Category: Communities

Stories on communities and culture, past and present

Counties use a ‘coordination’ clause to fight the feds

Counties use a ‘coordination’ clause to fight the feds

Farm in the Bitterroot Valley, with the Bitterroot National Forest beyond, in Ravalli County, Montana (Via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2011, Ravalli County (Montana) Commissioner Suzy Foss asked American Stewards of Liberty for help. The Texas-based nonprofit trains local governments to use “coordination,” an often-overlooked provision in key environmental laws that govern land management. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act specifically directs the Bureau of Land Management to “coordinate the land use inventory, planning, and management activities” with states, local governments and tribes. The National Forest Management Act includes similar language for the Forest Service.

According to American Stewards Executive Director Margaret Byfield, coordination means that federal agencies must involve counties and states in planning and give them an “equal position at the negotiating table” for decision-making. “It is,” she says, “pretty straightforward.” The nonprofit says over 100 local governments have invoked coordination to fight land-use restrictions since 2006.

Many groups, including environmentalists, try to influence land management with scientific research and alternative management proposals, but policy experts say that the coordination movement has a distinctly anti-federal government flavor — a Sagebrush Rebellion in bureaucratic clothing, with links to state efforts to take over federal lands. Coordination proponents are “essentially arguing a county would have veto authority on federal land decisions,” says Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana. And federal officials, who interpret “coordination” very differently, fear it’s stoking more conflicts than it resolves by misinforming locals.

But though critics, including federal land managers, may dismiss American Stewards’ interpretation of coordination, it’s gaining traction among state and U.S. lawmakers and Western governors. “It has no legal basis, but it’s as much about trying to frame things politically,” Nie says.These proposals are pushing way, way outside the mainstream.”

“Counties use a ‘coordination’ clause to fight the feds “

High Country News, May 11, 2015

Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound

Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound

Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management's sawmill
Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management’s sawmill, which reopened in 2013 after a 10-year closure. (JZ)

When the afternoon work break ends at Saratoga Forest Management, an earsplitting ruckus resumes as dozens of sawmill workers return to their posts. Inside the two-story facility, timber is debarked, sawed, sorted and sent to dry in a kiln. By day’s end, the mill will crank out 300,000 board feet of premium studs — enough framing lumber for about 20 average-sized American houses. Not bad for a business that was sitting idle 18 months ago.

All the lumber produced here comes from pine-beetle-killed or infected lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, with many studs carrying the distinctive blue stain of beetle damage. Saratoga, a small southern Wyoming town of fewer than 1,700, sits in the midst of the state’s most severe pine-beetle outbreak, says Clint Georg, who reopened the mill with partners in January 2013 after a 10-year lull.

The Saratoga mill and another recently restarted stud mill in Montrose, Colorado, are reviving the Rocky Mountain region’s wood-products industry. Both use beetle-killed wood to produce lumber. The byproducts, like sawdust and wood chips, are used by other businesses to make stove pellets, building materials and other goods. Other scraps go to a biomass power plant to produce electricity. Together, these industries are putting beetle-killed trees to use, perhaps reducing forest fire risks in the process. Yet the mills remain hampered by a lack of raw materials.

The Forest Service now sells far fewer board-feet than it once did, as the agency emphasizes new-era forestry that relies less on logging the biggest trees. The stud mills, lacking enough timber, can’t run at full capacity. They need logs and timber sales to stay afloat, Georg says, and the businesses using the byproducts need the mills.

With wood trickling in instead of flowing, Georg and others are worried that the uptick in their business may not last. Neither the industry nor the agency has quite figured out how to restore forest health while guaranteeing a steady flow of timber.

“Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound”

High Country News, November 10, 2014

Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise

Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise

"Life by the Mekong River" by International Rivers (Photo from Xayaburi Dam site, October 2012)
“Life by the Mekong River” (Photo by International Rivers from Xayaburi Dam site, October 2012)

Seven upstream dams  have already altered flows, reduced fish populations, and affected communities along portions of the Lower Mekong River, which flows through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But the impacts may soon get much worse as a new era of hydroelectric dam-building begins in the Lower Mekong Basin. Eleven major hydroelectric dams — mostly within Laos — and dozens of dams on tributary streams that feed into the Mekong have been proposed or are under construction.

River experts say that if a dam-building boom proceeds as planned, it could diminish essential flood pulses and decimate fisheries and riverside gardens that are dependent on variable flows and sediment. That, in turn, would affect the diets and livelihoods of 40 million people dependent on the Mekong, the “greatest inland fishery in the world,” according to Ian Baird, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin who lived and studied in Laos for 15 years.

“Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise”

Yale Environment 360, February 20, 2014

Port Gamble Predicament

Port Gamble Predicament

Meeting of Kitsap Forest & Bay Project at Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation, April 2012
Meeting of Kitsap Forest & Bay Project at Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation, April 2012

A western Washington tribe and timber country are trying to put 160 years of sticky history aside to protect the local forests and bay shorelines, including shellfish beds that still provide subsistence meals for local Indians.

My November 26 cover story for High Country News explores how a shared past is complicating efforts for a promising future on Port Gamble Bay. For the story, I made two visits to western Washington (including on a reporters’ expedition through the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources), and spent time amid the forests, shorelines and communities surrounding Port Gamble.




