Roland McCook wouldn’t care if he died tomorrow. Last Thursday, he stood before an amphitheater of aging white folks outside the Paonia public library. I wanted to hear what he wanted to say because most of the country doesn’t listen to old people, especially old Indians. A woman asked McCook, who is a Northern Ute elder, if his people descended from the Anasazi. That got him started talking about his people’s creation story – how they are chosen people and will one day return to the Creator.
His people are content to die because there is a better life afterward, he said. His sister has cancer. They don’t argue anymore. He’s 71 years old. When he went to her a few months ago, she said to him, “I’m going to die,” and she said it with cheer.
“Unlike other races, our people are not afraid to die,” said McCook.
His speech got off to a fatalistic start. He generalized, and his religious distaste for science made me uneasy like the time I walked into a constitutionalists’ revival in Paonia Town Park, but I suppressed my cynicism and listened.
When McCook was a tiny boy, his father laid down with him in the pasture on their ranch next to Desolation Canyon east of Price, Utah. He parted the grass and showed him the minute life forms crawling beneath the fray. McCook looked at the cows eating this vast organism of grass and bugs. He understood and felt a part of nature.
Then one day, the bogeyman his parents warned him about came riding through the canyon on his horse. He had white skin and hair on his face just like his dog. The man told his parents that McCook should be in school. A couple weeks later, he and his brother arrived at White Rocks boarding school. They cut their hair. They couldn’t speak Ute. “Kill the Indian and save the man,” was what they told him.
McCook didn’t have a structure for the evening’s talk. He asked the audience to interrupt him with questions, which they did at the beginning. Then, the sun sunk lower, and the sky got colder. The people hunched their shoulders and weathered the autumn breeze. Nobody chimed in, so McCook kept talking.
“Standing here before you, I’m the only Native American here. And I don’t mind that. I speak your language,” he said.
He fought wildfires for the Bureau of Indian Affairs when he got older. The feds trained him to be a manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. One time, they sent him to Alaska to lead an incident management team. There was a young white man at the entrance of the operations tent when McCook walked up.
“The workers go around the corner,” said the man.
“Can I have your name?” asked McCook.
“Yeah, why?” asked the man.
“I’m your boss,” said McCook.
Racism has always been a part of McCook’s life, and it’s led him to believe that white people are powerful, mean and foolish. He colors his animosity with quips, and optimism that non-Natives can be educated about the Indian way. Not every experience he’s had with white people has been bad. He wishes non-Natives could see more of their mistakes.
McCook retired from the Smithsonian Institute recently after serving eight years on their Repatriation Review Council. He had been tasked with locating homes for over 18,000 Indian skeletons that had piled up in Washington D.C. after the 1830s when the federal government started performing medical experiments on the corpses of battle-killed Indians. McCook located the appropriate tribe and contacted them to come gather the remains. But when the tribes came to claim their ancestors, the Institute suddenly raised the bar to prove the remains belonged to the tribe
“You know what – you keep them,” said the tribes, according to McCook. “We did our music and songs on the battlefields. You keep them then.” And so the bones remain in Washington.
The sky turned dark blue as if it too was losing oxygen and heading for the afterlife. McCook concluded with a story of riding a friend’s ATV recently. He took it up to Lake San Cristobal in the San Juan Mountains. He looked across a high mountain meadow when he got there, and he saw grounds where his ancestors were buried. The beauty overwhelmed him.
It is where he wants to spend most of his time these days: high in the Rockies – where his people first appeared – where he and the Creator are closest.
I shook McCook’s hand afterward.
“How’d I do?” he asked.
“You did great,” I said.
Everybody deserves an audience, especially old Indians.
Neil LaRubbio is an editorial fellow at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @VictorAntonin.
Photos courtesy of Neil LaRubbio.