native American peoples’ Walmart,” he said. “Where they got the food, clothing, medicine and everything they needed to sustain themselves.”