Of Cowboys and Indians

Of Cowboys and Indians

Malhotra speaking at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado (via iCAST)

Ravi Malhotra travels Colorado and the West helping rural businesses, bringing an internationally inspired approach to a conservatively local landscape.

I dropped in on Malhotra’s work several times over the past year, reporting for High Country News.

My story, “Of cowboys and Indians,” appears in the March 5, 2012 issue.

Here’s an excerpt:

But this is a typical day for Malhotra. He and his colleague Christopher Jedd are on a 72-hour journey around the state’s Western Slope on behalf of Malhotra’s Denver-based nonprofit iCAST — the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology. The group’s name and mission — “to provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to communities in a manner that builds local capacity” — make it sound like an aid group at work in the developing world.

And in a way, that’s what iCAST is. The economic hardships in small Western communities are a far cry from the persistent poverty in developing nations. But even so, unemployment in Delta County reached over 11 percent during the recession, surpassing the statewide average. And average per capita income ranks near the bottom for Colorado counties. As in many rural areas, families scramble to get by, shuttered storefronts punctuate the streets, and wireless Internet remains a novelty. It doesn’t help that educated young people tend to flee depressed rural areas for jobs in cities, leaving locals without much access to technical expertise. That makes it harder to tackle small engineering projects, develop ambitious business or marketing plans, or gain access to much-needed capital or credit. And many locals don’t want help directly from the government.

ICAST tries to bridge those gaps, helping rural residents learn how to maintain or expand their businesses in ways that also benefit the environment. Malhotra is quick to say that he and his staff are not experts on sanitation or forestry, ranching or horticulture, although iCAST projects have addressed all those fields.



Picking Ranchers’ Brains

Picking Ranchers’ Brains

Fernandez-Gimenez, with sheep herd in Spanish Pyrenees, in 2011.

A Colorado cowboy, a Spanish sheepherder and a Mongolian nomad walk into a bar… what do they have to talk about?

Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, a professor at Colorado State University, studies the traditional ecological knowledge of ranchers around the world, and she spoke to me about her work and findings for High Country News in January 2012.

Read More Read More

Serendipity in the Desert

Serendipity in the Desert

Anti-government Sagebrush Rebels have long ruled local decision-making in southern Utah, but change is in the air with the infusion of wilderness wanderers and animal aficionados.

My January 24, 2011 cover story for High Country News, “Utah’s Sagebrush Rebellion capital mellows as animal-lovers and enviros move in,” reports on the region’s swirling social, political and environmental dynamics, from antigovernment protests over public lands to failed bikini bans to supposedly uphold local, social values.

Northern Might

Northern Might

North Fort Collins is separated from the rest of the city by the Cache la Poudre River, a geographic break that historically kept Hispanic and other foreign families segregated from downtown. In recent years, development pressures have initiated a makeover for the north-side, but citizens and city officials remain concerned that changes may impact the social and cultural fabric of historical neighborhoods.


Northern Might

ANorthernMightRMCcovers the north-side makeover continues, longtime Fort Collins residents assert their heritage.

By Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, February 28, 2008

Frank Martinez calls the new Northside Aztlán Community Center “gorgeous.” He repeats the compliment three times during a twenty-minute phone conversation, emphatic in his praise.

And after a tour through the $10 million building, which opened last November, it’s obvious what he means. Light filters through the windows of the expansive open lobby, and the center’s 
exposed steel and cast
 concrete purposely evoke 
an industrial-chic atmosphere. The state-of-the-art
 construction from energy-
efficient components and
 recycled materials of the 
former building will probably 
earn LEED (Leadership in 
Energy and Environmental 
Design) certification. Bilingual signage and Latin American-inspired artistic elements of glass and concrete fuse the center with a creative display of multiculturalism.

Martinez grew up at the old Northside Aztlán, running around the playground, participating in sports, staying off the streets. “Northside was huge for me,” he says. “It really did give me the confidence to succeed in school and at sports.” After graduating high school and serving in the Army, Martinez came back to work at the center, coaching and mentoring children as he was coached and mentored when he was young. He gave up his job when the new building opened to finish his degree and pursue other work, but he helped hire his replacement. Now Martinez is a member of the center’s advisory council, an unofficial committee that serves as a liaison between the facility and the community.

“I’m familiar with a lot of the insides and outsides,” Martinez says, “and I’m worried about the squeezing out of programs and it not being a community center that is accessible to all people in the community. That’s what made Northside beautiful.”

The difference between “gorgeous” and “beautiful” is a feeling among local families, many of them Latino, that the spiffy, new facility doesn’t offer the same amenities as the old center — or that it does but with prohibitive new fees and rules.

In other words, the multicultural vibe needs to be more than decoration.

Discriminating Geography

Outside the doors of the Aztlán Center, other changes are afoot on the north side of Fort Collins. There are plans for an outdoor amphitheater and a kayak park. Mixed-use developments, combining apartments and “loftominiums” with shops and offices, are popping up all over. Many of them are similarly using sustainable-design elements and being marketed to the cultural “creative class,” coveted by retailers and Realtors. In this context, the north side is an untapped frontier for growth, where Old Town can meld with plans for the city’s Beet Street cultural and arts area.

Since its settlement, Fort Collins has grown south from Old Town, away from the Cache la Poudre River. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Great Western Sugar Company sited its sugar-beet factory north of the river, and farm-labor families populated the surrounding neighborhoods — first Germans from Russia and then Hispanic families from New Mexico and farther south.

