Monday, June 13, 2011

From Extraction to Preservation in Colorado

This morning on NPR's Neda Ulaby submitted a report from Ignacio, Colorado, the site of the recently-completed Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum--a $38 million dollar building that preserves Ute history (along with many objects repatriated from the Smithsonian) and also re-presents contemporary Ute culture to the home community and to the regions' tourists. Here's a concise summary of the Cultural Center and Museum's many offerings, excerpted from their press release:
The new 52,000-square-foot facility is a stunning addition to the architectural landscape in southwest Colorado. As the only tribally-owned cultural center in Colorado, the museum has been developed to conserve and promote the history and culture of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and other Native Americans so that the Tribe’s young people and the community will always be known and will remember what it means to be Southern Ute.

The state-of-the-art museum will house the Tribe’s existing collection of more than 1,500 artifacts and provide space as the collection grows. It also will include a multi-media room, permanent and temporary exhibit rooms, arts and crafts classrooms, and gathering spaces for Tribal and community functions.
What's striking about Ms. Ulaby's short piece, especially in relation to the recent March on Blair Mountain, is the source of the Ute's newfound wealth:
In the late 19th century, the U.S. government divided the Ute people into three different tribes, sending them north or west and letting some stay where they were.

"We remained here," explains museum board Chairman Robert Burch, who grew up on a Ute reservation near Colorado's border with New Mexico. "Little did they know we were sitting on oil — natural gas. And once we started getting it out of the ground [and] producing it, we became a wealthy tribe."
So while the Southern Utes have fewer than 1,500 members, the tribe is worth billions — it's literally a case study in expert resource management.
While Ms. Ulaby was certainly working within a very tight word count for her Morning Edition piece, there seems to be a larger story, or at least a productive series of conversations, that might emerge from the news of this gorgeous new facility. Given the increasing (and long-overdue) media attention paid to natural gas drilling, we have here not only a "case study in expert resource management" but a workable example of how the cash windfall from a messy and environmentally-damaging extractive industry has been "managed" in such a way as to provide something sustainable long after the money and the jobs from natural gas drilling have left the region. Looking to the future, many of our rural communities which are anticipating the arrival of the drills and rigs may want to take notice of this model.

Yet I am sure that the comments section for Ms. Ulaby's piece will also become populated with listeners curious about the "fracking" backstory. In fact, Jim Moscou contributed a piece for Newsweek in 2008 that dealt with a toxic spill at a Southern Ute natural gas drilling operation that seriously endangered one worker and an Emergency Room nurse (contaminated  in the ER with the fracturing chemicals). As Mr. Moscou writes in the conclusion, regulators are faced with many challenges, as the wells' location on Native lands put "federal, state and local oversight further out of reach."

Undoubtedly, a trip to the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum site will insure that today's story is a positive one.  Yet, we also find a narrative of extraction--and, further back, colonization itself--that points to a far more complex story that reporters, artists, and community members will tell and retell in the years ahead.

Related Articles:
Two Documentary We Should Consider...[Gasland]
40 Years in the West: High Country News