November is National Native American Heritage Month, an annual celebration of the rich ancestry and traditions of the indigenous peoples of the United States. Join FRCC this month in recognizing the many contributions that the first Americans have made to the establishment and growth of our country.
You may—or may not—already know that there are…
- 324 distinct, federally recognized American Indian reservations.
- 574 federally recognized Indian tribes.
- 3.7 million people who identify as American Indian and Alaska Native only (not with any other race)*
- 120,944 single-race American Indian and Alaska Native veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.
But there’s so much more to learn about the indigenous people of this country. One of the best ways to celebrate Native American Heritage Month is to educate ourselves. The Native people of this country have faced many atrocities, yet have shown incredible resilience.
Throughout this month, let’s keep learning about the history of the people who arrived here some 15,000 years ago and were removed from their ancestral lands as European explorers began arriving to this land in the 15th century. Keep reading for profiles on some influential Native Coloradans—and for places where you can learn more about indigenous culture, traditions and history.
Important Native Coloradans
There are many Native Americans who played a significant role in our nation’s history. Let’s meet four influential figures who spent much of their lives here in Colorado:
Chief Ouray (1833-1880)
Ever been to the gorgeous town of Ouray, Colorado? It was named after Chief Ouray, the Tabeguache (Uncompahgre) Ute leader who in the 1860s negotiated on behalf of the Ute people in treaties that created reservations for them to live in the Colorado Territory. He was appointed head chief of the Ute by the government in 1868 when he traveled to Washington, DC, to represent his people.
Sadly, much of the Utes’ lands ended up in government hands, but Chief Ouray was steadfast in his efforts to work peacefully with white settlers and the government. Treaty after treaty resulted in more losses for the Ute people, and they eventually revolted as settlers tried to force them to assimilate and abandon their traditions and way of life.
This conflict came to a head in October 1879, when area settlers demanded the Utes’ removal from their land. By March 1880, Chief Ouray explained to his people that they must leave their homeland. The Southern Ute agreed to settle on the La Plata River, the Uncompahgre on the Grand near the mouth of the Gunnison River, and the White River Ute on the Uinta reservation in Utah.
Ouray’s wife, Chipeta, was often by his side in negotiations. In summer 1880, the couple travelled to the Southern Ute agency at Ignacio with the intent to negotiate once again. But Ouray was very sick by the time he arrived. He died of Brights Disease on August 24, 1880.
His obituary described him as, “a friend to the white man and protector to the Indians alike,” and named him, “…the greatest Indian of his time.” Chipeta continued to work for the Ute and negotiate on behalf of her people until her death in 1924.
Chief Black Kettle (1803-1868)
Black Kettle was born in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He gained prominence as a warrior as a teen and joined the Elkhorn Scraper Society, which met with their chief to discuss important tribal matters. In 1854, his father-in-law died and Black Kettle was made chief of the Wotapio Band of Cheyenne and chosen to be a member of the Council of 44, the Cheyenne tribal government.
In the wake of the Gold Rush, many white settlers moved west, bringing many changes throughout the 1840s. Black Kettle felt that these changes couldn’t be stopped and wanted to work toward peace with the settlers. He and other members of Colorado plains tribes met and a treaty was formed in 1851 that would prove to be largely unfavorable to the Cheyenne.
Many young warriors waged war upon the settlers who flooded the region. John Evans, governor of the territory of Colorado, eventually ordered all Native Americans to move to forts in Colorado and Kansas as tensions continued to increase between them and the settlers, and Black Kettle moved his band to Fort Lyon.
Many parties were still attempting to maintain peace, and Black Kettle was encouraged by Major Scott Anthony to hunt near Sand Creek. On November 29, 1864, however, Colonel John Chivington moved his troops to the plains and attacked Chief Black Kettle’s village. In what’s now known as the Sand Creek Massacre, some 150-200 people were killed, more than half of them women and children.
In the years that followed, Chief Black Kettle continued to try to negotiate peace for his people. However, many were unsatisfied with treaties in 1865 and 1867, and fighting continued. The US Army attacked the Cheyenne in November 1868, and Black Kettle and his wife were shot while trying to escape the attack.
Lucille Echohawk served as the executive director of the Denver Indian Family Resource Center until her retirement in 2014. This organization was founded in 2000 as a child welfare agency focused on meeting the needs of Native American children in the Denver area.
This citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma who resides in Arvada, Colorado, has been a longtime advocate for Native American youth and people—both locally and nationally. She has been a member of the National Support Council for the Native American Rights Fund and is an at-large member of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. She continues to work in the tribal and Native non-profit arena.
John “Thunderbird Man” Emhoolah Jr. (1929-2021)
If you live in Denver, perhaps you’re familiar with the John “Thunderbird Man” Emhoolah Jr. Branch Library, which is the new (as of 2021) name of the Denver Public Library Byers Branch Library.
Emhoolah spent his life advocating for Native education and people. He was a Kiowa and Arapaho and a descendant of survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre. He served on the National Native American Veterans Memorial Advisory Committee and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium in Denver, where he lobbied the government for better funding of tribal colleges.
Emhoolah also served as Executive Director of the American Indian Center in Denver, was Director of the Adams County Five Star Schools Indian Education Program and was co-founder of the Denver March Powwow.
Celebrate All Year
The above represent just a handful of names, but there are many other Native Americans who have made significant contributions to our state and country.
History.com is a great place to start in learning more about Native American history, culture and leaders. There are many other amazing places to visit here in Colorado as well:
Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum | Dolores, Colorado
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center | Cortez, Colorado
Hovenweep National Monument | Montezuma Creek, Utah (UT and CO border)
Mesa Verde National Park | Cortez, Colorado
Plains Conservation Center | Aurora, Colorado
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site | Eads, Colorado
Southern Ute Museum | Ignacio, Colorado
Ute Council Tree | Delta, Colorado
Ute Indian Museum | Montrose, Colorado
Denver Museum of Nature and Science permanent exhibit on North American Indian Cultures
Written on the Land exhibit at the History Colorado Center
Return of the Corn Mothers exhibit at History Colorado Center
Indigenous Arts of North America Galleries at the Denver Art Museum
We’ll leave you with this: There are so many ways to acknowledge the influences of Native Americans and the incredible culture and history of their people.
We invite you to continue learning all year long about the land you live on, the cultures that existed here and the impact of European exploration and colonization of the Americas. Although a complicated and tragic history, it is important for all of us to learn about.