German Russian 
immigrants, unwelcome 
to live among the general 
population of Fort Collins, 
moved into the north-side neighborhoods of Buckingham and Andersonville in the early nineteen hundreds. Mexican Americans later followed and mixed with the German Russians. In 1923, Great Western started a new settlement
 and provided straw, lime, gravel and lumber for families to build two-room adobe homes. Workers could, over time, purchase a house and property for under $200. Latino residents called the area La Colonia Española. Today, it’s called Alta Vista, and all three neighborhoods are known as the colonias. Adobe homes are still scattered among the blocks, and the area remains — for the moment, at least — predominantly Latino.

Tony Rodriguez’s home in Andersonville sits on the busy corner of Lemay Avenue and Vine Drive, where trains rumble by and cars back up at the intersection all day. As a young boy, Rodriguez moved to Fort Collins with his parents, migrant farmworkers from Texas. Rodriguez and his wife have lived in the home for 58 years, raising five children along the way.

“It was a rough life, let me put it that way,” Rodriguez says of his youth. “I didn’t have an education. I had to start working the fields all over.” He keeps a thin moustache on his thin face, and his creased cheeks are a testament to years of outdoor labor.

North-side residents lived with pollution from the factory and passing trains. The city dump was adjacent to the neighborhoods. River flooding was a looming danger each spring and summer. When the families crossed the river into downtown Fort Collins, they ran into a different set of threats, from prejudiced citizens who refused to associate with them or sell them goods.

Neither the City of Fort Collins nor Larimer County wanted jurisdiction over the colonias, so roads were unpaved and muddy, and houses relied on wood stoves for heat. Into the Seventies, families had outhouses, because the government refused to extend a sewer line to the region.
 A 2003 historical report for the city (PDF link) calls the area “a geography of discrimination.” In this void, AltaVista elected unofficial mayors to advocate for the most basic services, such as street maintenance and indoor plumbing.

“The town here — the racism was real bad,” Rodriguez recalls. “When we came here, [shop windows] said, ‘No Mexicans, White Trade Only’.” He pauses as his mind fast-forwards to the present. “It’s a little better.”

Over time, progressive citizens advocated for the removal of signs that denied Mexican Americans access to stores. And the north side’s cultural identity finally got a physical home
 of sorts, when the City of Fort Collins built the Northside Community Center in 1977 at the site of the former landfill.

New and Old Kids on the Block

On a weekday morning, the new Northside Center bustles
 with kids shooting hoops in the gym and grownups working 
out with free weights and on treadmills in the fitness center. There’s a Tai Chi class underway and a children’s education program, themed around “Dora the Explorer,” in progress. Other programs teach cooking, Spanish, badminton and Salsaerobics, among dozens of other activities for children, adults and seniors.

The building is two-and-a-half times larger than the old center. The new gym — “the Cadillac of the whole facility,” says city Recreation Manager Steve Budner — has an elevated track around its perimeter and is three times bigger than the former center’s single basketball court.

But they don’t hold any funerals at the new center.

It used to be that every once in a while, if they didn’t have enough money for a loved one’s funeral, a north-side family would approach the staff of Northside Aztlán, which would arrange for a reception at the center, free of charge.

“A lot of the people we’re talking about here have a hard time paying for 
a funeral, let alone a reception,” Frank Martinez says. He estimates about five to fifteen services used to take place at the old building every year, and the assistance built loyalty toward the community center among residents of the colonias.

Kids under eighteen used to walk in free to the center and spend afternoons playing sports and games. That doesn’t happen anymore either. Now, children ages six to fifteen must pay a dollar to use the new center each day, while teens must
 pay two dollars. Punch cards for multiple visits do offer cost breaks. “And although it’s just one or two dollars,” Martinez says, “there are kids that I’ve talked to who are not going.”

(A lounge, with pool tables, computers, a big-screen TV and PlayStation, is open for no charge.)

If the fees sound minimal, think of a family with two working parents and two children in need of after-school activities. Now the family must pay $10 a week
— $500 a year — for weekday access, a significant amount for people struggling to buy groceries and pay property taxes or rent and utility bills.

The center also offers scholarship funds that reduce fees for children and adults who qualify for federal- or state-assistance programs. But Martinez says some parents who don’t qualify for other government programs still need financial help. Some are overloaded with work or otherwise reluctant to fill out the forms.

Martinez has also heard from children who fear that rates for summer sports programs, including basketball leagues, will be raised. Martinez remembers back when a team used to pay $10 total to enroll to play. Last year in the old facility, each child paid $25 or $40, depending on the league, but higher fees could reduce participation among kids from low-income families.

“It’s a program that’s been used to keep kids off the streets and out of gangs, and it’ll be interesting to see how that works,” Martinez tells me. “It really does create a home for the kids all summer. Hopefully, that’s not lost.”

“A lot of activities were free and it was a good place to find adult leadership and guidance,” Budner says, “and I think we still have that here. The old Northside was a close community. I think this was pretty scary to a lot of people.”

Budner, who has spent 22 years working for the city’s recreation department, has a neat, graying goatee, and today,
as we walk around the new Northside, 
he wears a mock turtleneck and a blue sweater with a city recreation logo. He is disarmingly friendly and not at all scary, but he realizes that he is the face of a new regime (the recreation department is now headquartered at Northside).

