The land holds memories

Published - 1 October 2019

The Council Tree was a well-known gathering point for Arapaho and other Native people on what is now the southeast side of Fort Collins. The tree is referenced in names for a city library branch, a street, and a church. Photo: Colorado State University Libraries, Archives & Special Collections

By Doreen Martinez, Ph.D., and Lindsey Schneider, Ph.D.

This was originally written for CSU, and has been edited and appears here with the permission of the authors.

Where the prairie converges with the plains, the foothills watch. They have long been the relatives of these lands and witnesses to all adventures, explorations, and settlings. The plains and prairie have also long been partners in this space; they are the original innovators, the knowers and teachers. The foothills remain present as protectors of those west winds and incubators of the snow and rain that feed these spaces, peoples, and purposes.

Our sense of this place, our sense of this land, is beckoned through this convergence and their an­cestral traditions. Waters flow in snake rivers, are cradled in valleys where corn and long grasses, such as Indian ricegrass and needlegrass, grew and grow, dozens of flowers, includ­ing prickly poppy, yucca, rabbitbrush, and prairie sunflowers, bloom and nestle; these are the homes for the bison, prong­horn, and deer, as well as swift fox, burrowing owls, and gold­en eagles.

These lands, siblings of the Rockies, hold many lessons and ways of being. The clay still holds knowledge and foot­prints of beings, events, and experiences. It, the clay, waits for new stories and new understandings. Communities were here over 12,000 years ago; those were the times of the mammoth. And, although they are often called the Paleo-Indians, they were here: relatives, ancestors of societies and knowers of land, sensors of place, and practitioners of purpose.

“These lands, siblings of the Rockies, hold many lessons and ways of being.”

What is now Larimer County, and the lands from which Colorado State University was born, come from these histo­ries, from this place, these knowers that are thousands and thousands of years old. Let us also recall some of those who were here before and adjacent to CSU’s birth: the Apache, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, the Pueblo, the Shoshone, and the Ute are named by the Colorado Department of Education to be those earlier neighbors, residents, and citizens.

As we also know, in the time period we recognize peoples historically, they were the original inhabitants, the interspecies kinship knowers, the original land-grant stewards. Furthermore, the Coman­che, the Kiowa, and the Navajo/Diné, were frequent travel­ers, regular knowledge gatherers, and recurring residents, as well as the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota and the Pawnee. All these nations, tribes, and peoples have walked, laughed, and learned in these lands. Some of us can still sense their presence as their stride walks within us, their laughter continues to feed us, their knowledge is still teaching us; and we, their relatives, still call this place home.

Most historical records of CSU, Fort Collins, Larimer County, and the United States suggest that history began with the arrival of white/European settlers, the structures they built, the religion they practiced, and the economic endeavors they undertook. Only certain people, cer­tain cultural formations, are positioned as the agents of history and thus, they wield the tools to capture, create, and acknowl­edge historical records. Indigenous people, when we are mentioned in such histories, are too often portrayed as obstacles to the inevitable march of progress. In such accounts we exist as mere historical pre­cursors to the stars and stripes of democ­racy  an era of improvement manifested in land-grant institutions.

While this may be typically accepted and understood as truth, we seek through ethical and edu­cational obligations to enhance our sense of place, this place, and our histories. We must teach the fallacies, inaccuracies, and continued legacies of this singular history, this one-dimensional knowing of land, chronicle of memoirs, and erasure of life.

CSU’s 150th anniversary is a cause for celebration; yet, it is also a critical oppor­tunity to reflect upon the dire cost paid by the original people of this place and these lands. We must call to, recognize, and re­quire the University’s ongoing obligations to that legacy and to the Indigenous com­munity today. For we do know the original peoples of this area cultivated a profound sense of place, and a wealth of history, tra­ditions, and lifeways for thousands of years through the learning that came from, on, and through the land, water, and all the inhabitants.

In recognition of place, histo­ries, and our relationships, there needs to be acknowledgment of the more dynamic realities of people, nations, education, and sociopolitical demands and desires as well as the writings, the recordings of truth of these histories. All of the past living and learning on what is now CSU’s campus are what give it its presence and sense of place today  including what and who existed prior to those 150 years.

The removal of tribal nations and era­sure of this original sense of place within these lands was neither an inevitable result of Westward Expansion nor was it simply an unfortunate, if violent, phase in histo­ry. It was the intentional work of national policies and the enforcers of edicts and dictates, including Colorado Gov. Freder­ick Pitkin, who held the state’s top office from 1879 to 1883 and ran on a campaign of forcible Ute removal and extermina­tion. And yet today, Pitkin Street is one of the main campus thoroughfares. Pitkin’s violent legacy is only one example of the erased histories we are obliged to uncover and name, since such truth is fundamen­tal to the University’s nature. Otherwise, the ongoing erasure of Native American and Indigenous presences goes unnamed, their/our lifeways positioned as antithet­ical to growth, evolution, and, ironical­ly, freedom. Practices such as street and building naming glorify and historicize, once again, those responsible for that ini­tial removal under the auspices of progress and triumph of knowledge advancement. Celebrations of history can serve to re-sto­ry familiar and beloved places as having been established on a blank slate, rather than located on stolen territories through violent, forceful, and vicious means.

In an effort to begin to challenge that erasure and to recognize the original stew­ards, knowers, and protectors of this place, CSU has recently adopted a land acknowl­edgment process. It aims to recognize that these lands CSU now occupies, and thus CSU’s founding, came at a grave cost to the nations and peoples who were (and are) here. The acknowledgment affirms the on­going ties Native nations and peoples have to this space. As a land-grant institution, CSU has an obligation to rewrite and more fully understand our sense of place.

Doreen E. Martinez and Lindsey Schneider are members of the Native American Studies faculty in CSU’s Department of Ethnic Studies.