We gathered around Northern Ute Elder Clifford Duncan waiting for him to sing the sun up. As the first ray of light struck us, his drumbeat became the pulse of Mother Earth.The Ute Trail project had begun. For 18 years volunteers have helped Ute elders, official tribal representatives and other tribal members search for their timeless heritage.This year seemed special to those of us who knew it might well be the last time we gather like this with Clifford and Dr. Jim Goss. The elder’s sight is growing dim.No one is learning the traditional ways to walk alongside them on this Red Road.No young person is willing to continue in their footsteps when they can no longer walk.Over the years, we have worked together recording as many of their special places as we can. Our purpose is to take the information these sites hold back to the tribal young people.There is a sense of urgency to Clifford’s words, “The Ute Trail holds the key to the survival of my People. This road leads to taking care of our Mother.”For thousands of years the Ute People lived in these mountains. They lived as one with the land. Their oral stories, older than any written alphabet, created a bond with the same landscape visible today. The only thing missing is the grizzly, bison and wolf.By sharing their intimate firsthand knowledge of the stories each site evokes, the Utes with us bear monumental testimony to a resilient native culture alive in their hearts.”You can take the Utes out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the Utes,” Clifford once told me. Each time I walk with Clifford back in his ancestral homeland I see and feel the power of those words.The Old Ute Trail as we know it runs from the confluence of the Eagle and Colorado rivers across the Flat Tops for some 50 miles. Gaining in elevation to reach a high point over 10,000 feet, it eventually comes out on the White River southeast of Meeker.The time people have spent on the Ute Trail has been life-changing. Archaeologist Andrea Brogan said it best in 2001 on her first trip: “To experience the Ute Trail is to embark on a journey … one that opens the heart to the ways traditional People are intimately linked to their surroundings.”The National Museum of the American Indian opens for the first time on Sept. 21 in Washington, D.C. In conjunction with that opening is a special display called the Wall of Nations in the halls of the Forest Service’s national office.The Ute Trail project will be the Rocky Mountain region’s featured story.Perhaps it is not only the survival of the Ute People that is at stake. It may very well be that the survival of the Forest Service as a land-based agency depends on the lessons we learn from the Ute Trail.Writing with more than 25 years of experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares his stories with readers every other week.Writing with more than 25 years of experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares his stories with readers every other week.
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