The center has no plans to raise summer league costs, Budner says, but
 he acknowledges that the facility won’t accommodate free funerals or other family services. Everyone must pay $25 per hour for a community room, which includes access to a full kitchen.

Martinez responds that the benefits of waiving costs in the dozen or so cases each year — and the community pride toward the center fostered by the assistance — outweigh the $150 or $200 the city would collect for each event.

As far as the new fees, Budner says the changes bring Northside’s operations and rates in line with other city facilities, although he recognizes the complications
 regarding the scholarship applications.

“We do whatever we can to get that filled out,” Budner says, including contacting teachers when parents are unavailable. “We
 do not turn anyone away.” He says he’s also encouraging longtime staff to reach out to children who formerly used the center but haven’t shown up to the new space.

“I think we’re seeing more new faces than old faces,” Budner says. “We’re glad to see the new faces, but we don’t want to lose the old faces either.”

A Brewing Storm

If there is an industrial
 face to the north side
 these days, it’s New Belgium Brewing Company. Since 1995, the enviro-friendly microbrewery abuts the Buckingham neighborhood at Linden and Buckingham streets. (The sugar beet factory site is now the city’s streets department headquarters.)

Upstairs from the brewery’s tasting room, its flowing taps and overflowing crowd, Kim Jordan, New Belgium’s CEO, keeps her office where the sounds of clinking glasses and buzzed conversation provide background ambiance.

“I love this neighborhood. We moved here because we love this part of town,” Jordan says. “But sometimes it makes me sad, because I feel like it’s not as integrated with New Belgium or the downtown.”

The disintegration, as it were, of the north-side neighborhoods has bubbled 
up in a few standoffs in recent years. The Rocky Mountain Sustainable Living Fair, which happens one weekend every September at the “Oxbow” property, bounded by both New Belgium and Buckingham, has faced criticism for clogging neighborhood streets with parked cars. New Belgium’s Tour de Fat, an annual bike parade and carnival of sorts that brings out thousands of costumed bicycle riders and beer drinkers, has also drawn complaints about noise, traffic and public intoxication. And sounds from the brewery’s late-summer, bike-in movie series in its parking lot are said to echo through the neighboring streets.

If the colonias still elected a local mayor, Betty Aragon-Mitotes would probably be the perennial frontrunner. She has lived,
 on and off, in Buckingham since the 1960s, and she is a frequent spokeswoman and ambassador for the neighborhoods. She led local opposition to a truck-bypass route and helped build support for the purchase and preservation of the Romero House, an adobe home in Andersonville, as a museum of local Hispanic culture.

Aragon-Mitotes says the events and crowds, despite their green credentials and philanthropic motives, are noisy shake-ups to a neighborhood that has long suffered
 a range of affronts and injustices. But her concerns also ring as a preemptive, defensive stance against proposed development.

The Bohemian Foundation, under the control of local billionaire Pat Stryker, owns the Oxbow and has plans to build an outdoor amphitheater on the property, which could regularly host concerts and events, attracting thousands of people through Buckingham, on a nightly basis for months. Aragon-Mitotes says the constant crowds would be a major imposition on the neighborhood, and she’s even more worried about the venue triggering an increase in property taxes, which would price out longtime residents who get by on fixed incomes or modest wages.

“The music venue is the most important issue facing the Buckingham neighborhood,” Aragon-Mitotes says.

Bohemian Foundation staff and a project design firm met with local residents in April 2007 to talk about plans. (The Coloradoan ran a below-the-fold, front-page article about the meeting; the above-the-fold front-page story on a looming snowstorm had an ironic headline: “Brewing storm could whiten city.”)

Merry Hummel, the Bohemian Foundation’s executive director, says, via email, that plans for the Oxbow are still conceptual, and the organization plans to meet again with neighbors before submitting its plans to the city.

“We don’t have specifics to share at this time, but we are committed to talking and working with our neighbors,” Hummel writes. “As you may know, the Bohemian Foundation believes in creativity, imagination and spirit and is dedicated to improving Fort Collins, and our plans for the Oxbow will focus on this mission.”

Infill, Then Move Out

Anne Aspen of the Fort Collins planning department walks into our meeting at the city offices on North College Avenue carrying an armload of rolled-up maps. She unrolls them all, and we focus on one that frames the north side of the city.

From a bird’s-eye view, north Fort Collins looks vastly open. Huge parcels of vacant and former agricultural land surround the colonias. On Aspen’s map, every sizable chunk of green space is labeled, in Sharpie, with the name of a prospective development.

A development with 163 residential units is already undergoing city review. A conceptual project, in the early stages, would include about a thousand residential units and another 270,000 square feet of commercial real estate, right next to Alta Vista. Another conceptual development could build low-density, high-end student housing designed to look like single-family cottages. An open lot along Vine Drive, near Conifer and College, isn’t markered, but Aspen tells me a “major retailer” is interested.

The North College corridor, heading out of Old Town, is the city’s “most promising and underserved area for growth,” says Mike Jensen, of Fort Collins Real Estate. “I’d love to be a property owner 
in those neighborhoods, because they’re going to make out.”

The expansive redevelopment, plus
 a number of urban-infill loft projects, requires some infrastructure overhauls. The city has already spent $10 million on control measures to reduce flood-prone property and open up parcels to commercial and residential development. Next, the city plans to realign Vine Drive and expand the street’s intersection with Lemay Avenue. The expansion alone will cost around $20 million, and its impacts on Andersonville, including Tony Rodriguez’s home, aren’t clear.

