“Go back to nature”
Facing the four directions in turn, Clifford Duncan said a prayer to bless the land that once was home to his people. It’s been more than 140 years since his grandfathers were forced to move, with the rest of the Ute people, to reservations in Utah. Now he’s coming home.
“Nanama,” he said, “all things working together.”
Duncan is from a traditional line of Ute that performs ceremonies. The prayers he recites and the gestures he makes are those that he learned from his father, who learned them from his father and on through the generations.
“For so many hundreds of years my people lived in this area,” Duncan said before the prayer. “The Rocky Mountains were their home. During the 1800s things began to change. They were removed from here to make room for others to come.”
Now the Ute elder has returned with the help of a Colorado Humanities Grant to tour the area visiting 10 schools along the way to teach children, and adults, about the first inhabitants of western Colorado and the value they saw in the land.
“In removing the Indians, they took the people away from the land, but their spirit stayed,” said Duncan in the greenhouse at Round Mountain Organics, south of Crested Butte. “The mountains and everything in them, the animals and birds, this is what they were and they were connected to the spirit of this place and that remains.”
With a pinch of tobacco and a prayer, he sent the group of a dozen that had come to see him into the surrounding field to make a blessing of their own and put the tobacco in the ground.
As part of the grant award, Duncan will be recording many of the stories that have nearly been lost over time.
“When Duncan was young they had him and the other Ute boys in a school where it was against the rules to speak in their native language. Because of things like that, the Ute language was almost lost and it was only because Clifford was old enough to remember some of the language that he is able to speak it now,” said Charlotte Graham, who worked to secure the grant that is allowing Duncan to tour the state.
And in recent years he has found ample opportunity to use the language of his elders while giving blessings at the Sundance Film Festival, private ceremonies and major events, like the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics Salt Lake City.
“There has been this recent movement and interest in getting back to basics and that’s what Duncan is offering. He’s giving people a chance to get back to nature,” said Graham. “Forget the TV, forget the things that depress you and go back to nature.”
Graham said they were able to schedule meetings at 10 schools as soon as they found out the grant had been awarded in January. There was enough interest that a second tour is being planned for September.
Duncan visited the Gunnison Elementary School Monday, April 27, meeting with students twice during the day in full traditional ceremonial Ute regalia.