Monument at 100: Artifacts offer intriguing clues to human activities
This is the 11th in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.
Not long ago, a young hiker found a rusty old Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco tin that he misidentified. “Whiskey flask?” he asked. Nope. He had never seen a tobacco tin before, and learned at that very moment that smokers rolled their own in the old days.
So the artifacts rust away while winds slowly bury them in sand. Historic objects that once served a practical function now have the renewed purpose of connecting 21st century Americans to our past.
Not everybody knows the historical significance of lost cultures, however.
One who has that expertise is Sally McBeth, anthropology professor at the University of Northern Colorado. She spent about four years investigating the Northern Ute Indian culture at Colorado National Monument.
Her 106-page report, “Talking About a Sacredness,” was published last year and quickly became an invaluable tool for National Park Service staffers working on new museum-quality exhibits at the monument visitor center.
McBeth looked at the cultural significance of plants, trees and flowers for the Utes who had lived here. Her project posed an obvious challenge because this once-flourishing Native American culture disappeared from the Grand Valley 130 years ago. Such a gap in the historical record proved daunting.
“As a cultural anthropologist, I was trying to learn about the landscape,” McBeth said in a recent interview. “The most important thing I learned was that the Northern Utes, especially women, are really interested in recapturing knowledge lost over the generations.”
In 1881, the U.S. government drove the Utes out of western Colorado and relocated them on reservations in Utah. McBeth worked with descendants of the exiled Utes, who now live on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Fort Duchesne, Utah, to rediscover cultural evidence of their existence here. Still, she reported, “the specific representation of Ute presence becomes murky.”
Several questions were prompted by monument petroglyphs, which the Utes examined. Unfortunately, they were not prepared to interpret the rock art for McBeth simply because their ancestors had been removed from here in the 19th century.
What became abundantly clear from this project, however, was the monument’s spiritual significance to the Utes, now as well as long ago.
In McBeth’s report, Northern Ute elder Clifford Duncan noted, “These rock formations were made in a sacred time; they are a gift from the spirit.”
Part of McBeth’s extensive research, called ethnobotany, illuminates the Native Americans’ reliance on vegetation — from the pinyon pine and prickly pear cactus to the juniper and bear root — for food, medicine and other basic needs.
Sagebrush, for example, was placed on hot rocks in sweat lodges for spiritual qualities. Yucca roots were mashed to make shampoo. Juniper sprigs dulled pain and stopped bleeding.
Another group of hunter/gatherers showed up in western Colorado. These were white men digging for gold and silver. Some eked out a living before President William Howard Taft established the monument in 1911, putting a halt to mining here.
Today’s hiker can still read mine claims in Kodels Canyon. Words and numbers etched in boulders and half-covered now by lichen remind us that hardscrabble fortune-seekers preceded us by more than a century.
Among our favorite artifacts are the weathered ore carts harkening back to the 1930s. That’s when Civilian Conservation Corps road builders worked here. In the course of blasting an extraordinary passage that became Rim Rock Drive, CCCers loaded ore carts with tons of dynamited rubble that mules hauled away.
This was during the Great Depression, when 3 million young men labored for a decade to bolster America’s public lands. Today, a few of them are still alive, well into their 90s and beyond, their weathered memories like ore carts half buried in sand.
McBeth is scheduled to deliver a free slideshow presentation at 6 p.m. June 11 in the monument visitor center.
# # #
Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.