“There’s a lot of culture and a lot of pride in these neighborhoods, and it’ll be interesting to see if these people will get forced out,” Frank Martinez says. “People look and say, ‘That’s low-income, that’s rundown.’ To the people that live there, it’s home.”

The colonias are already seeing an infusion of young couples and individuals looking for reasonably priced property near Old Town. That isn’t a bad thing — to have a 
new and diverse next generation of homeowners who appreciate the neighborhoods. But it’s likely that nearby quarter-million-dollar lofts and a new wave of shopping centers will also inflate property values — and taxes — among the colonias, which could, over time, eliminate affordable housing in the area.

Jensen says it’s important not to displace the “fiber and fabric of these neighborhoods.”

“I think everyone is pretty committed to [affordable housing] and sustainable and environmentally conscious growth,” he adds.

Betty Aragon-Mitotes isn’t quite
 so optimistic. She walked away from
the affordable-housing task group of UniverCity Connections, a partnership among city-government officials, Colorado State representatives and civic boosters, because she thought the discussions 
were focused on student housing, not accommodations for low-income families.

The task force has suggested, preliminarily, that one-fifth of new housing along the Mason Street Corridor, which is slated for 
a public, bus-rapid transit line, should be affordable. Mixed-use projects in Denver and Boulder already lock in below-market-priced units to rent and own. Whether Fort Collins city officials and developers will support the targets when the time comes — and the case can be made that it already has — is another thing. New and under-construction loft projects around downtown have hardly any price-restricted housing.

“We have every right to be in this community, and I feel like we’re being pushed out,” Aragon-Mitotes says. “Is that what Fort Collins is about? Becoming a city for the elite? I’ve heard that my neighborhood is not going to be around in five years.”

Moving History Forward

None of this is unique to Fort Collins. It’s just another case of gentrification in America. But the especially distressing part for our city is that much of the north-side growth is catering to the so-called creative class, the progressive and environmentally conscious people who drink microbrews, watch independent films, shop at farmer’s markets and bike instead of drive — the people who are supposed to embrace community diversity among incomes and cultures.

“I’d like to think that, too,” Kim Jordan says of the targeted populace, when I raise that conundrum and ask if she thinks the decline of the colonias’ culture and affordability is inevitable.

“The future? To me it is, Can we be extraordinary?” Jordan says, with a daring tone that would just sound like rhetoric 
if she hadn’t launched New Belgium as a model for sustainable and profitable business. “I think we’d lose a lot in turning our backs on recognizing the Hispanic contribution to Fort Collins, and the same thing goes for the agricultural contribution.”

But hope is not yet foreclosed upon.

Aragon-Mitotes and others are trying to raise funds to build an interpretive center next to the Romero House museum to accommodate funeral services and other family events in the future. The city is also considering a playground, basketball courts and a park at the streets department site that was once the beet factory.

Most significantly, neighborhood discussions have begun to consider landmark designation for the colonias. Residents met with city staff, including Anne Aspen and Karen McWilliams, the city historic preservation planner, in November to talk about options, including the differences between protection of individual adobe homes, and others that represent the “vernacular architecture” of the neighborhoods, versus recognition of entire blocks.

Landmark preservation would recognize the area’s history and create financial incentives for homeowners to rehabilitate and repair houses, McWilliams says. It would also provide greater protection against out-of- sync development next to the colonias and prohibit property owners from demolishing structures from within designated boundaries. (Some residents have questioned whether preservation status could also have negative effects, banning some renovations.)

Aspen hasn’t heard of any interest in specifically targeting the colonias for a full-scale makeover. A developer would be “stupid” to do so, she says.

Aragon-Mitotes is drumming up support among neighbors and hopes to submit an application for city historical preservation soon.

“The recognition they’ll receive in the public realm will be huge,” McWilliams says. “I think it will be a great source of pride for the communities themselves. Finally, after years, Fort Collins will formally recognize their contributions, instead of them being an afterthought.”

The reality is that, despite the anxieties and setbacks, the culture and character of the north side are still visible among the homes of the colonias and even the design of the new Northside Aztlán Community Center. Fort Collins is perched at a moment when the city can decide how to identify and incorporate these elements, beyond old and new architectural designs.

“There was a lot of history in that old facility, and we want to bring that history forward,” Steve Budner says of Northside Aztlán. “We have the ability to impact the lives of so many people and make a positive impact for the rest of their lives. That’s what we had at the old Northside, and we want that here.”

In Frank Martinez’s mind, the connections between accessible community center and thriving community are inseparable.

“I think the center is very symbolic
 of the north side,” he says. “I count it as a resource, where people can come together, where they can meet and they can work. It’s always been a little heart of north Fort Collins. That’s how I view it as a center, and that’s how I view the future.”




One hundred and forty-one years after a tragic massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians are reconnecting with their heritage and history in Colorado.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, December 8, 2005 (republished in Indian Education Today, February 2006)

By Joshua Zaffos

Allen Joe Black Wolf and Steve Brady listen to a soundtrack of traditional Indian songs—known as “49s”—as they drive a rental car southbound on Colorado Highway 71 through the heart of their ancestral homeland. Voices cry and sing, and hands slap and beat drums in the car’s speakers, and the Northern Cheyenne men look out at bundles of hay, small herds of cattle and their tribe’s former territory, which appears to extend forever across the plains beneath stretched-out clouds and the setting sun.

