Dressed in a finely decorated light-green vest, colorful moccasins and robes, Roland McCook, of the Northern Ute-Uncompahgre Native American tribe, held a bundle of smoldering white sage Tuesday evening and fanned the smoke with a large eagle wing toward a peace pole at Cozy Point Ranch outside Aspen.
McCook already had gone around to 25 observers standing in a circle and smudged the smoke onto them in a ceremony designed to bring them closer to one another as well as to the spirits.
“I asked the Creator to come, to come to us and recognize the prayers that are in this pole,” McCook said.
McCook, who lives in Montrose, was asked to bless the peace pole at a dedication held by the nonprofit Aspen T.R.E.E. The peace pole was presented to John Denver in the mid-1980s and was embedded at the property of his Windstar Foundation for more than a quarter of a century. The musician and peace advocate’s foundation was shut down, but his spirit lives on over 16 years after his death. A group that is handling the assets of the Windstar Foundation gave the peace pole to Aspen T.R.E.E.
Aspen T.R.E.E. Director Eden Vardy and Program Director Paul Huttenhower said it was important to them to include a Ute blessing as part of the planting of the pole at the organization’s headquarters at Cozy Point Ranch. The organization’s mission is to promote sustainable agriculture and use education to create a closer connection between people and the land.
That mission dovetailed with McCook’s observations and prayers. He said he looks around at the beautiful environment of the Roaring Fork Valley and realizes “our people were here,” though not for a long time. We must all realize we’re just stewards of the land, and that the earth will be here long after we’re gone, he said.
The pole fits in with that concept, McCook said, because it’s not an altar or something we should pay homage to. It’s a symbol that holds believers’ prayers for peace among people and peace with the earth and its creatures.
The pole has messages of peace written in English, French, Japanese and Russian. Prior to Tuesday’s dedication, peaceful phrases in the Ute language were added.
McCook asked the participants to contemplate silently about a family member in need while he quietly sang a prayer in Ute.
He ended the ceremony by saying, “Creator, spread your wings and let us walk away from here in a good way.”
The audience was rapt throughout the ceremony even during those odd Aspen moments when private jets flew low toward landing at the airport during the Native American blessing.
Huttenhower thanked McCook for the blessing but noted, “I am a steward of this land without permission.” He said it doesn’t feel right to try to look after a piece of ground of the valley, however small, without the blessing of the Utes, who were driven out of the valley when silver was discovered in 1879. Huttenhower said he has “a pain in my heart” for the way land is treated all over the world.
Building off those sentiments, Vardy offered an apology to McCook’s ancestors for any harm his ancestors might have created.
McCook didn’t react to either appeal directly. Instead he suggested the absolution the men were seeking would be there “as long as it comes from here” while touching his heart.
After the ceremony, McCook told a reporter that whites shouldn’t necessarily feel responsible for apologizing to the Utes for driving them out of an area generations ago. But he also avoided criticizing anyone for seeking that inner peace.
“Your prayers should be that you want to make things better,” McCook said.