Honoring the legacy of a Northern Ute tribal historian

Clifford Duncan passed away this winter. With his passing went centuries of Ute cultural knowledge about land and landscape.

A World War II veteran in his 80s, though he lived at Neola, Utah, near Fort Duschene, he traveled across the West visiting with public land managers, archaeologists and historians.

“There was no one like him. No one can replace him,” said Kenny Frost of the Southern Utes.

Duncan knew the cultural ways of his people. To be with him in the field in the White River National Forest, on Uncompahgre Mesa, at Dinosaur National Monument, in the Piceance Basin or following the route of a proposed gas pipeline was to understand how the Utes valued the landscape they called “The Shining Mountains.” Duncan was a tribal historian working with the Northern Ute Cultural Rights and Protection Office.

“Clifford had a rare ability to listen and to try to understand the world. Although he believed in and practiced the traditional values of his people, he had an open and inquiring mind and was willing to learn from, and teach others, including archaeologists who demonstrated an honest interest in Ute culture,” said Mike Metcalf of Metcalf Archaeological Consultants from Eagle and Denver.

I had the privilege of being with Duncan, Betsy Chapoose and Kenny Frost at a summer “culture camp” at Trappers Lake two decades ago, and I’ll never forget walking the shores of the lake beside Duncan and learning to see a sacred Ute landscape in a new way. He inspired me to learn about complicated issues related to tribal preservation and encouraged me to research and write “Sacred Objects & Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions.”

“Days in the field with Clifford were always special,” Metcalf remembered. I agree.

Federal laws trigger consultation with tribal officials, including the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) 36 CFR 800 and Section 106 of NHPA to identify and assess a site’s significance. Section 800.2 explains which parties must be consulted, including Native American tribes with ancestral ties to public lands. Tribes are also consulted under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) if human remains are found on federally managed lands.

Because Utes historically moved during seasonal rounds throughout Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, tribal cultural offices can be extremely busy consulting on projects for the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, other federal agencies and contractors working on federal lands. I assisted Duncan and other team members to help identify the historic Ute Trail that went from Dotsero, where the Eagle and Colorado Rivers meet, 57 miles northwest up and over the Flattops toward Meeker.

Those summers were some of the most rewarding of my life as I learned how Utes moved through mountain landscapes with their horses, travois and camps. They traveled at a pace slow enough for children and the elderly with scouts riding ridgelines always on alert. Duncan helped us to understand that in traditional Ute culture, travel was never aimless or random; families and clans always had a specific purpose or destination in mind.

Because of the injustices American society has perpetrated on native tribes, some consultations can be tense and confrontational with very little accomplished. Not so with Clifford. He possessed an extraordinary ability to work with people. He listened well. He explained things carefully, and he earned enormous respect from everyone with whom he worked.

“Clifford was a person that I would call a perfect gentleman. Gracious, and at least for me endlessly patient, he gave me information that he felt was important when he felt I was ready to accept it. He also came across as very humble,” recalled Michael Selle, BLM archaeologist from the Meeker office.

Duncan taught Selle about cultural values and how when someone needs advice from a native consultant, the grandfather or elder should receive a small gift of elk, venison or tobacco. For Duncan, the Ute spirit world continued to exist. He helped us to understand that the sacred and the secular were “seamlessly intertwined in traditional Ute culture,” explained Selle. I learned from Duncan and Kenny Frost to give thanks after visiting a site so I offer something precious which I’ve carried far — water. From Duncan I received braided sweetgrass which I will treasure.

“Though raised in the wisdom and values of the traditional Ute culture, of which he was an endless reservoir of information, Clifford could also look at modern science and appreciate it,” relates Selle. In the late 1980s as energy boomed across the West, Duncan consulted on major pipelines. He consulted when archaeologists uncovered human remains. 

As large-scale projects are planned across federal lands, Native American tribes are involved in a government-to-government relationship.  Federal staff meet directly with tribal representatives. Private contractors occasionally serve as facilitators. Energy companies can have fixed budgets and tight deadines. Having equipment and workers sit idle costs money, yet tribal consultation can drag on over large and small details such as how to mitigate and preserve a prehistoric or historic site, possibly by recording it or even changing a pipeline’s route.

To the relief of both federal archaeologists and private contractors, “Clifford’s approach to consultation was always thoughtful, forthright and honest,” Metcalf said. “His depth of knowledge was unparalleled, but when he encountered places or things that were unfamiliar he would say so, and would strive to learn and understand. He respected the fact that some questions cannot easily be answered, and he never pretended knowledge that he didn’t actually have.”

Duncan worked with former Daily Sentinel editorial page editor Robert Silbernagel on “Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of Utes from Colorado.”

“Although he was happy to work with whites to set them straight about Ute history, he was not one to sugarcoat things to make it easier for whites to accept,” Silbernagel said.

Duncan helped with projects and consultations across four states and the entire spectrum of Ute land usage. How ironic that as a boy he was sent to boarding school to learn white ways and to give up his Ute culture.

Thankfully, he never did. We will miss his wisdom.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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