Otto Braided Hair steers a rented minivan just ahead on the highway, and fellow Northern Cheyenne LaForce “Lee” Lone Bear and Floyd “Bucky” Glenmore ride along. The remains of a final member of the tribe—one of about 150 victims murdered at the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864—rest in a cedar box in the cargo space of  the van. The Northern Cheyenne are on a journey from their reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, to La Junta, Colorado. In between, they traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect their displaced relative in order to return the remains to the banks of Sand Creek.

Many historians consider the Sand Creek Massacre the most brutal and deliberate attack on an Indian village in American history, and the raid initiated almost three decades of brutal warfare up and down the Great Plains between the United States Army and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The massacre also marked the onset of the tribes’ cultural decline.

“Our people never did recover from that. [The massacre] completely fractured, broke down the traditional government of the Cheyenne tribe,” says Brady, who occasionally chants with the recorded 49s between sentences. “[By 1890,] it was about to the point where our own people were nearly exterminated.”

One hundred and forty-one years after Sand Creek, the northern and southern bands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho are scattered between reservations and other lands in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma. They are physically and spiritually  separated from the territory and traditions of their relatives, and trying to reconnect with their history and maintain their identity.

The Massacre

In the dawn light of November 29, 1864, 700 Colorado soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho camp along Sand Creek, about twenty miles outside the present-day small town of Eads.

Chivington was a Methodist minister turned Civil War hero, and he had no tolerance for or interest in the tribes. His troops were mostly volunteers who had signed on for 100 days of service specifically to kill Indians. A few weeks earlier, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had followed Chivington’s orders and left the area around a military fort on the Arkansas River, camped along Sand Creek and flew an American flag over their village as a sign of peace.

That November morning, many of the tribe’s warriors were hunting for game — under the instruction of the U.S. military— leaving about 500 mainly Cheyenne women and children in the encampment. As the militia approached, an American flag waved over the lodge of Black Kettle, one of the Cheyenne chiefs.

Black Kettle believed the flag would spare the lives of his people, and he encouraged them to gather around his lodge as he also raised a white banner of truce. The militia fired indiscriminately on the Indians, and the chief and the others fled for their lives along the creek.

“My great-grandparents were still in bed, and they woke up to the sounds of guns and howitzers raining down on them,” says Brady, a former high school teacher on the rez who chairs the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project Committee.

His great-grandfather, Braided Hair, was one of the few warriors in the village, and he lassoed a stampeding horse for his pregnant wife and got her to safety.

The American soldiers slaughtered without mercy. They hacked off limbs with hatchets, and scalped the wounded without killing them. Defenseless groups of women and children who burrowed into pits along the stream banks were raped and shot. One pregnant Indian woman was cut open and her unborn child left lying beside her.

“Squaws’ snatches were cut out for trophies,” wrote Silas Soule, a captain under Chivington who refused to participate in the massacre and positioned his division to prevent more deaths. “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth.”

About 150 Indians, mostly women and children, died at the Sand Creek Massacre. Black Kettle and his wife, who survived nine bullets, managed to escape up the creek, but many other tribal leaders did not.

White Antelope, another Cheyenne chief, stepped out of his lodge when the soldiers first approached the camp and yelled, “Stop! Stop!” in English. Chivington’s troops shot the unarmed 75-year-old man. One soldier then scalped White Antelope, cut off his nose, ears and genitals, and boasted that he would make a tobacco pouch of the chief’s scrotum—as he still lay dying.

In those final moments of White Antelope’s life, surrounded by the dead and wounded of his band, the old chief repeated the words of a tribal “journey song” over  and over — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever.”

The Repatriation

The soldiers of Chivington’s regiment left Sand Creek with scalps, bones and gruesome tobacco pouches. They paraded through Denver as heroes when they returned. A few days before Christmas 1864, the Rocky Mountain News reported, “Cheyenne scalps are getting thick here as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one, and is anxious to get another to send east.”

Army surgeons returned to Sand Creek in 1867 to gather bones—usually the skulls—for ballistics studies and an “Indian cranial study” in the name of the pseudo-science of phrenology. Those samples ended up in the Smithsonian museum, which eventually housed about 18,500 Native American remains including 4,500 skulls.

This status as souvenirs and specimens has represented a tragic fate for the remains, which the government, museums and tribes have begun to address only in the last fifteen years. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law established a formal process to catalog and return certain cultural items, including human remains, to affiliated tribes and descendants. Museums across the country have since repatriated, or returned, such artifacts to tribes.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes know of seven human remains from Sand Creek held by the federal government and state museums. The Colorado Historical Society repatriated a scalp lock to the tribes in 1997 through NAGPRA. Representatives of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes took custody of the individual this past October. The widow of Major Jacob Downing, who fought under Chivington at Sand Creek, originally donated the long lock of hair to the state in 1911.

On this trip, the Northern Cheyenne have picked up a skull fragment of a Sand Creek victim from the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln. The museum knows the cranium was donated in 1927 but not much else: A staff member accidentally discovered it in a drawer with some old paper money.

