The Utes lived in the Rocky Mountains. In 1865, they signed a treaty surrendering mineral rights to their lands in return for a large amount of land. But only five years later, the U.S. government reneged on its promise and began forcing the Utes off of their land. The Utes renegotiated their treaty with the U.S., and wound up with less land than they’d originally been promised—although still much more than the government wanted to give them.
Brown doesn’t delve into the details of how, precisely, the government backed out of its treaty, or why it suddenly began forcing the Utes off their land. Perhaps this is because, by this point in the book, readers will understand the basic “pattern” of U.S.-Native American interactions.
Even after the signing of the new treaty, white settlers infringed on Utes’ land rights. In 1873, the Utes negotiated a third treaty with the government, in which they gave up their rights to the mountains on their lands. The Utes’ representative, Ouray, agreed to give up his people’s land in part because the government offered to make him a rich man. In this way, Ouray became “a part of the establishment.”
In short, Ouray accepted a hefty bribe in return for selling out his people. The government used similar bribe tactics throughout the 19th century. (And, for that matter, many colonial powers of the era used bribery to acquire land and resources in their colonies).
In 1878, the government appointed a new agent to attend to the Utes, Nathan C. Meeker. Meeker made it his mission “to destroy everything the Utes cherished.” He instituted schools designed to teach Ute adults to do agricultural work, effectively remaking the Ute civilization “in the white man’s image.” Within a few years, the Utes’ society was almost entirely agricultural, where before the Utes had been hunter-gatherers. Meeker believed that Utes lacked the mental capacity to appreciate material goods, and his ideas were cited in a long article arguing that the Utes were “actual, practical Communists.”
Meeker’s policies for the Utes are a particularly disturbing example of cultural genocide, the systematic extermination of an ethnic group’s culture. Instead of wiping out the Utes with guns, Meeker created policies designed to force the Utes’ children to lose touch with their heritage. Meeker’s smear campaign alludes to the xenophobia and “Red Scare” of the 19th century: at the time, ideologies imported from Eastern Europe were gaining power in the U.S., and were often demonized in the press. By associating the Native Americans with Communism (an absurd comparison), Meeker tried to turn the public against the Utes.
Partly because of Meeker’s writings, there was a widespread smear campaign in American newspapers against the Utes. They were blamed for crimes they had nothing to do with. On more than one occasion, Meeker ordered that the Utes’ land be plowed and used as farmland. This angered the Utes, who used much of their land for pasturing (i.e., keeping horses).
Meeker’s plowing policies further interfered with the structure of Ute society, and could be interpreted as a form of cultural genocide. His smear campaign ensured that few white Americans would try to help the Utes.
Recognizing that the Utes had grown to hate him, Meeker sent U.S. soldiers to the Utes’ land to enforce order. The soldiers claimed they’d heard rumors that the Utes had burned down a white settler’s cabin, but no evidence for this was ever found. When soldiers confronted them, the Utes insisted they didn’t want to fight.
The Utes didn’t want to fight with Meeker: their real goal was to live peacefully and happily (a goal which Meeker was attempting to make impossible).
Several days after the arrival of soldiers on the Utes’ land, a group of Utes surrounded Nathan C. Meeker’s property. They raided his house, and murdered him. Ouray sent a message urging the Utes to surrender, rather than risk an all-out war. The Utes did so, and they were tried and convicted of murder. However, since there were no eyewitnesses who could identify the specific people who’d killed Meeker, the group of Utes was punished fairly mildly, with jail time.
The Utes didn’t want to fight Meeker, but they felt they had no other choice. Considering that Meeker had made statements and embraced policies specifically designed to wipe out the Utes and their culture, it could certainly be argued that killing Meeker was an act of justifiable self-defense.
In the aftermath of Meeker’s murder, the Utes—not just the few who’d been involved in the crime—were deprived of their land. They were relocated to Utah, and soon after, the state of Colorado was all but “swept clean of Indians.” All that remains of Native Americans in Colorado is their names “on the white man’s land.”
Frustratingly, Brown doesn’t elaborate on why, exactly, the Utes were punished so mildly. (Note: readers interested in Brown’s comments on American place-names are encouraged to read George Stewart’s Names on the Land, a fascinating history of the subject.)