“I think it’s certainly one of the most important [repatriations] because of the historical interest” in Sand Creek, says Priscilla Grew, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. “Every time we have one of these repatriations, it brings back a lot of history. It’s a very emotional experience, I think, for everyone involved.”

The Northern Cheyenne have brought the skull fragment to Denver where the Colorado Historical Society has stored it for the night. The next morning, before driving down Highway 71 to La Junta, the Indians meet with historical society officials, who invite the men to a basement vault to view a table of artifacts claimed from Sand Creek. There’s a bow and two arrows, a warrior’s buckskin shirt colored with yellow ochre and decorated with beads and scalp locks like tassels. Two war bonnets, lost in the chaos. A single buckskin moccasin.

The Historic Site

The two vehicles arrive at Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta—a National Park Service historic site where Sand Creek remains are being held. This past August, President Bush signed a law officially creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Previous laws approved a study to confirm the location of the massacre and O.K.’d the acquisition of private lands for the site. To date, the federal government and the tribes have purchased almost 2,400 acres along Sand Creek, which the Park Service will manage once the massacre site is finalized.

Park Service Superintendent Alexa Roberts says Sand Creek will be the first unit in the National Park system recognized as a “massacre” site. The agency and tribes are now considering a visitors center and interpretive trails and the placement of a cemetery for the repatriated remains before opening the area to the public.

Steve Brady says he’d like to see a simple monument inscribed with the message of White Antelope’s journey song. Roberts and the Northern Cheyenne representatives envision very little development, and hope visitors will recognize the site as a place of life and activity, and not just a historic relic.

The day after the Indians arrive in southeastern Colorado, they head out to the massacre site with Roberts and other Park Service staff, and the connection between past and present is evident in the prayers of Lee Lone Bear, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual adviser.

Like the others who have made this journey from Lame Deer, Lone Bear is a direct descendant of Sand Creek victims. His paternal grandfather married a daughter of White Antelope. His great-grandfather was Lone Bear, or One-Eye, a chief who also died at Sand Creek.

On this November afternoon, Lee Lone Bear is leading a prayer on a bluff overlooking the cottonwoods and dry creek bed of the massacre site. He chants in the Cheyenne language, and Allen Joe Black Wolf, who is learning the spiritual ceremonies from Lone Bear, stands at his side.

Lone Bear later explains that his words are part of an ongoing invocation that began before he left Lame Deer.

“I started the prayer at home and told them [the ancestors whose remains will be repatriated] we were coming and asked them for a good trip,” says Lone Bear. “At Lincoln, I prayed and said, ‘I’m taking you to Denver and La Junta, and we’ll bring you to where you’ve fallen.’”

His prayers include words for the young people of the tribe, and those in the Armed Forces fighting in Iraq. “We even pray for our president, President Bush. We pray that he makes the right decisions, even though he’s not well liked anymore,” continues Lone Bear. (“I even asked the Creator to watch over you,” he tells this journalist, “to make a good report and get it right.”)

“And I asked the spirit world for good health for the tribe and families, and to get a cemetery and reparations.”

The Reparations

Thirteen years before Sand Creek, the United States government and the tribes signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, establishing the first reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The territory encompassed 51 million acres across four present-day states, including 27 million acres in Colorado. The Indians retained rights to hunt, fish, travel and live on the land, and the tribes and the U.S. both agreed “to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.”

The peace lasted about seven years until the 1858 Pike’s Peak gold rush, when 140,000 prospectors flooded into Colorado. Conflict erupted, ultimately leading to Chivington’s aggression at Sand Creek in 1864. One year after the massacre, still reeling from the devastation and violence, some Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed a new treaty on the Little Arkansas River in Kansas, surrendering claims and rights to Colorado Territory.

But the U.S. government also accepted blame for Sand Creek. Article 6 of the treaty recognized “the gross and wanton outrages perpetrated” that day, and the government agreed to pay reparations in the form of land grants and “securities, animals, goods, provisions, or such other useful articles” to the survivors and victims’ families.

Fast-forward a century when the U.S. Indian Claims Commission negotiated land-claims settlements with Indians whose territory was taken without compensation. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes gave up any outstanding claims in exchange for just $15 million. But Sand Creek descendants still retained the right to unpaid reparations.

For the 5,000 Northern Cheyenne members who live on the reservation in Eastern Montana, per-capita income is less than $5,000 and unemployment hovers around 70 percent. Similar to other reservations, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and other poverty-related problems cast a dark shadow over the tribe’s future.

“This is where we [the Northern Cheyenne] always wanted to live,” says Norma Wolfchief Gourneau, over a cup of coffee at her home on the rez. A huge home theater TV towers over the living room, and a litter of kittens bounce around her back porch amid rows of old cars and trucks.

“But there’s not a lot of opportunities for jobs here,” continues Gourneau, a descendant of chief Black Kettle and a former tribal vice president. She now works for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, an hour’s drive away.

The Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma face similar challenges. The tribes don’t have a reservation; instead, the 11,400 members live within “service areas” in the panhandle, where they’re eligible for government services. Per-capita income is less than $9,000, and the unemployment rate is around 60 percent.

Any compensation or reparations could make a huge difference in the lives of these people, which may be why Steve Hillard, CEO of the Golden-based investment firm Council Tree Communications, approached the tribes in 2003 with a proposition for a casino in Colorado—in the name of retribution.

“It was a departure from what we normally do,” says Hillard, a Colorado State University graduate, whose company has worked mostly with Alaskan tribes on telecommunications deals. “We just did it because we believed it was the right thing to do for the Cheyenne and Arapaho.”

Hillard struck an agreement with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho and then unveiled his proposal to Colorado in December 2003: The Indians wanted to open a casino on 500 acres outside Denver International Airport and, in exchange, would abandon any claims to the 27 million acres of Colorado—40 percent of the state—under the Fort Laramie Treaty.

The supporters of the “Homecoming Project,” as the $150 million casino complex was named, suggested the gaming revenue could serve as reparations. Backers estimated a metro Denver casino would create 10,000 jobs and bring in up to $500 million a year for the tribes, plus $100 million in taxes for Colorado.

Despite the economic potential, Sand Creek descendants among the tribes took offense.

“We don’t care if you build a hundred casinos,” says Gourneau. “But we say, ‘Don’t use Sand Creek to get your casino and don’t use Sand Creek as a hammer [to hold] over the state of Colorado.’”

“When they first came out with the offer, they included Sand Creek as a bargaining chip,” says Joe Big Medicine, a Southern Cheyenne Sand Creek descendant. “When we met with Council Tree, we demanded that Sand Creek be left out.”

Hillard relented on the association, but he still tried to talk about “genocide” when the Homecoming Project got a hearing from the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee in September 2004. But after a chilly reception from Congress and continued opposition from Gov. Bill Owens and the northern tribes, the investors regrouped and targeted the city of Pueblo for the casino site. The project received approval from county commissioners this August before the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal council ultimately rejected the land exchange a month later.

Hillard says the casino is “at best, on hold,” but adds that the swing in support among southern tribe members “reflects honest and very deep divisions.”

Still, Hillard’s venture created confusion—over the creation of a Park Service unit and the tribal casino proposal—and stalled the legislation to designate the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Hillard “sidetracked us enough as it was. It almost completely derailed us,” says Steve Brady, who adds that Congress, not a casino developer, should move ahead and finally pay reparations for Sand Creek descendants.

The Run

Braided Hair — the great-grandfather of brothers Steve Brady and Otto Braided Hair — was hurt during the Sand Creek massacre but escaped that morning. He found his pregnant wife alive and riding the same horse for warmth a few days later.

“[Braided Hair] was among those delegated to go back and look for survivors and horses,” says Brady, who has kept the Anglicized name Indian Affairs later gave his family while his brother uses his ancestor’s given name. “He went back to the village and…unbelievable carnage, mutilated bodies, the whole village burned. So, they were left totally destitute. My great-grandfather never forgave the white people for that.”

Braided Hair lived to be 102 years old, dying in 1934. By then, most of the old ways of life had disappeared.

In the years following the massacre, bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho alternately pushed for peace and war with the United States, losing either way. By 1890, the government had relegated the northern and southern tribes to scrawny reservations, scraps of their once-expansive dominion.

Members of the tribes needed permission from the government Indian agent to leave a reservation. Elders were discouraged from sharing their heritage, and many chose to suppress stories of the past. Children learned little about their native language, culture and history. Few residents of the Northern Cheyenne reservation have ever journeyed to Sand Creek, and the tribes had even lost track of exactly where their ancestors had camped and been attacked.

“I didn’t learn about Sand Creek in elementary school or high school,” says Otto Braided Hair, coordinator of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project.

“For us, everything is healing. The repatriations. This [the massacre site] becoming a national historic site,” says Braided Hair, as he walks around Sand Creek and speaks of the role of the tribe’s prayers in their accomplishments. “Everything seemed almost impossible [in 1999]. Even the healing run.”

Since 1999, a group of runners, children and adults, commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre every year by jogging from the site to Denver during the week of Thanksgiving—and the anniversary of the attack.

Lee Lone Bear, the spiritual adviser, conceived of the healing run as another way to actively remember and reconnect with the history of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Both northern and southern tribes say the run is a centerpiece for education for their members and the American public, and it’s even helping them to connect with each other.

In the early morning of the run that first year, Lone Bear held a pipe ceremony along the creek with Braided Hair and a private landowner. Lone Bear says the men heard a woman crying, only to realize it was a chorus of coyotes circling them. The landowner later said that deer and elk—long absent from the area—returned after the ceremony.

The Future

A few weeks after the repatriation, both Braided Hair and Lone Bear return to Colorado for the seventh annual healing run.

The night after Thanksgiving and the run at Sand Creek, members of the northern and southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Denver Art Museum. There are about 40 people at “the Wheel,” an outdoor art exhibit of a circle of ten forked “trees” painted red with messages of history and hope for Native Americans.

Lone Bear recounts the story of White Antelope chanting his journey song as he died at Sand Creek, and then begins to sing those words in Cheyenne — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever” — with Braided Hair and others. Braided Hair follows with a long yelp that gives chills even on a 30-degree night.

The massacre site is on the verge of becoming a national historic site run by the federal government. The healing run is bringing attention, and receiving support from the city of Denver. The Colorado Historical Society is planning a major exhibit on the state’s Native American inhabitants. The Cheyenne and Arapaho are learning how to make sure their heritage and their stories live forever with the rocks.

“In our writings, we say it is our tribal history,” Braided Hair tells the group at the vigil, “but it is not. It is the history of the land.”